WITH THE Union out of postseason contention, local soccer fans and members of the media alike have already began to ponder the pressing offseason questions and look ahead to 2015.

They're not the only ones.

"I'd say the second we were eliminated from the playoffs [on Oct. 11] you start to think about the next year," said interim manager Jim Curtin, who could soon see that interim tag removed.

"You have to. This game moves fast. It waits for no one. We have a good idea of the guys we're going to protect already [in the Dec. 10 MLS Expansion Draft]."

That's not to say the staff won't take into account players' performances Sunday in the season finale. The 4 p.m. road game against the playoff-bound Columbus Crew is all that separates the Union (10-11-12) from the offseason, a crucial one at that. In addition to the expansion draft, for which teams can protect up to 11 players, decisions loom regarding the contracts of key players like Maurice Edu, Amobi Okugo and Conor Casey.

There is also the matter of, you know, officially announcing a permanent team manager, which at this point appears a formality. A month ago yesterday, several media outlets reported the club would lift Curtin's interim tag. Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz last week told the Daily News that Curtin is "the right man" for the job and Sakiewicz has publicly thrown his support behind Curtin in various interviews with other local media outlets.

"I'm still the interim coach," Curtin said Wednesday during his weekly news conference. "You can read into what's been written at different times in different interviews. But I'm still the interim coach and I'm still working to have that removed."

Sunday signifies Curtin's 23rd game at the helm after he took over June 10 for the fired John Hackworth. A 34-year-old assistant without head-coaching experience at the MLS level when he took over, Curtin, now 35, has learned on the job.

"I think I've learned a lot, adjusted a lot," he said. "I'll take the lessons that I learned. I'd say the biggest thing is guys 1 through 14, 1 through 16 are usually pretty easy to handle. They know where they stand. Guys 14 through 30 who are wondering what they need to do to get into the lineup, you wind up spending the majority of your time with. So that's been the biggest 'wow' moment.

"And also the things when you sat as an assistant and you chirped up in meetings, your ideas maybe seemed a lot easier to get across. And then when you're actually the guy who's now accountable for the decisions that are made on Saturday with the lineup, you have more accountability. That is for sure."

The Union will spend Sunday night in Columbus following the game. After returning to Philadelphia on Monday, the players will undergo exit physicals. Exit interviews are Wednesday, though Curtin said those discussions will regard mostly on-field matters, not contract talks or expansion draft protection. The manager also will seek feedback from his players on training sessions and ask each player how he plans to handle the offseason.

It's an important one for the Union.

"It is an exciting time for the league and it's a time where we're going to really have to push and push a lot of the right buttons in the offseason to get things right because we know we're close," Curtin said. "But our fans are tired of close. We need to be in the playoffs."

Free kicks

Zac MacMath will tend the goal for the Union in the finale. Rais M'Bolhi was back in his native France this week with his wife, who is expecting their first child . . . Conor Casey (knee) is "probably doubtful" to play Sunday, according to Jim Curtin. The veteran forward is a free agent at season's end. Center back Carlos Valdes and midfielder Vincent Nogueira are also dealing with minor knocks, Curtin said, but both could play against the Crew . . . PPL Park hosts the third annual Army-Navy Cup on Nov. 7.

Agenda

Union (10-11-12) vs. Columbus (13-10-10)

What: Regular-season finale

When: Sunday 4 p.m.

Where: Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

TV: The Comcast Network