Updated on Nov. 8: José Andrés Martínez ended up not making Venezuela’s final roster for its November games. Click here for more on that.
It seems strange to be talking about the playoffs right now, when so much of the Union’s attention — and certainly Union fans' attention — is on winning the Supporters' Shield to close out the regular season.
It’s also a factor that the Union’s first playoff game isn’t for another three weeks. The postseason is expected to start on Nov. 20 with the Eastern Conference play-in games to fill out the conference quarterfinals, which are reportedly going to be Nov. 24 and 25.
But it won’t be too long before the team starts thinking about and planning for what happens when every game could be the year’s last.
Here are a few thoughts on what the Union need to do to win Major League Soccer’s biggest prize.
The single best thing the Union can do for themselves is beat New England on Sunday and clinch the Supporters' Shield. That will give the Union home-field advantage all the way through the playoffs, including the championship game.
Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles FC, and the rest of the Western Conference’s contenders won’t want to have to make the cross-country trip here, as much for the weather as for the Union’s talent.
But there’s one caveat …
There hasn’t been any discussion of it publicly, but there has surely been discussion of it behind the scenes. How can there not have been, with coronavirus cases continuing to rise across the country?
It will annoy players and coaches who’ve been separated from their families plenty already this year, and who’ve worked through the summer and fall to earn home playoff games. It will annoy fans who’ve been privileged to be able to attend games over the last few months, even in small numbers and at risk to their health.
But only the fans most obsessed with being there in person — and perhaps the front-office executives most obsessed with making whatever small sums of revenue they get from small crowds — could truly believe that playing the postseason in a bubble would be the wrong thing to do.
The player who’s supposed to be the Union’s leading striker has taken three or more shots in 10 of the team’s 18 games since the regular season resumed in late August. He took five on Sunday in Columbus. But he has just six goals over those 18 games, and just one in the last 10 — and the one was a penalty kick.
This is the big one. And the sooner you admit that it might not be possible, the saner you will be.
Andre Blake underwent a surgical procedure on Monday to speed up his recovery from a fractured hand. He’s likely to be able to play by the start of the playoffs, but he won’t be in perfect shape.
Jose Andres Martinez will hopefully be cleared of COVID-19 by Sunday, but if he is, Venezuela’s national team will force the Union to give him up for this month’s World Cup qualifiers.
Jamiro Monteiro hasn’t confirmed yet that he’s going to Cape Verde’s national team for its Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, but we know he has been called up. We’re not talking about a Nations League here, we’re talking about the most prestigious tournament in African soccer, and a rare chance for one of the continent’s smallest countries to be on a marquee stage.
Oh, and Olivier Mbaizo is on Cameroon’s preliminary squad for its Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. If he gets an official invitation, it would be his first opportunity to play for the senior national team of a program that stands among Africa’s giants. If he says no to that, will it affect his potential to get future call-ups?
If there wasn’t a pandemic going on, this would be cause for celebration. Instead, a vocal caucus of Union fans is demanding that players forsake playing for their countries, which is the pinnacle of the sport.
Whoever heads abroad will have to quarantine for at least nine days upon returning to the United States, which means they’re almost certain to miss the Union’s playoff opener. The same goes for players who leave any MLS club for their national teams this month.
And even if the players clear that quarantine, they’ll know that Martinez tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks to the day after his return from Venezuela’s October games.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s necessary if there are to be games during a pandemic at all. And it makes winning the Supporters' Shield even more of a priority, because it will give the Union a trophy no matter what happens afterward.
One other question: If you’re going to insist on prioritizing club over country now, will you still do so when Concacaf’s World Cup qualifying campaign starts next year?
The regular-season champion has gone on to win MLS Cup just seven times in the league’s 25-year history, and four of those were in the first seven seasons. The Supporters' Shield isn’t officially cursed like the NHL’s Presidents' Trophy is, but the track record certainly isn’t great.
On top of that, last year was the first time that the entire MLS postseason had one-game rounds. In previous years, most of the playoff rounds were two games. Single games make home-field advantage more important, but also impact the likelihood of an upset.
All of this should compound the point that winning the Supporters' Shield must matter most to the Union. Take care of business Sunday, then figure out the rest later — knowing that much might not be figurable at all.