Union Notes: Martinez available for TFC clash, Przybylko pushing for goals

The “Most Important Game of the Season” tag has been thrown out often over the last two Philadelphia Union seasons.

The most important game of that stretch comes Saturday at Subaru Park against Toronto FC because a victory puts the club on a clear path to a trophy. Pregame coverage presented by DraftKings starts on “The Gambler” at 7 p.m.

The Supporters' Shield will be awarded after a week-long kerfuffle caused by an out-of-the-blue announcement by the Supporters' Shield Foundation that it would not be handed out. Toronto FC has 41 points, the Union have 38 points.

A year ago, the Union passed a two-game stretch against Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC at home, then they beat the New York Red Bulls for their first-ever postseason victory, but no hardware came from those games.

Saturday’s match is still a regular-season contest with three points as the reward, but it is the closest thing to a cup final the Union will face before the playoffs. Of course, cup finals and the Union have not been the best combination in the past, but this is a much different team than the three squads that reached the Open Cup title matches.

Philadelphia has beaten the majority of teams it should, avoided most so-called “trap games” and was competitive in its defeats to Columbus and Toronto.

On Saturday, the Union finally get one of the top dogs of the Eastern Conference in their building, where they have not lost in 2020.

The Union should be near full strength for the contest. Jose Martinez is available for selection after returning from international duty with Venezuela. Matt Real and Warren Creavalle are the only players out due to injuries.

“Jose’s been working very hard off to the side getting himself as fit as possible,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “He had to be separated from the team for a little while. He’ll be available for the Toronto game.”

While Martinez was away on international duty serving what will be a nine-day quarantine period, the Union called on Jack Elliott, Warren Creavalle and others to be the stopgap in front of the back four. The club went 3-0-1 without Martinez, and outscored opponents 9-4.

“I think it was actually shortened to nine days now,” Curtin said. “I’ll just say (Martinez) is going to be available for the game. I’ll let the league speak to the rules and different things that are going on with guys coming back from international windows. All I know is he will be available, which is a good thing for our team. We’re better when he’s on the field. We’ve been very good defensively with our goals against. We want to keep that number as low as possible. We’re among the top teams in goals scored as well, which is a good balance. We can do both. We win the ugly 1-0 game or outscore you in certain moments as well. Jose has been a big part of that.”

"(Martinez) went to Venezuela. It was 14 days and really didn’t play a ton of soccer and then the quarantine period. You see him on the field and he looks sharp and like he hasn’t missed a beat. Hopefully he’ll be able to jump in and contribute right away, either as a starter or off the bench,” Curtin said.

Philadelphia has not recorded a clean sheet since October 7 against FC Cincinnati, and to have its best shot of beating Toronto FC, it needs to contain Alejandro Pozuelo, who Curtin believes is the top player in Major League Soccer and a Most Valuable Player front-runner.

“(Pozuelo)’s the best player in the league,” Curtin said. “He’s the best player that our league has. People will talk about his left foot, right foot and ability to find the ball and ability to shoot from distance with both feet. What I actually like the most with his game is how hard he works defensively for a team. Gone are the days of the No. 10 that just stood in the center circle in the Carlos Valderamma style. He’s a No. 10 that works both sides of the ball, does so many things for them and is obviously the key to us trying to contain them as best we can. It starts with him. The more times you can make him give up the ball and play square and backwards, we see that as a real victory. What he’s great at is finding space and creating overloads and he doesn’t make wrong decisions on the ball.”

Pozuelo may be the star, but he has so many weapons around him that could make life difficult for Martinez and the back four. Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado continue to somehow remain underrated and Pablo Piatti was a perfect addition to the midfield.

“You’re not going to stop them for 90 minutes,” Curtin said. “It’s impossible. What you are trying to do is limit the space that they have, limit the areas on the field where they are touching the ball and when they do get on the ball, can you have people constantly running at them. It’s not a one-person job, it’s a multiple-player job and that’s what it takes to stop the special players.”

That is where Martinez could be the key to the matchup. In the loss to Toronto FC, 11 of Martinez’s 18 defensive actions occurred in the Union’s half. If he can be effective and slow down Toronto’s midfield triumvirate, it will ease the pressure on the back four.

The Union can counter what TFC builds up through their healthy stable of forwards, but now the concern turns to whether Kacper Przybylko can end his scoreless run. He has not found the back of the net since September 20.

Curtin is not concerned yet with the striker’s lack of production because of everything else he is doing on the field.

“I had a good discussion with Kacper,” Curtin said. “He’s so hard on himself. He’s furious that he hasn’t scored goals. As a coach, I talk about just how much he means to the group in so many other aspects. Yes, you’re always going to be judged as a striker with the goals that hit the back of the net, but I still see so much more that he’s doing on the field for the group. As long as we get three points and win, I think we all share in that reward of being at the top of the league.

“I think the goals will come," Curtin said. "I think when you start to press, think about every play and put unneeded pressure on yourself, then you start to see it affect the team negatively and we’re not at that stage at all yet. I’m confident that if we get Kacper good opportunities in front of goal, he scores them. It’s up to the rest of the team to also find him and get him assists."

Photo courtesy of Major League Soccer.

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