By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
After a surprising, but welcome, 3-0 victory over Atlanta United in the CONCACAF Champions League, the Union seemed poised to finally turn around their form in MLS with a home game against NYCFC. Naturally, that’s not what happened at all. Let’s recap.
Jim Curtin made three lineup changes, a pretty drastic move for the manager, who has largely stuck to the same lineup in both domestic and international competition. Curtin benched Kai Wagner in favor of 21-year-old homegrown Matt Real at left back, traded in Leon Flach for Anthony Fontana (another 21-year-old homegrown) in midfield, and replaced Kacper Przybyłko with Cory Burke at striker. Needless to say, these changes didn’t pan out favorably for the Union.
NYCFC were able to find the back of the net quickly, with a 5th minute strike from Jesus Medina making an absolute mess of the Union defense. Once again, Andre Blake was forced to try and compensate for his lackluster defense with some Superman-style saves, but even he couldn’t stop this ball from going in.
The situation only worsened for the Union after Jose Martinez was shown a red card for a dangerous, and frankly reckless, elbowing challenge. Martinez was initially shown a yellow card, but after the offense was reviewed by VAR, the midfielder was shown a red card instead—the Union’s first red card in over two years. Coupled with his yellow card accumulation in the CCL, Martinez will now miss the Union’s next two games.
This red card drew some rare public criticism from Martinez’s teammates and manager. Captain Alejandro Bedoya was the first to comment on the incident after the game.
“He plays on the border sometimes and he’s just got to be smarter,” Bedoya told media in a postgame interview. “That’s unacceptable what happened tonight.”
Curtin also openly condemned Martinez’s behavior, and acknowledged the embarrassment of such a blatant lack of discipline.
“It was out of line by Jose and we’ll have to try and improve his behavior on the field because we’re not the same team without him, to be honest,” Curtin said in his postgame press conference. “The red cards and suspensions are starting to add up to where it’s detrimental to the group.”
“Biggest thing is he let his teammates down and made them run around for 80-plus minutes, including the extra time. Really sad,” Curtin added. “Look, he’s a great kid, he wears his heart on his sleeve, he’s passionate, and he wants to win, but there is a balance between being professional, being smart, knowing that he’s a guy that I can tell you ever referee knows is right on that edge and is going to ref him differently.
Down to 10 men, the Union recorded an abysmal rate of possession, along with some truly terrible ball retention. In the 61st minute, Curtin tried to rectify the situation by substituting Wagner, Flach, and Przybylko on for the players that replaced them in the starting lineup, but an airheaded defensive mistake from Jakob Glesnes gifted Valentin Castellanos NYCFC’s second goal.
This game marked the Union’s second straight defeat at Subaru Park, the stadium that had been an absolute fortress last season. This result also means that the Boys in Blue have collected a measly one point from their first three league games, putting them in 12th place in the Eastern Conference..
The Main Takeaway: While it’s exciting to be included in international competition for the first time in their history, and it’s great that the Union have been doing so well in the CCL, MLS play has to take priority at this point. They haven’t won a league game yet, which is quite shameful for the defending Supporters’ Shield winners. The focus needs to be on league play, seeing as the goal from the Union’s very inception has been to win the MLS Cup, and at this rate, they’re not even going to make the playoffs.