The MLS Season is a grueling 9-month ordeal that begins with a pre-season schedule in Florida and features 30+ league matches, a few international friendlies and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Cup series. It’s all soccer, all the time for players, coaching staff, and fans. Opening Day, a 3-1 home loss to Sporting Kansas City on a cold, windswept afternoon in March, happened so long ago it almost seems like it could have been a game from another season. And in the end, for the Philadelphia Union, it comes down to this: the year’s final match (Saturday, October 26, PPL Park, NBC SN) is a must-win in order to keep any hopes of the post-season alive.
The fact that it comes against KC, a club fighting for the Supporter’s Shield (awarded for having the league’s best record), makes the battle even more of an uphill tilt. Add to that tomorrow’s MLS schedule which would have to include a pair of unlikely results to allow Philadelphia a playoff ticket, and the season is ending with all the same fitful drama that the Union has dealt its fan base all season long.
Recall that Philadelphia got off to a good start this season, far better than the last, and was high in the Eastern Conference standings out of the gate. The club was long on defense and short on offense, but as the early weeks unfolded, a star emerged, young striker Jack McInerney, whose 10 goals led the league by around mid-season. Sebastien Le Toux, in and out of the line-up in the early going, blazed his way into a starring role, not with goals, but assists, also pushing his way into the league lead.
When McInerney was plucked from the squad by the U.S. Men’s Gold Cup Team, many Union fans wondered whether the offense was finished. Enter Conor Casey, Danny Cruz, Le Toux and long-tossing Sheanon Williams, who collectively led an improved attack that, for a while at least, actually improved Philadelphia’s ball-control and chances on net. The Union still had a tendency toward nail-biters rather than blow-outs, but they were winning and drawing often enough that for much of the season’s middle months, the club was firmly lodged in fourth place and appearing very much in control of its own destiny.
Where things began to turn sour, oddly, was around the time McInerney returned from a month of under-use by the national team. He seemed lost, was rarely involved in scoring chances and eventually began spending time on Manager John Hackworth’s bench as the search for an offensive combination with some click dragged-on. Then came the season’s ill-timed dead-zone, that five-game stretch in late summer and early autumn when the club couldn’t buy a goal and only managed two points on a pair of 0-0 draws over a miserable 5-game stretch. Philadelphia was playing down to poor opponents and over-matched by the classier clubs. The fact that they’re still in it at all this weekend owes largely to some late season heroics by two veteran international players, Kleberson and Fabinho, who jumped onto the squad late and began serving consistently good balls into the box in a way that almost never happened earlier in the Union’s campaign.
Philadelphia came-up with some key wins, one of them an unlikely 1-0 decision in Kansas City, and looked like they were back in control until a disastrous 1-1 draw against the league’s worst club, DC United, and a blown lead lead that led to last week’s loss in Montreal. Even a late goal in Washington by Jack McInerney which seemed to have booted the 1,000-pound gorilla that had been riding around on the youngster’s back for approximately two months, couldn’t buy the Union more than a point over those two crucial weeks. The result is that the Union marches onto the pitch at PPL today with their backs positioned precisely where they’ve been for most of the last eight weeks: against the wall.
KANSAS CITY: Sporting KC is an interesting match-up for this final game. As I mentioned earlier, the Union just beat these guys on the road with a combination of stifling defense and a Hail Mary offense that produced only a couple of chances the entire game, one of which went in. KC has been playing energized, quality soccer since then and has roared to within an inch of the league’s best record. They’ll be fighting hard for that top-spot and are probably still simmering about that loss at home to Philly; had they won that match, it would be New York chasing them for the Supporter’s Shield this weekend. A slip-up early by Philadelphia today and the result could easily mirror the two sides’ opening day match, a 3-1 KC victory in Chester.
Those two games present a dilemma for Hackworth. Should he go all-in on offense as he has recently, loading-up with recent offensive spark plugs like Kleberson, Fabinho, Casey and Cruz, possibly opening himself up to KC’s talented offensive core? Or should he take the same conservative approach that brought victory in KC a month ago, jamming up the defensive side of the pitch and allowing KC to wear themselves out making rush after rush? If it was me, I’d choose the former. Recall that in the road win in Kansas City, the Union needed three spectacular saves in the first 15-minutes by goalie Zac MacMath to keep things scoreless and make the eventual victory possible. Taking another wait-and-see approach today, Philadelphia may not be so lucky.
Either way, Kansas City is almost sure to have the advantage in ball control and may have the better chances on net. The Union’s playoff life will likely hinge on what they do with their chances. Will they nail quality shots? Or will they play tentatively, searching for the perfect opportunity and never finding it? We find out today.
PLAYOFF PICTURE: It’s a slim chance for Philadelphia, but it all starts with a victory today versus KC. The only way the Union can live another day is to get three points. After that, they need to hope the soccer Gods are smiling on Sunday. Resurgent New England will have to lose to mediocre Columbus tomorrow. Houston, meanwhile, will have to do what Philadelphia managed to do three weeks ago: play to no better than a draw against the MLS’s worst, DC United. And as a bonus for those of you with weak hearts, it has to be a low-scoring draw. If Houston ties but gets a bunch of goals, they would be even with Philadelphia in points and wins, but could very well waltz past Philadelphia on a second tie-breaker, goals scored. Currently, they’re 2 behind Philadelphia.
It’s complicated, but the bottom line is that Philadelphia still holds a razor-thin chance of extending their season, but only if they win today.
Should Philadelphia win today, at least one of the two key matches tomorrow is being televised locally tomorrow, Houston vs. DC at 1:30 p.m. on NBC (perhaps a little channel-hoping will be in order between that and the Eagles game).