HARRISON, N.J. — Union manager Jim Curtin was fine with admitting that much of Wednesday’s 1-1 draw at the New York Red Bulls was about as dull as the atmosphere at a mostly empty Red Bull Arena.
There wasn’t even the usual hearty section of visiting Union fans to liven things up, just a few blue shirts scattered amid the home red ones and the thousands of blue seats around them.
But while results around the rest of MLS on Wednesday helped the result go down easier, especially New York City’s 2-0 loss at woeful Chicago and Orlando’s 2-2 tie at Nashville, Curtin knew his game was there for the taking.
When the dust settled at the end of Wednesday night, the Union were fifth in the Eastern Conference and third in points per game, having played one fewer game than the next three teams above them. (And Chicago had fired manager Raphaël Wicky, even after the win, a raising of the white flag.)
“You’re usually happy with a point, but tonight, a little bit of an empty feeling,” Curtin said.
That was a reflection on the standings and on his team’s game.
The Red Bulls aren’t good, simply put, and their fans — the ones who showed up, that is — will be the first to say so. They’re rightly frustrated that the Austria-based global soccer conglomerate, the same one that owns Jesse Marsch’s and Tyler Adams’ team in Leipzig and Brenden Aaronson’s team in Salzburg, hasn’t made the same commitment to winning for its team from next to New York.
The upcoming postseason is likely to be the first since 2009 that the Red Bulls aren’t involved. That year was the last before Red Bull Arena opened, when the club said farewell to the old Giants Stadium and moved to a venue that sets a standard to this day for American soccer theaters.
Had the Union won Wednesday, they would have sent their rivals a considerable ways toward their offseason vacations. More importantly, they’d have sent themselves further toward hosting a first-round playoff game.
It’s fair to wonder, then, whether Curtin might have loosened the reins on the attack sooner than the 74th minute, when Dániel Gazdag and Paxten Aaronson took the field. Indeed, Curtin acknowledged he wondered the same earlier in the second half.
“You’re caught in between, because if you concede and you give them life, all of a sudden now their season has another lifeline,” Curtin said. “I think in this week, and then following [Sunday] with Columbus [at home], we’re playing teams that are below the red [playoff] line that are going to throw everything at you. So yeah, there were some discussions on the sidelines, but the game felt comfortable.”
Those are some fair points, though Andre Blake might have disagreed on the “comfortable” part as he made a few important saves in the second half. (And got clocked at one point, though he shook it off and was fine.)
“You’re finding that balance of trusting the guys on the field, going for it, but not leaving yourself exposed where now you lose it and you allow a big swing,” Curtin said.
Part of not wanting to be exposed, he signaled later, was not wanting to run Sergio Santos out of gas before the aforementioned Columbus visit (4 p.m., PHL17). With Cory Burke still out, Santos is going to have to start again or at least play important minutes off the bench, unless the Union can run up an early lead.
The Union will also be without José Andrés Martínez, as he’ll be suspended for yellow card accumulations.
Columbus (9-11-7, 34 points) is on the outside of the playoff race looking in, close enough to still be in contention but five points back of Orlando for the last berth. The Crew will come to Chester in a buoyant mood after beating reigning Liga MX champion Cruz Azul in Wednesday’s Campeones Cup, but we’ll see how much the game took out of them.
Of the eight games left on the Union’s schedule, four are against teams well on the wrong side of the standings: Columbus, Cincinnati twice, and Toronto. It’s the time of year for putting nails in coffins, and Curtin knows his team has a hammer in hand.