Even before the Union’s season started, the stretch of games they’re currently in stood out as a major test. But back then, no one knew how much would be at stake or how big the potential reward for passing this test would be.
If the Union win Wednesday night at Minnesota United (8, PHL17), Saturday’s home game against Nashville SC will be the biggest regular-season game this year by far.
Jim Curtin’s team will kick off at Allianz Field in third place in the Eastern Conference (12-7-10, 46 points), two points in the standings behind second-place Nashville (11-3-15, 48 points), which hosts Columbus on Wednesday night.
Yes, the time of year for scoreboard-watching and back-of-the-hand standings math has officially arrived, right on cue with the first blast of bracing autumn weather that sends soccer fans to the scarf racks in their closets. And the Union are in a strong position to take advantage of the remaining games before the playoffs, if they can keep up what’s now a six-game unbeaten run.
Sweep these two games and the Union will be in the driver’s seat to finish second in the conference. That would give them home-field advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs, keeping them away from the first-place New England Revolution for as long as possible.
Minnesota is clinging to the Western Conference’s last playoff spot, thanks to a stout defense led by veteran midfielder Osvaldo Alonso. But the team’s attack hasn’t done its equal share, even though Curtin this week called playmaker Emanuel Reynoso “probably the best final passer in our league.”
The Loons have scored just 32 goals this season, the fifth-worst total in MLS, with only some really bad teams below them: Chicago, Austin, Cincinnati, and Miami.
José Andrés Martínez will likely be tasked with putting the clamps on Reynoso as the Venezuelan returns to the Union’s starting lineup. Goalkeeper Andre Blake is also likely to return after getting Saturday off to rest a minor injury.
But Curtin will again be shorthanded when it comes to forwards. Cory Burke is definitely still out, and as of Monday, Sergio Santos was “close” to getting back. So Kacper Przybylko is going to have to shoulder a big load again.
“We’ll make the most of it, make a decision that gives Kacper some help up there,” Curtin said. “But yeah, most likely it’ll be a guy playing a little bit out of the comfort zone. But we’ve had that all season long — we’ve asked a lot of different guys to play a lot of different spots.”
Maybe this time we’ll see Dániel Gazdag playing as the second forward. Or maybe we’ll see Matheus Davó for the first time since Sept. 18, and just the second time in a Union jersey.
Then again, maybe we won’t. Curtin called Davó “a young striker that’s still getting acclimated with his teammates.”
Considering that Davó is only on loan for the rest of the year, there isn’t much time left for him to acclimate.
“Right now, there’s been others that have been ahead of him,” Curtin said. “Maybe they’re not naturally strikers, but we’ll put the best group we can on the field, based on how guys train and reward guys with minutes that deserve it.”
Keeping Przybylko healthy will become even trickier if Mother Nature decides to play a role in the game, which it looks like she might. Though the game-time temperature isn’t going to be quite as chilly as had originally been predicted, rain and high winds are in the forecast with the air in the low 50s. It’s been a while since Union players and their hamstrings have played in a game that cold.
“I think most players would prefer a cold game than a 90-degree game, just because you can run forever in that, and we’re a team that likes to run and relies heavily on our fitness,” Curtin said. “Luckily, we have, I’ll just say, East Coast guys and some Philadelphians on the team, which helps because we’re used to nasty weather.”