They are who we thought they were

(Published by The Philly Soccer Page on Oct. 22, 2013)

Let’s be honest here. The right teams are lined up to make the MLS Eastern Conference playoffs, and Philadelphia Union isn’t one of them.

  • Kansas City and New York are two of the league’s best teams, period.
  • Montreal are holding on for their playoff lives as their best players’ age catches up with them.
  • New England and Chicago have recovered from poor starts to play exciting soccer, thanks to the Revolution’s young attacking cadre and the Mike Magee story, now playing in the Windy City.

Meanwhile, the Union have lost nearly every game they needed to win against the four teams immediately ahead of them in the standings.

Since Mike Magee and Bakary Soumare joined Chicago on May 23-24, the Union have lost seven of the eight games they played against Montreal, New England, Chicago, and Houston. They recorded just one draw, a scoreless home affair against Montreal.

That doesn’t sound like a playoff team.

Philadelphia started the season surprisingly well, weathered a difficult summer stretch thanks in part to opposition red cards, wilted in late summer due partially to suspensions and injuries, broke that streak with an improbable road upset of Kansas City, but came back to earth with a defining road draw in a must-win game against the league’s worst team.

That’s not a bad team. It’s just not a very good team. Playoff teams should be good teams.

In the end, they are who we thought they were: A mid-level team that fights till the end but doesn’t show the midfield quality to compete at the highest level in MLS. Whether that’s because not enough players are good enough or the manager hasn’t properly deployed his midfielders (Danny Cruz, Roger Torres, Kleberson, etc.) is another issue altogether.

But the Union remain a surprisingly resilient bunch, full of character and fight. They still have a shot at the playoffs, deservedly or not. A win over Kansas City on Saturday would earn them a winning record for the year, playoffs or not, and that matters. A win would also be a statement about who this team is, though whether that statement will matter now (reaching the playoffs) or later (intangibly) remains to be seen.

Over time, Union manager John Hackworth has revealed himself as a conservative coach who will occasionally gamble, often when he has no other choice. The recent starts and solid play (through 65 minutes, at least) of Kleberson and Saturday’s shock reemergence of Roger Torres show that.

It begs the question: What will a Hackworth team look like when they’re not content with a draw?

That’s the scenario this Saturday. For the first time as Union manager, Hackworth has no choice but to play for a 90-minute win in a meaningful match.

For the Union to make the playoffs, the following things must all happen:

  1. The Union must beat Kansas City.
  2. New England must lose on the road against Columbus. (A New England draw combined with a Union win would put the Revolution in the playoffs, unless the Union somehow score seven more goals this week than the Revolution.)
  3. Houston must lose or draw on the road against D.C. United. If they draw, Philadelphia would make the playoffs as long as Houston does not score two more goals than the Union score this week.

A draw for the Union is absolutely worthless. They have to play to win. That makes the game worth watching all by itself.