The CONCACAF Champions League hasn’t always been a stepping stone to MLS success. Despite the courage it takes to advance deep into the competition, many teams that have excelled have done so at the expense of their form in the league.
Jim Curtin is aware of this, from his experience as a player and his observations as a coach. And he’s given a lot of thought to what it would take for the Philadelphia Union to prevent that in the weeks (he hopes, months) to come.
“I think it’s physical and mental,” Curtin said Friday via Zoom. “But where I think our league has made progress is that the fitness of individual athletes and the way they take care of their bodies during the offseason has improved so much. So there are definitely examples of that Champions League hangover you would call it where it leads to bad seasons and it tends to be deeper in the competition, maybe the more it affects you. But I think what you’ve seen specific to this season so far, I think the games have been handled very well by the MLS teams.
Hangovers have been very real in the past. The Montreal Impact made the 2015 final in April but never returned to this form in an average season. Toronto FC lost to Chivas de Guadalajara in the 2018 final and simply never got into MLS, missing the playoffs after winning the MLS Cup the previous year.
In their first MLS test as the continent winners, the Union is on a level playing field. The Union and Columbus are both coming out of their midweek efforts in the CONCACAF Champions League. The Union beat Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa, 4-0, on Wednesday night to advance 5-0 on aggregate. The team processed Nicaraguan Real Esteli, 1-0, in the second leg in Ohio on Thursday to advance, again 5-0 on aggregate.
Curtin doesn’t care much about the short-term ramifications. More exhilarating is the opener’s status as a national TV fixture and a de facto MLS Super Cup that pits last year’s Fan Shield winners against MLS Cup holders. Curtin sees it as an advantage to have had two games to resolve the issues.
“Both teams will be a little bit sharper because we had the opportunity to play a live playoff game,” Curtin said. “I think both teams have injuries that will weaken their squad, which is part of any season.”
The crew lost the offseason signing Kevin Molino for six to eight weeks. Aidan Morris, a promising young midfielder, appears to have suffered a serious knee injury against Esteli.
The Union will be without Cory Burke and Ilsinho, whom Curtin hopes to resume training next week. Jack de Vries remains in the concussion protocol. Sergio Santos, who played 15 minutes against Saprissa, is a full try.
The Union hopes that the spirit that has served them well against Saprissa can be seamlessly carried on in Columbus.
“For me I think for everyone I think it’s just the same challenge,” said midfielder Jamiro Monteiro. “It’s only the next game. Every game is important. It doesn’t matter who you play against. We just need to look at ourselves, do our thing, and see what we need to do good and what we need to do better.