For the fourth time in their history, the Union are one win away from their first trophy.
There have been more than enough losses over the team’s 11-year existence to dull the pain caused by the three that denied them silverware: the U.S. Open Cup finals of 2014, 2015, and 2018. But the specter of past failures still looms as the Union visit third-place Columbus in a nationally televised game Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m., 6ABC), needing just three points in the standings to win the Supporters' Shield for the year’s best regular-season record.
Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson was a 14-year-old fan in the stands at the 2015 final, when the Union lost to Sporting Kansas City on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie.
“I remember being at the game and being heartbroken afterward,” Aaronson said. “This city definitely deserves a trophy, this team does, so I’m really excited to have the chance to do it.”
Sunday’s game doesn’t carry the kind of win-or-go home pressure that a cup final does. And the Union have two shots to get the points they need -- first Sunday and then at home against New England in the regular season finale on Nov. 8.
But this is unquestionably a measuring-stick game. The Union’s 1-0 loss at Columbus on Sept. 2 was their fifth straight game without a goal at Mapfre Stadium, a building where they’ve won just twice in 14 all-time visits — both in 2016.
The Crew have Major League Soccer’s stingiest defense, with just 18 goals allowed in 21 games this year. Their attack features the league’s No. 2 scorer, Gyasi Zardes, and two of its best playmakers in Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayán.
The Union, meanwhile, will be without two of their most important players. Goalkeeper Andre Blake could be out for the season with a fractured right hand, and José Andrés Martínez is sidelined by COVID-19. But the returns of Jamiro Monteiro from suspension and Warren Creavalle from injury in midfield will provide a boost.
On top of that, it’s just the second time ever that the Union will play a national TV game on an English-language over-the-air network — a stage that MLS as a whole rarely gets. The last time was in 2012, when NBC televised the Union’s regular-season finale.
The league and ESPN had a hunch that this game would be big when they scheduled it for ABC, but they weren’t sure it would be this big. And with the Eagles playing at night, the Union will be alone on the local sports stage Sunday afternoon.
Manager Jim Curtin, who won the Shield as a player in 2003, doesn’t want to overhype this game. He prefers to keep his team’s mindset in the one-game-at-a-time mode that has gotten the job done all year. But don’t be fooled. This team wants this trophy badly, and the Concacaf Champions League berth that comes with it.
For players who come to MLS from the rest of the world, the regular-season title is the title, since most soccer leagues worldwide don’t have playoffs. The Union’s young American core gets it too. And there’s extra significance for Aaronson, because his time with the Union is coming to an end soon.
Aaronson has already made Union history once this year by becoming the first product of the team’s youth academy to be sold abroad. His $6 million transfer fee is the largest ever for an American product of an MLS club academy, the third-largest for any American sold out of the league, and the sixth-largest for any sale out of the league overall.
Now he has a chance to make an even bigger piece of history by bringing home the team’s first trophy.
“It’s really emotional for me, because [of] the year that I’ve had and moving to Salzburg at the end of the season,” Aaronson said. “And just wanting this to be a special season for the team, just wanting to give my all, all season.”
Supporters’ Shield standings
Because the coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of many games in the Western Conference, the trophy will be given this year to the team with the best points-per-game record. The Union need to finish with at least 47 points in the standings from their 23 games to clinch the title.
Five teams are mathematically alive to have the top points-per-game average. Here they are, ranked by current points per game. If teams end tied on points per game, the tiebreakers are, in order: total wins, then goal difference, then goals scored.
1. Union, 2.1 ppg (13-3-5, 44 points, 2 games left, +23 GD, 41 GS)
2. Toronto FC, 1.95 ppg (12-4-5, 41 points, 2 games left, +7 GD, 30 GS)
3. Seattle Sounders, 1.84 ppg (10-4-5, 35 points, 3 games left, +20 GD, 38 GS)
4. Columbus Crew, 1.75 ppg (10-5-5, 35 points, 3 games left, +14 GD, 31 GS)
5. Portland Timbers, 1.75 ppg (10-5-5, 35 points, 3 games left, +11 GD, 44 GS)