The pieces seem to all be in place for the Union to finally win their first trophy.
They will play at home Sunday against the New England Revolution, a team they haven’t lost to in three years. There’s just the right amount of anger in the locker room after last Sunday’s loss at Columbus. And the game will be nationally televised on ABC, because the network and the league want to spotlight the potential for a historic day.
A victory, or any better result than second-place Toronto FC, will give the Union the Supporters' Shield for the best regular-season record.
But victory is far from certain. Though the Union are 3-0-1 against the Revs this year, all the wins were decided by just one goal. And it’s been 13 years since two American MLS teams have met five times in a calendar year before the playoffs. For the Union to make it 4-0-1 would be a feat on its own.
“Every game has been a one- or two-play game. [and] we’ve been fortunate enough to get on the right side of things,” manager Jim Curtin said. “The scouting report, I think, both of us know each other so well at this stage that we’ll keep it short.”
Looming just as big – and for many fans, even bigger – is the Union’s all-time record when they’ve been one win from a trophy. They’ve had four shots and lost them all, including last Sunday’s 2-1 defeat at Columbus. Curtin, now the second-longest-tenured manager in the league, has been at the helm for all of them.
That naturally creates pressure on him and the team. If the Union blow it Sunday, they will undoubtedly be called chokers. The team is doing the best it can to block out the noise.
“While we know the stakes are big this weekend, the message to the players is to just go out and be yourself,” Curtin said. “Be the best version of the Philadelphia Union and the result will take care of itself.”
Captain Alejandro Bedoya echoed Curtin’s call.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” he said. “Maybe some other guys do – it’s obviously a big game, but we’ve just got to continue playing our game … I’m confident that if we continue playing the way we have, we’ll get the three points and the first trophy in club history.”
The Union will be boosted by José Andrés Martínez’s return to the field after he cleared COVID-19 testing – and further boosted by the news that Martínez did not make the final roster for Venezuela’s World Cup qualifiers next weekend. That means the stalwart midfielder won’t miss the start of the playoffs because of a post-travel quarantine.
Ray Gaddis is also ready to play after recovering from being banged up in against Chicago on Oct. 28. And we’re much more likely to see Anthony Fontana off the bench, after Curtin didn’t play him against a Columbus team that excels at jamming up central midfield.
But it’s not certain that Joe Bendik will be the starting goalkeeper. In Curtin’s Thursday news conference, his last before the game, he declined to say whether Bendik or Matt Freese would start, and his remarks were sterner than simply hiding his cards from New England.
“Nothing has been finalized yet,” Curtin said. “Both goalkeepers have been sharp in training. We’re fully confident in both, and we need to make that final call as the final two days of training come up.”
It won’t be the end of the world if the Union don’t win the Shield on Sunday. But it will be disappointing, and no one knows that better than Curtin.
“I feel like this has gotten lost over the years, and sometimes our own fans were frustrated by it when we talked so much about the youth: Ultimately, it still comes down to winning,” he said “We don’t get the media attention, we don’t get Brenden Aaronson getting sold to Salzburg for a big fee, if we don’t win and have more eyes on us. Ultimately, that is the thing that has really taken us to another level.”
The Union’s playoff opener is set for Nov. 24 at either 6 p.m. or 8 p.m.
Major League Soccer’s postseason starts Nov. 20 with the Eastern Conference’s play-in games, for seeds 7-10. The conference quarterfinals start the next day and will be spread from the 21st through the 24th. Both play-in game-winners will play on the 24th against the East’s top two seeds, and the Union are guaranteed to finish that high.
The conference semifinals will be played Nov. 29, Dec. 1, and Dec. 2; the conference finals will both be on Dec. 6; and the championship game is set for Dec. 12.
All games will be nationally televised, notably including five on network television. UniMás will air two conference quarterfinals, ABC will air a conference semifinal and final, and Fox and UniMás will air the championship game.
Here’s the full schedule:
Friday, Nov. 20: Eastern Conference play-in games, 6:30 p.m. (FS1, Fox Deportes) and 8:30 p.m. (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes)
Saturday, Nov. 21: Conference quarterfinals, noon (UniMás, TUDN) and 3 p.m. (UniMás, TUDN)
Sunday, Nov. 22: Conference quarterfinals, 4 p.m. (FS1, Fox Deportes), 7:30 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes) and 10 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)
Tuesday, Nov. 24: Conference quarterfinals, 6 p.m. (FS1, Fox Deportes), 8 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes) and 10:30 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)
Sunday, Nov. 29: Conference semifinals, 3 p.m. (ABC, ESPN Deportes) and 8 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)
Tuesday, Dec. 1: Conference semifinal, 6:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. (FS1, Fox Deportes)
Wednesday, Dec. 2: Conference semifinal, 6:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. (FS1, Fox Deportes)
Sunday, Dec. 6: Conference finals, 3 p.m. (ABC, ESPN Deportes) and 6:30 p.m. (FS1, Fox Deportes)