The Union’s eight-year wait to host the second home playoff game in team history will finally end next month.
Toronto FC’s 1-1 tie at Los Angeles FC that finished in the early hours of Sunday morning ensured that Talen Energy Stadium will host postseason soccer for the first time since 2011.
But there is still a lot more work to do, especially if the Union are to finish second in the East and earn the right to host two rounds.
That work starts Sunday with the team’s latest visit to Red Bull Arena to face the New York Red Bulls (6:30 p.m., PHL17). The teams’ clashes are almost always must-see occasions, and this year’s edition should be no different.
Only once in team history have the Union finished above the New York Red Bulls. It’s likely not coincidental that said season was 2011 In most years — including the three when the Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield with MLS’ best overall record — the gap wasn’t all that close.
This year, the tables have turned. The Union are third and New York is in sixth. If the Union win Sunday, they’ll be guaranteed to finish above the Red Bulls.
But as tempting as it may be to start up the marketing bandwagon, this is not the time to brag. Union manager Jim Curtin was properly wary throughout last week, and likely became even more so on Saturday. Atlanta United’s 3-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes jumped the reigning champions over the Union into second place in the East. Atlanta now has a one-point lead over the Union, with one more game played.
“One of the hardest things in pro sports is, when teams are below you, to keep them there,” Curtin said, and he knows the subject well. He pointed to the Union’s 2-0 loss at the Chicago Fire in mid-August, a game in which the Union, who had a man advantage for the entire second half, could have all but killed off Chicago’s postseason hopes. Now the Fire are just three points back of the last playoff spot.
The Red Bulls have been unusually subpar for much of the season. A team that has finished outside the top four in the East just twice in this decade sits in sixth. Yet even with a middling 13-13-5 record, they’re just one point out of fourth.
New York’s key players to watch remain the same as they’ve ever been: midfield playmaker Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra and striker Bradley Wright-Phillips. Kaku (he goes by his nickname on the field) is the Red Bulls’ top chance creator, with an average of 2.2 per game. And while he is a midfield playmaker, he isn’t constrained to just the middle of the park.
Wright-Phillips has had an unusually poor season (it doesn’t help that he’s now 34). After scoring 17 or more goals in each of the last five seasons, he has just two this year, and has started in just nine of his 21 appearances.
New York’s scoring has instead come from midfielder Daniel Royer (10) and forward Brian White (9), the latter of whom played for Union youth teams back in 2012. White haunted his old team in the Red Bulls’ visit to Chester back in June, scoring twice before the Union mounted a stunning comeback to win, 3-2.
But White has missed the Red Bulls’ last five games because of an ankle injury suffered Aug. 18. Wright-Phillips returned to the starting lineup for four of them; the one he didn’t start was a game at Portland on Wednesday.
It won’t be surprising if Wright-Phillips starts Sunday, and if he plays with a point to prove.
MLS Eastern Conference standings
Total wins are the first tiebreaker after points, followed by goal difference. The top seven teams qualify for the playoffs, the top four open at home, and the first-place finisher gets a first-round bye.
1. New York City FC: 16-5-9, 57 points (30 games played, +19, 56 goals scored; clinched playoff berth)
2. Atlanta United: 17-11-3, 54 points (31 GP, +16, 53 GS; clinched playoff berth)
3. Philadelphia Union: 15-8-7, 52 points (30 GP, +12, 55 GS; clinched playoff berth)
4. Toronto FC: 12-10-10, 46 points (32 GP, +4, 54 GS; clinched playoff berth)
5. D.C. United: 12-10-9, 45 points (31 GP, +2, 40 GS; clinched playoff berth)
6. New York Red Bulls: 13-13-5, 44 points (31 GP, +3, 51 GS; clinched playoff berth)
7. New England Revolution: 10-10-11, 41 points (31 GP, -7, 45 GS)
8. Chicago Fire: 9-12-11, 38 points (32 GP, +5, 48 GS)
9. Montreal Impact: 11-17-4, 37 points (32 GP, -16, 43 GS)
10. Orlando City: 9-14-9, 36 points (32 GP, -5, 41 GS)
11. Columbus Crew: 9-15-8, 35 points (32 GP, -9, 37 GS)
12. FC Cincinnati: 6-22-4, 22 points (32 GP, -44, 30 GS; eliminated)
This weekend’s games
All games are on ESPN+ unless specified.
Columbus Crew 1, Vancouver Whitecaps 1
Atlanta United 3, San Jose Earthquakes 1
New England Revolution 0, Real Salt Lake 0
FC Cincinnati 0, Chicago Fire 0
Houston Dynamo 2, Orlando City 1
Los Angeles Galaxy 2, Montreal Impact 1
Los Angeles FC 1, Toronto FC 1
FC Dallas vs. New York City FC: Sunday, 6 p.m., UniMás (in English via SAP and on Twitter)
D.C. United vs. Seattle Sounders: Sunday, 8 p.m., ESPN/ESPN Deportes