By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
The Union have officially clinched their spot in the playoffs, but that doesn’t make their match against FC Cincinnati any less important. The home stretch of the season will provide the necessary momentum and see just how prepared the Union are for a playoff run this year.
The Boys In Blue put their best foot forward with three goals against Nashville FC in their last match, but Jim Curtin isn’t brushing that off as some amazing offensive feat—it’s merely what should be expected of a team in playoff contention.
“They are still a very dangerous attacking team,” Curtin told reporters. “To score three goals against Nashville is not easy. There’s no easy games in this league. If you don’t bring your best, you’ll get beat.”
“The best” games for the Union have been the ones that have seen the 4-4-2 formation, but the latest stretch of games has seen Curtin favoring a 4-3-2-1 shape instead. While it’s taken some getting used to for the players, there’s a good reason by the shift in formations.
“We have to have some flexibility with the team, and certainly playing this formation does that, as opposed to the 4-4-2 diamond, which still remains my preferred formation.” Curtin explained.
Injuries have, unfortunately, played a part in the need for the shift, and the Union haven’t made it out of the woods with hurt players. Sergio Santos was tentatively returning to play against Toronto FC, but suffered a quad injury and will not be available against Cincinnati. Cory Burke is back in full training, while Ilsinho is slowly getting back to full fitness after struggling with injuries all season. According to Curtin, “He’s still got some work to do, but I want him to push as hard as possible to help this team, whether it’s in New York City or maybe the playoffs. I want it to end with him on the field.”
The biggest thing to keep in mind is that Cincinnati is one of those dangerous teams that is going into this game with absolutely nothing to lose. They’re currently on a 10-game losing streak, and pretty much guaranteed to finish the season with the worst record in MLS. It’s been an abysmal year, but again, teams with nothing to play for can be the ones that the opposition needs to be the most cautious of.
As the postseason draws nearer, Curtin needs to figure out who his key players are going to be, and how much he wants to play/rest them with the remaining regular season matches. It’s safe to say that essential men like Kai Wagner and Alejandro Bedoya could use a game to rest their legs and give the younger players some more minutes (it’s uncertain how much time Curtin would give the homegrowns in the playoffs). However, players like Leon Flach and Kacper Przybyłko won’t be able to do the same. They’re like sharks—if they stop swimming, they’ll die. If their play is suddenly interrupted, it could negatively impact their performance when it matters the most in the playoffs.
Predicted Lineup: Andre Blake, Kai Wagner, Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott, Olivier Mbaizo, Jose Martinez, Leon Flach, Alejandro Bedoya, Paxten Aaronson, Jamiro Monteiro, Cory Burke
- Not everyone is a huge fan of the 4-3-2-1 formation, but Curtin has heavily implied that he’s going to be using it more often to keep his players on their toes. It’s a useful strategy, and will help strengthen the squad by exposing players to new positions and increasing versatility. Since this Cincinnati game is one of the less challenging ones in the Union’s schedule, Curtin will probably start some Homegrowns, along with giving Przybylko a bit of a break as the lone striker up front.
Score Prediction: It’s FC Cincinnati. The Union are playing at home. They’re on a hot streak, just clinched their playoff spot, and are at pretty much full strength in terms of squad depth. A 3-0 win should be light work for them at this point.