It doesn’t get much more Union than the past five days.
OF COURSE this team would find a way to concede four goals to Montreal at home in a must-win game, jeopardizing their playoff seeding and postseason hopes in general.
Then they turn it around in bizarro world fashion by going out to Seattle on short rest and shutting out the Sounders 1-0 with a 93rd minute smash and grab goal, ending the opponent’s MLS record nine-game winning streak in the process.
This Union season just continues to distort reality and redefine everything we previously knew about space, time, and human existence. It really does. This team was dead and buried not three months ago. The final nails were being driven into the coffin as the sporting director took off for greener pastures. The stadium was mostly empty and fans were fleeing the sinking ship without a second thought.
Fast forward to September 20th, and this group is now the winningest in franchise history.
“Winningest” isn’t a word, but whatever – thirteen victories is a franchise record, eclipsing the twelve-win mark John Hackworth’s squad put up in 2013. In more simple terms, no Philadelphia Union team has won more games than this squad of overachievers.
No, it’s not a high bar. It’s not like any previous squad has been a world beater. And this team is still one game over .500 with a -4 goal differential. But think about how horrendous this group was the beginning of the year and consider that they’re now on pace to also finish with more points that the 2011 playoff squad. That team set a franchise record of 48 points on the strength of 15 draws, which saw the club finish third in the Eastern Conference that year.
Peter Nowak’s 2011 group finished with a 1.41 points per game average and the 2018 squad is currently on pace to be two points better:
- 2010: 8-15-7 (31 points in a 30 game season)
- 2011: 11-8-15 (48 points)
- 2012: 10-18-6 (36 points)
- 2013: 12-12-10 (46 points)
- 2014: 10-12-12 (42 points)
- 2015: 10-17-7 (37 points)
- 2016: 11-14-9 (42 points)
- 2017: 11-14-9 (42 points)
- 2018: 13-12-4 (43 points, projected to finish with 50 points)
Crazy, isn’t it? This team has won more games than any other squad in Union history and it took them only 29 weeks to do it.
With five fixtures left to play, the Union are eight points above the playoff line and just one point behind Columbus. for fourth place. Finishing in that position would see the U host their first playoff game in seven years.
The table, as it stands:
This week really is the most crucial in franchise history. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that. It really is going to define this team moving forward.
You’ve got the U.S. Open Cup final next Wednesday. Winning that game delivers you your first trophy in franchise history, qualifies you for the Champion’s League, results in a chunk of bonus money, and probably gets Jim Curtin a contract extension. Winning the following league game in Columbus on Saturday puts you on a path to host a wildcard playoff contest.
A trophy and a home playoff game were not even close to being on the radar in July, not even a blip. Not even the slightest blip on the biggest and most expansive radar system on the planet.
Yet here we are.
The trouble is that the Union have to navigate a condensed and difficult schedule over the next 10 days. The Open Cup final is a Wednesday fixture that’s smushed between a home game and that critical Columbus trip.
This is the rest of the schedule to close out the year:
- Sunday: vs. Kansas City
- Wednesday: at Houston (USOC final)
- Saturday: at Columbus
- 10/6: vs. Minnesota
- 10/21: vs. Red Bull
- 10/28: at New York City
That’s one cup final and four of five games against teams currently in playoff spots.
Columbus will host Philly, Colorado, and Minnesota while traveling to Montreal and Orlando. They will win three or four of those games, so the Saturday six-pointer with Philly is critical to the playoff race.
That’s why I think it makes the most sense to essentially punt the Kansas City game and focus on Houston. You just can’t roll out your starters on Sunday afternoon, put them on a plane to Texas on Monday, and expect them to be 100% for the heat and humidity in a situation that might include extra time and/or penalty kicks.
For what it’s worth, this same situation presented itself in 2015, the short rest vs. travel problem predating the USOC final. The Union played midweek in New England and Jim Curtin only used three starters in that game: Cristian Maidana, Andre Blake, and Fabinho. Fabinho and Maidana were pulled at halftime.
It’s a little different this time around because the Union weren’t in a playoff race in 2015. They also played the final at home and didn’t have to travel very far to get to Foxborough. This schedule is much harder to navigate.
That said, I’d go with this against Kansas City:
And then your bench looks something like:
Jake McGuire, Kacper Przybyłko, Josh Yaro, Matt Real, Marcus Epps, Adam Najem, and maybe C.J. Sapong or somebody who can just be the 18th body but doesn’t need to play.
That’s how I’d do it, honestly. You could give a couple of starters 45 to 55 minutes, but I really don’t like playing anybody on Sunday afternoon and then getting on a plane to Houston on Monday.
I am not bullshitting you when I say that this is a franchise-defining moment for the Union. The foggy malaise that has been hanging over this team for a half decade now can be blown way out to shore with a triumph in Houston. They could possibly finish the week with the first trophy in franchise history and a 4th place standing in the Eastern Conference.
Or, they could lose the final and stumble in Columbus, essentially locking in a wild card road trip come October and casting doubt over Curtin’s future.
There’s a LOT hanging in the balance as the Union head into the most important three-game stretch in the history of franchise.