BITTER BIRDS
We Have a Playoff Team! It’s Just Not the Football Team Everyone Was Hoping For
By Brian Wright A funny thing happened on Sunday. Lost among all the vitriol and outrage of another dreadful Eagles performance, Philadelphia’s other football team reached the postseason for the second time in franchise history. Yes, they may have put forth their worst effort of the season in an almost unwatchable 2-0 loss to already-eliminated Orlando City, but don’t let that take away from the fact that they are essentially into the postseason no matter what happens in next week’s regular-season finale at Talen Energy Stadium against the New York Red Bulls. Just let this sink in for a second. The Union are going to the playoffs; albeit they are certainly backing in. A win against the Lions would have locked up a playoffs spot for sure, but thanks to the Chicago Fire, who did the Union a huge favor by beating the New England Revolution, 2-1, on Sunday, it will take a major miracle for New England to pip Philadelphia for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference this weekend on what MLS is calling “Decision Day 2016.” Even if the Union lose to New York, they head into the final week with a three-point lead on New England, and because the teams would finish even on the number of wins (assuming New England beats Montreal), The Revolution would have to win by 12 goals to overtake the Union on the goal-difference tiebreaker. Now, how they fare once they reach the knockout round game is another story. Based on how the standings look now, the Union would travel to Toronto to face Toronto FC in a 3-6 matchup. This is not ideal for the Union as The Reds have several high-priced stars in U.S. internationals Michael Bradley and Jozy Alidore and a world-class talent in Sebastian Giovinco. Giovinco has missed the last few months due to adductor and quad injuries, but he returned to the pitch yesterday to help Toronto FC claim a point in a 2-2 draw with Montreal. Philadelphia has faced Toronto twice this season. They were totally outclassed and bullied all over the field in a 3-1 loss back in August, and produced a better showing in the reverse fixture in September, earning a 1-1 draw. On both occasions the Union did not show the ability to effectively shut down Toronto’s stars, so the idea of going to BMO Field to face TFC in their first ever playoff match in front of 30,000-plus fans is not ideal. If the Union manage to beat Red Bull NY on Sunday, they can reach as high as fifth place, which would mean a trip to RFK Stadium to face D.C. United, who happen to be the hottest team in the league heading into the playoffs. United head into the final week on a six-game unbeaten streak, including four straight wins and Sunday’s 3-1 destruction of New York City FC. Philadelphia has done well against United this season, earning a 3-0 win at home in July and a 2-2 draw at RFK in August, but given the current form of these two sides, the Union might actually be better off facing Toronto. **** Sunday’s penultimate home match was supposed to be a celebration of a seemingly successful season, capped off with a comfortable win over an eliminated opponent, but as has become the Union tradition, they came up with their worst effort of the season. How can that be? For years the fans complained that the team operated like a small-market franchise and refused to shell out money for top quality players, but you can’t say that’s been the case this season. Philadelphia spent big to bring in Maurice Edu, Tranquillo Barnetta, Ilsinho, and most recently, gave up a king’s ransom in transfer fee and other assets to acquire Alejandro Bedoya. There is considerable youth on this club as well with defenders Keegan Rosenberry, Richie Marquez, Josh Yaro, Ken Tribbett and midfielder Fabian Herbers all under the age of 24, and perhaps that played a role in yesterday’s complete capitulation. Maybe the moment was too big for them. There is too much natural talent on this club for the team not to reach the postseason. They held the top spot in the Eastern Conference for much of the first few months of the season, before the winless streaks started to pile up. Vincent Nogueira’s sudden departure from the club in June has affected this club in major ways. They have been unable to effectively create chances without the Frenchman in the fold. Manager Jim Curtin tried to fill his spot by sliding Barnetta back to a central defensive midfield role before the arrival of Bedoya, but Bedoya has also been unable to fill Nogueira’s boots as he is more of a wing player than a destroyer. Let’s also not forget that Edu has not played all season due to a lingering stress fracture in his leg. He’s made some appearances for the Union’s USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC, and was on the bench for Sunday’s debacle. It sure seems like this week would be the perfect opportunity to give him a start, whether it be in his preferred No. 8 role or at center back for a struggling Ken Tribbett. Some of the blame for the team’s struggles also has to go to striker C.J. Sapong, who has only seven goals this season and hasn’t scored since a 4-0 drubbing of New England on August 13 – that’s a dry spell of 10 games. Top quality strikers don’t go 10 games without scoring. They just don’t. For some context here’s a list of strikers just in the Eastern Conference who have scored more goals than Sapong: Bradley Wright-Phillips (23), David Villa (22), Giovinco (16), Ola Kamara (15), Cyle Larin (14), Kei Kamara (11), Didier Drogba (10), Patrick Mullins (8). That’s not good. If I’m Curtin, I am sitting Sapong so he can clear his head a bit a giving Charlie Davies a run up top. Maybe he’ll be able to capitalize on some chances, if they can create any. Sunday’s match is still hugely important, despite what the standings say. A win against the conference-leading Red Bulls will give the Union some desperately needed confidence and momentum heading into their knockout round game, wherever that may be. So yes, we do have a playoff team in Philadelphia, but they are a flawed one and Sunday’s finale may go a long way toward determining if they can make a run at an MLS Cup title. With Barnetta set to depart the club at season’s end, Curtin’s job may hang in the balance.