THE MID-OCTOBER rays of an evening sun cascaded through the gray rafters onto the pitch at PPL Park, shining ever so bright on the Union and its supporters - collectively in celebration mode.
The MLS playoffs. A place where manager Peter Nowak set as this season's goal, and to get there, his young group would have to score lots of them.
How poetic, that Sebastien Le Toux, the club's offensive rock, punched the ticket in the 42nd minute of the Union's home finale against Toronto on Saturday, a curling, far-post shot that sailed past the arms of Toronto goalkeeper Milos Kocic.
Le Toux' goal matched the Toronto equalizer in the 57th, off a one-timed shot in the box from point-blank range by forward Ryan Johnson. It was the only legitimate shot on frame that Union keeper Faryd Mondragon saw in his return after missing 5 weeks with a finger fracture. He settled in well.
But, ultimately, on a day in which the Union needed only a draw and a loss by Eastern Conference foe New York to secure a playoff berth, it got both.
"To be in the top three and to be clinching a spot in only our second year after a great first year, it means a lot to this club, players, coaches and management," said midfielder Justin Mapp. "The coaching staff put a lot into this and the fans have been behind us all year, so it's big, but why stop here? I think we have the talent to make a run at this thing."
Now the Union (11-7-15, 48 points) can lock up the top seed in the East in its regular-season finale against a Red Bull squad that will be devoid of top goal-scorer Thierry Henry, who took a straight red card in the first half of New York's loss Saturday at Sporting Kansas City. Henry leads the club with 14 goals. The Union is currently tied in points with Sporting Kansas City (48), but holds an edge in goal differential (plus-9 to Sporting's plus-2). The teams tied at Livestrong Park in their only meeting this season.
How poetic, clinching the playoff spot in a place where the Union has lost just one game all season (7-1-9) and just four since opening the $122 million stadium with a win over Seattle last June?
How poetic, that in the last regular-season home game, Mondragon - the seasoned goalkeeper who is the third-best in MLS in goals-against this season (1.06) - made his return from injury.
Poetic, that the team was able to celebrate with a boisterous PPL Park record-tying crowd of 19,178.
"We want to thank you guys so much for supporting us," said Nowak, addressing the sellout crowd. "We hope to see you at the first playoff game where we will all be 'dooping.' "
Euphoria aside, the Union showed flashes of brilliance but also showed it still has a lot to correct. Despite creating a wealth of chances, the team was able to capitalize on just one. Not sure if it will be enough in 2 weeks when the Union heads into its first playoff match against a team-to-be-determined. But up next: New York at Red Bull Arena on Thursday (8 p.m. ESPN2).
"They're not in [the playoffs] yet," defender Sheanon Williams said of New York. "They are going to fight and give it everything they got. But we want to be [Eastern Conference champions] so we plan to give it everything we got, too. We already have a rivalry [with New York] and we don't like each other very much, so we'll definitely be going hard after each other."