Early success changed expectations for Union
CHESTER >> Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium should’ve been many things for the Philadelphia Union.
It should’ve been the celebration of a season of progress. It should’ve been a triumphant march into the playoffs. It should’ve been the delayed payoff for fans that have waited weeks for MLS’s peculiar schedule to bestow upon them another chance to root for their team.
Instead, the limp 2-0 humbling at the hands of Orlando City became an impromptu Rorschach test for the Union’s sea-
son: What exactly do you see in this nine-month, 34game ink blot? Is it disappointment, achievement or some shade of gray in between?
“It’s not for me to decide if it’s a success or not,” Union manager Jim Curtin offered at his postgame press conference. “Everyone is going to have their own opinion of it, and that’s fair.”
The evidence of Sunday’s contribution — the hosts’ uncharacteristically hapless attack in easily their worst home performance and only home shutout of the year, plus the morgue-like locker room — would seem to indicate one way. The need for Curtin to appraise his team’s season with at least two games (one regularseason, one all-but-guaranteed playoff) remaining is telling as well.
It may seem premature to pen the eulogy of the Union’s season, though if Sunday’s performance is any guide, that campaign will have just 180 minutes left. The Union (11-139, 42 points), they of the six-game winless streak and the guaranteed sub.500 record, are almost certainly in the playoffs. Three points ahead of seventh-place New England, the Union must avoid losing by a comically lopsided margin in the final week of the season while the Revs must win by an outlandishly large score to overturn a 12-goal spread on goal differential. Any other result gets the job done.
Those complex qualifiers stripped Sunday of any celebratory ambience. Even if New England’s chances remain infinitesimal, the victory lap was replaced with a slow trudge to the locker room and the confrontation of existential questions.
Curtin, while respecting the space for dissent, didn’t waver in his opinion.
“I think it’s a success to be in the playoffs for the second time in the franchise’s history,” Curtin said. “I’m getting into jinxing, giving up 13 goals next week, but I’m happy with the team, and that’s all I can say. I’m happy with this group. I’m proud of this group. I’m happy with the work we’ve done.”
That perspective shouldn’t be discounted, even in the haze of disappointment wrought by Orlando City. When you consider the abject mess Curtin inherited in 2014 and the utter nothingness of last season precipitating a front-office house-cleaning, the Union have met their objective by earning an invite to the playoff party where, after all, anything can happen. For the first time in five years, the Union will play meaningful, postseason soccer. That’s significant.
This is Year 1 of the rebuilding project, and avenues like the one the Union have pursued in building through youth with draftees and academy products usually take years to reach their destination. On that account, the club is ahead of schedule.
So the crux of the question, then, is if the schedule changed midseason.
Do months spent as the top team in the East endow greater expectations? Does being in position for a playoff bye in mid-August douse excitement at backing into the playoffs, at best in fifth place, largely through the hospitality of others’ feeble pursuits of the red line? Does the morphing of Curtin’s rhetoric in the span of two months — from making a run toward MLS Cup to Sunday’s veiled gratitude toward Chicago for beating New England to preserve the Union’s place — constitute disappointment? Does the lack, in all likelihood, of hosting a playoff game make it feel like the Union are actually in the playoffs?
If the table doesn’t lie, as Curtin if fond of saying, then this team’s legacy is dubious. The Union can only finish with the franchise’s third-best post total for a season. They failed to surpass the points-per-game average of the 2011 playoff side (1.41), and they’re also guaranteed to be trail the 2013 squad that finished with 46 points (1.35 ppg).
A loss to the Red Bulls and the Union will tie the 42 points accumulated by the 2014 team. Both the 2013 and 2014 teams missed the playoffs, you’ll recall. The external standard of playoff qualification, then, is more a damnation of the rest of the league than a veneration of the Union’s accomplishments. (In a league where 12 of 20 teams make the postseason, that’s generally true league-wide.)
“People will analyze it and say, they came up small or they didn’t take advantage or they should’ve finished in first place,” Curtin said. “Eagles fans will say after three wins, they’re going to the Super Bowl. So it’s fickle.”
The numbers, though, aren’t. The Union’s run of three wins in 14 games has torpedoed any elevated aspirations. To some, that’s failure to capitalize. To others, it’s merely regression to the mean for an overachieving bunch.
Curtin tossed out the caveats Sunday — a lost season for Maurice Edu, the midseason pivot from Vincent Nogueira to Alejandro Bedoya, the youthful defense.
But the most pressing question is reserved for the official culmination of the Union’s campaign. Does scraping into the playoffs, slinking off to Toronto or D.C., and getting drubbed out of the playoffs three days after the regular season ends really leave you with a sense of achievement? Does it move the needle of excitement on the Union as a franchise?
The answer to that is yet to come.