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Smallwood: Clinching playoffs would send strong message from Union

SUNDAY'S WEATHER in the Philadelphia area is supposed to be 70 degrees and sunny. For a mid-October day in the Northeast, it doesn't get more perfect than that.

Union head coach Jim Curtin has stressed building a winning culture in the clubhouse.
Union head coach Jim Curtin has stressed building a winning culture in the clubhouse.Read moreYong Kim / Staff Photographer

SUNDAY'S WEATHER in the Philadelphia area is supposed to be 70 degrees and sunny. For a mid-October day in the Northeast, it doesn't get more perfect than that.

It also is about as perfect a scenario as the Union could ask for going into the waning days of the Major League Soccer regular season. One win in the final two home games will claim the franchise its first playoff berth since 2011 and only the second in its seven-year history.

The Union have the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference, with 42 points, good for a playoff spot. The New England Revolution are seventh, with 39 points. The most points the Revolution can get is 45 points.

There are scenarios involving New England, the Montreal Impact (44) and D.C. United (43) dropping points that would give the Union a playoff spot, but, as of now, the simplest way is for the Union to earn the three more points from a win and bring their total to 45. If the Union and New England both finish with 45 points, a tiebreaker almost assuredly would go to Philadelphia.

A victory would put the Union win total at 12, which would eliminate the first tiebreaker because the most total wins New England (10-13-9) can get is 12.

The next tiebreaker is goal differential, and it would take an otherworldly miracle of New England (currently -12) getting 13 more goals than the Union (+1) just to push it to the third tie breaker - goals for.

If it comes down to some other backdoor way of getting into the playoffs, the Union will take it, because finally returning to the playoffs will represent a huge step in the goal of first-year sporting director Earnie Stewart to bring a new winning culture to the franchise.

This, however, is the "winning" test the Union have asked for.

Beat floundering Orlando City SC at Talen Energy Stadium in front of what should be a jacked-up home crowd and they are in the playoffs.

To be blunt, there will be no excuse for the Union to do anything else.

This is the best opportunity.

Orlando City lost four of its previous five matches to get eliminated from playoff contention. It has not won since Sept. 7.

The Lions are saying the right things, but the second-year franchise is one of the well-financed in the league, and missing the playoffs could lead to big changes in the offseason.

Orlando coach Jason Kreis, who was hired in July, has promoted several new players for training and there could be some new faces in the lineup, as plans for next season are starting.

OCSC players are saying the right things, but how much spirit they have for the last two matches is anyone's guess.

"The approach is to win the game," Orlando midfielder Servando Carrasco said. "Just because we are out of the playoffs doesn't mean we just stop trying. We still have a lot to play for."

Again, things could not be better prepped for a Union victory.

This is a chance to right so many past wrongs committed by Union squads.

Historically, their record in what would be called "big" matches is abysmal. The Union won their first-ever home match against D.C. United in 2010 and qualified comfortably for the playoffs in 2011.

Other than that, the franchise has come up short, including loss home-and-home playoff games to the Houston Dynamo and dropping the 2014 and 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship matches at home.

Union manager Jim Curtin told that there was "a sense of urgency" around his team, and that's fine, because the stakes are high.

Unless the Union had run away with the Eastern Conference, however, a sense of urgency was always going to come at some point this month.

This is, however, the point the Union have been building to since Stewart, Curtin and the technical staff began meeting in January.

Players were retained or let go in part based on their ability to thrive and promote a new winning culture in a locker room that had come to accept losing.

The Union wanted players who would embrace the expectations of making the playoffs, not shy away from them.

As mentioned earlier, there are other ways the Union can get into the postseason. In a worst-case scenario, they will be in the same win-and-clinch situation when they finish the regular season next week at Talen Energy against the New York Red Bulls.

It should not come down external forces or last-chance scenarios.

The prime opportunity is in the Union's hands right now. They are at home, with everything to gain facing an opponent just playing out the string.

It's all in the Union's favor. Drive in the nail with the hammer.

Here is the chance for this "new" organization to show what it is made of; a chance to ditch the climate of losing and prove that the atmosphere going forward is truly about winning.

Show everybody. Win this match against Orlando City SC and secure a spot in the playoffs.