CHESTER, Pa. — The Union are using their two-week Copa America Centenario layoff for rest, recovery and improving certain facets of their game.
But the coaches are also taking advantage of such a big tournament stopping in Philly in other ways, too.
“Having Copa America in our city has been pretty valuable — looking at players, watching a lot of games, sending scouts to watch games, going myself to see training sessions,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “I got to go see Uruguay, which was good. As a young coach, you always want to learn and try to get better. It confirms a lot of what you’re doing is similar but you do see little things you can maybe tweak and make your own.
“It’s a good learning tool, selfishly, for myself to be able to see these training sessions.”
Uruguay, ranked ninth in the FIFA world rankings, trained at Penn’s Rhodes Field on Tuesday ahead of tonight’s match vs. Venezuela at Lincoln Financial Field. The US national team will also make a pit stop at Penn today before taking on Paraguay at the Linc on Saturday with a spot to the knockout round on the line. The Eagles’ home stadium will then play host to Chile-Panama on Tuesday.
Curtin will be sure to watch all of the games not only because it’s the biggest men’s soccer tournament on American soil since the 1994 World Cup -- but also for scouting purposes.
“You’re always looking to upgrade the roster,” he said. “I’m very happy with how the guys have performed and we’re in a very good spot. But we can’t just be content and think we’re perfect because we’re not a perfect team and we’re not a finished product just yet.”
The Union may not be a perfect team but they have emerged as the top team in the Eastern Conference, currently sitting in first place thanks to a club-record eight-game unbeaten streak.
For franchise stalwart Sebastien Le Toux, who helped the Union make the playoffs in 2011 but has also been on several losing teams, the resurgence is due in part to improved chemistry and a more professional atmosphere following the arrival of sporting director Earnie Stewart and a sparkling new practice facility.
“For me, it’s a good change,” Le Toux said from practice this week. “It reminds me a bit of the second season when we made the playoffs. It’s a good feeling. But you want to keep the positive things going. It makes us want to work harder to stay on top.”
Curtin also pointed to upgraded facilities and player camaraderie -- as well as “real belief we can get a goal in the 90th minute” — as some of the big factors why the Union are in first place. But he knows firsthand from his playing days — and coaching days — that the “real challenge” comes later in the summer when some teams start to wear down and others rise to the top of the heap
With that in mind, he hasn’t been resting on his laurels during the Copa break but has instead been thinking of ways the team can improve and continue its unbeaten streak when MLS play resumes on June 18 (with their U.S. Open Cup opener three days before that).
“For our guys, we gave them some good down time but they recovered and are back at it for two-a-days,” Curtin said. “The response is good. We’ve been working on situational things, things that we can improve. We can still improve possession; we’ll continue to work on restarts each and every day; and then with our final-third play, we’ve done a good job keeping possession in the final third but making that final pass a little more clinical is something we’ve been focusing on this week.”
And, of course, he’ll continue to keep an eye on Copa America, especially with star Union ’keeper Andre Blake leading Jamaica into a brutally tough contest against Mexico tonight — “Hopefully it’s one of those Andre Blake games where he stands on his head and gets his team the result,” he said — and the Americans’ huge game against Paraguay on Saturday.
And thanks to a 4-0 rout of Costa Rica on Tuesday, the U.S. will head to the Linc in good shape to advance.
“We can talk tactics and formations and this and that but they just stepped up and I thought it was a good U.S. performance,” Curtin said of the win over Costa Rica. “The soccer wasn’t perfect but they had a real fight about them. That’s what we need to get back to — being a team that’s good on restarts, organized, tough to break down defensively and, well, American.”