It's been just under four months since the Philadelphia Union played a competitive game of soccer.
It feels like an eternity ago when Jakob Glesnes rocketed a 40-yard free kick into the net and Jose Martinez had scars everywhere on his face, it seemed like at least, while dealing with Los Angeles FC.
The setting around the MLS is Back tournament at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex is much different than that Sunday night in March, but the on-field challenge is similar.
Philadelphia's Group A opener with New York City FC (9 a.m. ET, ESPN) is its toughest of the group stage. Matches with Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF are scheduled to follow.
NYCFC has been one of the toughest Eastern Conference hurdles for the Union to get over in recent years. The Union have lost back-to-back seasons finales to the Pigeons and fell to them in the play-in round of the postseason in 2018.
The good news is the Union do not have to deal with a soccer field inside a baseball stadium at Yankee Stadium, but the playing situation will still be unique with no fans in attendance and the main stadium at Wide World of Sports comparable to a training field in size and the amount of things around it.
The matchup itself could decide Group A. Orlando City, Chicago Fire, Nashville and Miami are the other four teams in the six-squad group. The top three teams will automatically advance to the round of 16.
NYCFC possesses one of the best spines in MLS, with Alexander Callens and Maxime Chanot at center back, Alexander Ring and Maxi Moralez in midfield and Heber up top.
“When you talk about NYCFC, right up the spine of the team, you have two great center backs in Callens and Chanot. Ring, for me, is one of the most underappreciated players in our league," Union head coach Jim Curtin said. "Moralez is a guy who we need to get bodies around at all times and Heber as well."
“Their wingers come inside and their outside backs really bomb forward," Curtin said. "It’s a very good, well-balanced team, but that matchup in the middle of the field, it’s important to do your best and limit the time Moralez is on the ball. Do your best to make Ring play square and backward and limit his time on the ball because he has the ability to dictate the tempo of the game."
Utilizing the high-tempo press style may not be ideal in the heat for 90 minutes, but the Union will benefit from two additional substitutions allowed for the competition.
Martinez may be the perfect disrupting force to negate Ring and Moralez's impact. The offseason signing from Venezuela has impressed with his fitness throughout camp and will likely start in the defensive midfield role.
We should also see Warren Creavalle at some point, which makes sense from a substitution stand point. Creavalle is one of the most experienced players in the squad and could provide stability either in place of, or next to, Martinez in the closing stages.
“I have a healthy problem," Curtin said. "I have two central defensive midfielders that are both playing at a high level right now in Warren Creavalle and Jose Martinez. They’ve been pushing each other every day in training. I think you’ll see both of them in the game at some point together to close out what is a very good NYCFC attack."
Curtin's most difficult selection problem will come at center back, where Glesnes, Mark McKenzie and Jack Elliott are fighting for two positions.
There is a good chance we see all three at some point with expanded substitutions in place. Any combination of the three would work well, but Elliott's aerial ability and experience against Heber may give him the nod over Glesnes next to McKenzie. Elliott was the odd man out for the first two games of the regular season because he missed a week of preseason finalizing his green card.
Up top, Kacper Przybylko's name should be written in Sharpie on the lineup card for every game of the group stage. He is the club's best pure scorer at the moment, and his absence was missed greatly in the 2019 postseason.
Przybylko will also start Thursday out of necessity with Andrew Wooten and Sergio Santos dealing with minor injuries. If neither player can go, Jack De Vries may surge up the depth chart and play in a supporting role at some point.
At the moment, the Union have 19 of their players available at 100 percent. Michee Ngalina is also dealing with a slight injury.
Photo courtesy of Major League Soccer.