Early suc­cess changed ex­pec­ta­tions for Union

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - Matt DeGe­orge Colum­nist

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.

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