CHESTER, Pa. — Almost a year ago, the Philadelphia Union knocked the New York Red Bulls out of the U.S. Open Cup with such an inspired and gutsy effort that head coach Jim Curtin deemed it the biggest win in franchise history.
And a big reason they were able to pull out that shootout victory after going down a man in the first half at Red Bull Arena was the play of Vincent Nogueira, whose absolutely dazzling counterattack set up the team’s only goal.
For Union fans, that play was incredible to watch but probably not much of a surprise. One of the team’s best players over the last two years, Nogueira had a knack for rising to the occasion in the Open Cup, especially in the last two title games of the historic tournament.
But as the Union prepare for an Open Cup rematch vs. the Red Bulls tonight at 7 p.m. in a Round of 16 game at Talen Energy Stadium, they’ll have to do so without Nogueira, who left the team suddenly two weeks ago due to a personal health issue.
Two weeks may seem like a long time in pro sports but the Union have barely had time to catch their breath since, playing three games and giving up three goals in all of them as they’re still trying to figure out a way to cope defensively without their top box-to-box midfielder.
When asked how the players have handled the quick adjustment — on and off the field — Union head coach Jim Curtin harkened back to a meeting Nogueira held with the team before deciding to have the team terminate his contract and move back home to France.
“First and foremost, it was emotional,” Curtin said Tuesday. “Vince addressed the whole group and explained the situation to the team. What was said will stay in the locker room. It was a tough week for sure but, at the same time, the game doesn’t stop.”
The game doesn’t stop.
It’s a phrase Curtin uses a lot, usually when a player gets hurt or the team is coming off an especially tough loss.
Nogueira’s departure may be more unusual, especially with the midfielder recently signing with a second-division French club. But Curtin denied any “speculation out there that he was unhappy here,” stating unequivocally that “people in the room know that’s not true.” And as Curtin hopes Nogueira’s health will improve in his native country, he also hopes his team can adapt to the Frenchman’s departure, just as they’ve dealt with other moments of adversity throughout his tenure.
“We have a deep team,” Curtin said. “Vincent was a big part of what we did in terms of being a true No. 8 that kind of connected us from the back to the front. But I think Tranquillo has stepped in and done a great job in that position. It’s still a new position for him but one he’s done very well at. Vincent is no longer with us, so that’s kind of in the past.”
Making things even more difficult for the Union is the fact that captain Maurice Edu, who can certainly help fill the void left by Nogueira, is still recovering from a long-term stress fracture. And standout striker C.J. Sapong also remains questionable with an ankle injury, though he did look sharp during cutting drills Tuesday.
On top of all that, the Union are in the midst of a grueling stretch in which they’ve been playing two games every week for three straight weeks.
But Curtin pointed out that “every team goes through stretches when they’re missing guys,” and promised to do whatever he can to help the Union advance in the Open Cup.
“We’ll play our best available lineup, obviously keeping in mind where guys are physically after the taxing stretch that we’ve had,” Curtin said. “The moral of the tournament is to survive and advance.”
Some MLS teams, of course, like to sprinkle in some reserves for Open Cup games — which is something the Union did in their opening win over the Harrisburg City Islanders two weeks ago (which, as it turned out, was Nogueira’s final game for Philly). But they won’t do that tonight. And the Red Bulls, led by Curtin’s good friend Jesse Marsch, likely won’t either.
“It was instilled in us by Bob Bradley that you take the Open Cup very seriously,” Curtin said. “And I think both clubs do. Last year’s game was a crazy game .... a special day and a wild one for sure. [Tonight] will be the same. I know Jesse’s gonna play his best lineup.”
The Union’s best lineup includes Andre Blake, who Curtin confirmed will get the start in net even though John McCarthy started Philly’s Open Cup game two weeks ago and was sensational in the Open Cup win over the Red Bulls last year.
Recently, Blake was asked how he and his teammates have handled the Nogueira departure, and gave a thoughtful response about the Union moving forward without him, in both the Open Cup and MLS play.
“It did happen sudden,” the Union goalie said. “We were all surprised when we heard the story. It’s very sad and we do miss him. We are just trying to work hard — and maybe win this for him.”