Statement match with Red Bulls could provide answers
CHESTER >> The time has come for the Philadelphia Union to be within reach of the long-coveted postseason. But with three games left and the most difficult of that stretch looming Saturday, manager Jim Curtin wasn’t looking ahead Wednesday.
The uncertainty bred by MLS makes it foolish to do so, even more so at the hectic ending to a season. With the challenge of MLS’ (sort of) hottest team ahead, the Union know that while a win at Red Bull Arena officially seals the end of their half-decade playoff drought, it’s a task much easier said than accomplished.
“Our guys are playing well against good teams,” Curtin said at his weekly press conference. “Again, you want to test yourself against the best. … All points matter at this stage.”
The Red Bulls (13-99, 48 points) count as the best … sort of. They trail Toronto for the top spot in the East by one point and they’re on a 13-game unbeaten streak dating to July 3, going 6-0-7 in that stretch. But the streak is pockmarked by blown multi-goal leads, including a 2-0 edge squandered in a stalemate at Talen Energy Stadium July 17, that knock some of the luster off their run.
The Union (11-11-9, 42 points) are mired in a fourgame winless run (0-2-2), fostered by the quality of opponents they’ve run up against. They finally get a respite in two weeks when Orlando City visits before following up with Red Bulls at home to close the season. But a result Saturday at Red Bull Arena (7 p.m., TCN) could expediently put the playoff questions to bed.
A win gets the Union into the postseason. With a draw, the Union could still sneak into the playoffs this weekend if seventh-placed New England and eighthplaced Orlando lose. (A loss by Orlando to Montreal, one point behind the Union in fifth, isn’t necessarily helpful.) Overall, the Union possess 99 percent odds of making the playoffs, depending on your prognostication outlet.
The landscape puts the Union in an enviable position, needing any scrap of a result in the last two home games to earn the postseason berth, regardless of what transpires in Harrison Saturday. But as they’ve done all season, Curtin would be fine with his team garnering an unexpected result away from home to lessen the pressure on those two affairs, especially with a bye week for the international break to stew in between.
The Union beat the Red Bulls this season in the U.S. Open Cup, the second straight year they’ve ousted them from that competition. In eight trips to Red Bull Arena, the Union are a scant 1-6-1, the victory coming in May 2015.
For all the standings uncertainty, the logistics of attacking Jesse Marsch’s team are well-founded. The Red Bulls are renowned for their high-pressure style, one that forces mistakes for their vaunted attackers — MLS goals leader Bradley Wright-Phillips (20) and assist leader Sacha Kljestan (16) — to pounce.
The fresher the legs, the more dangerous Red Bulls are. That puts the onus on fast starts, like how the Union began in a 1-1 draw with Toronto last week. It’s especially vital since the Red Bulls traveled to Guatemala for a CONCACAF Champions League tie Tuesday with a largely reserve side.
“Tons of data goes into it and it shows what we already know, which is that the first 30 minutes of games they do their damage,” Curtin said. “They kill teams in the first 30 minutes of games. So, I expect Jesse will play the same way, especially in his home building. We’ll be prepared for it. We’ll have to weather that first 30 minutes because that’s when they make teams uncomfortable.”
In the process, the Union could make their end to the season much more comfortable.
Union manager Jim Curtin believes a fast start will be key to coming away with a result — and possibly a playoff berth — from Saturday’s match at Red Bull Arena.