The Union still have two games left, but Jim Curtin has already handed out his first homework assignment for the offseason.

The interim manager wants his players to watch the Major League Soccer playoffs, a tournament that will go on without the Union for the fourth time in their five-year existence after an amazing collapse against Columbus last Saturday.

"I encourage them . . . to watch what those games look like," Curtin said. "Because if they think there's pressure in the games we just played, it gets ramped up to a whole other level."

The PPL Park finale against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday would have been a de facto playoff game if the Union could have held onto a late two-goal lead over Columbus.

Instead, the Crew scored three times in five minutes to kill the Union's playoff hopes and the positive feelings generated by a summer surge into contention.

"The guys are devastated. They feel like they let the fans down. We all feel that way," Curtin said. "You have to find a way to learn from it, to pick yourself up and look forward to 2015."

The process of moving on will not begin with a radically different lineup against Sporting. Curtin said he planned on making out his lineup just as he would if a playoff spot were on the line. Zac MacMath will start in goal. Rais Mbolhi has been away tending to duties with the Algerian national team.

Curtain said he didn't believe in using an experimental lineup over the final two games, because he wanted to reward the players who have earned their spots in practice, and to protect the integrity of the playoff race.

"Finish the season the right way, that's the message to our guys," Curtin said. "There's an easy way to do it and the wrong way to do it, which is to bail out and just feel sorry for yourself and quit on the year."

Sporting, the defending league champion, clinched a playoff spot last week. They still have something to play for, though. They can end up seeded from second in to fifth in the Eastern Conference, depending on their final two games.

Sporting captain Matt Besler is day-to-day with a right-thigh bruise that he suffered during an appearance with the U.S. national team Tuesday. His partner in central defense, Aurelien Collin, missed the last three games with an ankle injury.

The Union have a win and a draw in two meetings with Sporting this season.

"You know what you're getting from them. They play the same way every game whether they're missing three or four guys or they have their core," Curtin said. "[Our] guys do have confidence that they can go toe-to-toe with them."

@ByTimMcManus