Jim Curtin: “We’re going to prepare as best we can, with the hope that everybody’s available.” (Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Two days prior to the biggest game in the team’s 11-year existence, Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin doesn’t know how many players he will be able to dress for Sunday’s MLS Eastern Conference final against New York City FC.

Several Union players are in COVID-19 protocol before the MLS Cup match, making it difficult for Curtin to plan for the match at Subaru Park in Chester, Pa. at 3 p.m.

Curtin wouldn’t say exactly how many players or their names.

“I’d rather not,” he said during a Friday afternoon conference call. “There’s examples in the NBA right now where it’s so fluid and changes by the second so again, it doesn’t make sense for me to say X numbers out, X numbers in and I guess for maybe the purposes of the gamblers out there, it would be helpful. But I’ll leave that to all the other experts.

“We’re going to prepare as best we can, with the hope that everybody’s available. The reality is that’s probably not likely. But we’re trying to do our best again to follow the protocols and get everybody prepared as best we can for a really tough game.”

The winner of Sunday’s game will advance to MLS Cup, set for Saturday, Dec. 11.

Regardless of who is ready to play, Curtin still put on an optimistic face in the face of adversity for Sunday.

“I hope everyone can now respect the fact that I can’t speak on the health of certain individual players,” he said. “Our players have worked tirelessly to get to this point. I know that they’ll be brave even in the adversity that we’re facing right now. We’ve stepped up in big moments all year long, whether it be international absences, the challenges of Concacaf, players losing loved one’s, adversity both on and off the field.”

For the Union, it’s just following the next man up philosophy.

“This group always finds a way to step up,” Curtin said. “I expect this weekend to be more of the same. We look forward to the challenge. We’ve had a next man up mentality all season long. We will continue to do that. We’ll make our fans proud. The last thing that I would add you know if history has shown us anything, it’s that a group of men, a group of women, with absolutely nothing to lose, can oftentimes be the most dangerous.

The pandemic has turned the sports universe upside down the past two seasons. MLS was forced to delay the start of its 2020 season, kicking off with the MLS Is Back tournament in Orlando, Fla.

With COVID-19 variants such as Delta and Omicron in the states, it can make life even more unpredictable for everyone and that includes sports teams.

“We live in unique times,” Curtin said. “I think we all have understood that. We’ve all had to find ways with our families to adjust to adapt to make the best out of situations. … You do feel bad for certain players who put so much into the season. Whether or not they’ll be part of things in the in the 90 minutes is still to be determined. So that part is difficult, no question about it.

“I said it to the group: This is why you get paid money to play a sport. This is what the literal definition of what it means to be a professional is, always being ready. Very few people understand that, and I think Steve Carr has brought it up in the past too and, and he’s probably an example of it of a guy was, whether it was a bench player, whether it was a starter, he was always ready. I’ve heard him talk about the definition of a professional and it hit home with me.

“I look at our guys now. And the reason even when you’re not playing that you train every day as if it’s last, to be ready for situations like these if you’re called upon. So, our players have really embraced that season. This game will be no different. It’s certainly difficult to prepare.

“It’s been unique. We usually don’t have an off day in the in the middle of a build to the biggest game in our club’s history. That just doesn’t happen. So, I’m not going to sit here and sugarcoat it and lie to you guys and say it’s been easy. But again, we have jobs to do. We’re all professionals. We will make the most of it. We’ll put the best possible team out there on the field to try to limit a very, very talented New York City FC team. As the leader of the group, it’s my job to get these guys ready. There will be no excuses. We’ll go out on the field, and we’ll give it effort.”