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Union must quickly shake off Champions League hangover as they return to MLS outside of a playoff spot

“There’s no time to sit and feel sorry for yourself,” Jim Curtin said as he prepared his team for Sunday's nationally-televised game against Orlando City.

Cory Burke and the Union fell to ninth place in MLS' Eastern Conference while they were busy with the Champions League semifinals.
Cory Burke and the Union fell to ninth place in MLS' Eastern Conference while they were busy with the Champions League semifinals.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Some day, the Union might again qualify for the Concacaf Champions League. They might even go on another wild ride through the tournament like they did this year, reaching the semifinals in their debut campaign on the continental stage.

But until then, the Union must snap out of their reverie. When they returned to practice ahead of Sunday’s nationally televised game against Orlando City (4 p.m., ESPN and ESPN Deportes), they were in ninth place in the Eastern Conference.

“There’s no time to sit and feel sorry for yourself,” manager Jim Curtin said. “You have to have yourself, as a professional, ready to go again. We can handle two games in a week with our group at this stage of the year.”

There aren’t alarm bells going off over the standings, because the Eastern Conference is a massive logjam even by MLS’ parity-laden standards. Third-place Orlando (10-6-8, 38 points) is just six points ahead of the Union (8-7-8, 32 points).

“We could finish anywhere from second through 11th,” Curtin said. “That’s the situation, and we have to play at our level to take as many points now down the stretch as possible.”

» READ MORE: The top games to watch around the world this weekend

But points alone won’t get the Union where they want to go. Because the first standings tiebreaker is total wins, not the traditional one of goal difference, the Union need to get back to winning games — which they’ve done just four times in their last 15 outings.

Ten of the Union’s 11 remaining games are against Eastern Conference opponents. Of the 10, half are against teams not currently in playoff spots: the New York Red Bulls, Columbus, Toronto, and Cincinnati (twice). Toronto and Cincinnati are all but out of contention already, and New York is headed in that direction.

And of the five games against teams currently in playoff spots, three are at home: Orlando, Atlanta next Saturday, and Nashville on Oct. 23.

It’s clear, then, that the needed wins are there for the taking.

The Union can also benefit from catching Orlando on a weekend when two of the Lions’ top players — midfielder Andrés Perea and star forward Nani — are suspended because of red cards. (And in case anyone needs reminding, the Union haven’t beaten Orlando in a regular-season game at home since 2017.)

No one from the Union will miss the game because of suspension, nor (for once) are any Union players one yellow card away from suspension for card accumulation. The only players dealing with injuries are Ilsinho, who’s definitely out, and Sergio Santos, who trained on his own Friday but has been dealing with a minor injury suffered in practice Tuesday.

Otherwise, the Union are healthy of body. Now it’s time for them to be healthy of mind, with nothing but the playoff race to focus on.

“If we play our soccer our way, the Philadelphia Union way, down the stretch, we’ll be in the playoffs,” Curtin said, “and from there we can beat anybody.”

That has to start happening now.

Curtin’s good deed

As Curtin was leaving Subaru Park in the hours after Wednesday’s loss to Club América, he saw two fans of the Mexican team stranded outside the stadium. It quickly became clear that they had no way to leave, as ride-hailing services were short of openings and anything else would have been even more expensive.

So he pulled over and asked where they needed to go. As they needed to get only to a Center City hotel where they were staying for the night, Curtin offered them a ride.

It turned out the fans were a mother and daughter who had come down from New York for what was América’s first Concacaf tournament game in the northeastern United States since 2007.

Curtin said the duo told him “their story about how their dream was to just watch Club América live, and they never got the opportunity to do it.”

Now they had, and they had made another memory on top of it.

» READ MORE: Club América manager Santiago Solari returned to the Philly area for the Concacaf Champions League, 27 years after starring at Stockton College