The Philadelphia Union have known who their MLS is Back tournament Group A opponents were for weeks, but they received official word Wednesday about the order in which the games will take place.
Jim Curtin's side will open with New York City FC July 9 at 9 a.m. ET on ESPN at ESPN's Wide World of Sports in Orlando.
Up until a few days ago, the Union were preparing to play Nashville SC, who they will face second. That match is July 14 at 8 p.m. ET on TUDN.
"We've had to adjust and adapt and I maybe got some wrong information, but now we look forward and we prepare now for New York City in that first game," Curtin told reporters Wednesday. "They are probably on paper the most talented team in terms of skill and dangerous guys in the Eastern Conference. It'll be a tough test for us."
A neutral-site matchup with NYCFC bodes well for the Union, who have struggled away from home against their fellow Eastern Conference side. Overall, the Union are 3-7-1 against NYCFC.
"The one thing that goes out the window is home-field advantage," Curtin said. "It's no secret it's a very hard place to go to at Yankee Stadium and one we've really struggled in. That's out the window in this competition. I think we've had some success on our home field against them as well. We'll be in Orlando. It'll be on a neutral field at a unique time for all of us. Does that level the playing field for everybody? Yeah, I think you're going to see some results that might go different ways than people would expect on paper. We'll be up for the challenge of playing a very good NYCFC team."
The group-stage finale will take place against Inter Miami CF July 19 at 10:30 p.m. ET On FS1.
"Some unique times for everybody, but at the same time, I think we're all in the same boat," Curtin said.
Curtin admitted the team will approach each start time differently, and there might be a light training session before the final game to keep the players ready for the unusual late kickoff,
"I can safely say I've never played at either time in a professional soccer match," Curtin said. "Both will be new experiences. We're doing our best in terms of preparation."
The Union will spend a week getting adjusted to the Florida climate. They are set to leave July 2 on a charter flight and will go through early-morning training sessions to properly acclimate to the humidity.
"We'll have the guys training early in the morning so they'll be acclimated to the heat and that time of kickoff. Is it going to be unique to have your pregame meal around 6 a.m.? Absolutely. I don't think many players have done that, but these are different times. It's a change we'll embrace and make the most of. Whether it be the sports science department, the technical staff, we've all been experimenting with things in this preparation," Curtin said.
"I like where our group is at in terms of training and that's probably the most important thing." Curtin said.
Major League Soccer also announced a revised format for teams advancing out of Group A. The top three teams will now move on. The fourth-place team is eligible to qualify for the round of 16 if it is one of the five-best teams outside of the automatic qualifiers.
Chicago Fire and Orlando City are the other two squads in Group A, which is the only one with six teams. The other five groups feature four squads.
"I think they got it right in terms of just fairness of the competition," Curtin said. "I think that it's unique that one group has six teams in it. To add a third team to advance to the round of 16 was necessary."
If the Union finish in the top two of Group A, they would play July 25 in the round of 16. If they finish third, the knockout-round contest would be July 26, and if they advance from fourth place, they would play the Group C winner July 27.
Prior to departing from Orlando, the Union will train in Chester, where they returned Wednesday.
"Everybody is excited to be at our own training facility and practice fields. It's a big step for the guys. The fields are in great shape and it was nice to be back home," Curtin said.
At the moment, the Union are being tested for COVID-19 three times a week and no positive tests have come from that. Kacper Przybylko, who tested positive and recovered in the spring, is the only Union player known to have contracted the virus.
In terms of physical form, Jose Martinez and Jamiro Monteiro have stood out as the club increases its training regimen.
"It feels like the group is ahead of where we were in the preseason in terms of soccer, in terms of fitness and sharpness," Curtin said. "Part of it is the new players understand the principles and style of play we want to have with our team. We've worked really hard on the defensive side of the ball the past two weeks. Guys like Jose Martinez and Jamiro Monteiro are way ahead of where they were in the preseason. They are flying right now and playing the best soccer I've seen them play."
Curtin noted the team recently played in a 45-minute session and will increase that to 60 minutes Friday and 90 the next Friday.
--Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union.