In the last few weeks, the MLS season has been the closest it’s been to normal since the coronavirus pandemic started. There have been games on weekends and midweeks, practices in between, and a routine.
Of course, things overall are a long way from actual normalcy. Players, coaches and staff are staying home as much as they can to avoid getting the virus, but that hasn’t stopped many teams in the league from having cases.
The Colorado Rapids haven’t played a game in a month because of a big outbreak in their ranks, and some of the postponed contests might not be made up. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver haven’t been able to play at home for long stretches because of border restrictions. Those players have spent months away from their families.
When MLS resumed games in early summer, it did so with a neutral-site tournament, not a regular schedule — but the group stage games counted toward the regular season anyway. Since then, some teams have played each other many times, but many matchups that would normally be scheduled aren’t happening at all.
To cap it all off, the fan-run group that awards the Supporters' Shield for the best regular-season record decided to not give the trophy this year because the schedule is so unbalanced. But after a torrent of fan blowback, the group reversed course and decided to present the trophy after all.
Whatever has gone into the standings, there’s no doubting that the top two teams right now will play each other at Subaru Park on Saturday (7:30 p.m., PHL17). The Union and Toronto FC have the best records not just in the Eastern Conference this season, but in all of MLS.
A win for the Union (11-3-5, 38 points) would give them first place over Toronto (12-2-5, 41 points) on tiebreakers. A tie or Toronto win would give the Reds daylight with three games to go.
After all of this year’s ups and downs and stops and starts, the Union are about to play a legitimately big game.
“Everyone knows how big this is,” Union defender Jack Elliott said. “We know the importance of it and they know the importance of it. And obviously it’s going to be a tough game, and we’re both going to go out to win it.”
The teams met at the start of the month in East Hartford, Conn., Toronto’s temporary home base. The Reds won, 2-1, with a performance that showed the pedigree of a team that has made three of the last four MLS Cup finals.
“What they’ve done over consecutive years is something that is exemplary and really hard to do in our league, where there is so much change and parity,” Union manager Jim Curtin said.
Curtin admitted that he has played the “big game” card with his players a few times this year: at the start of the summer tournament, at the tournament’s knockout games, and at the first home game of the resumed regular season.
“Within the season, as unique as it’s been, and the different trials and tribulations that everybody’s gone though, there’s been a lot of big games,” he said. “The ugly win in New England on Monday was a huge win, too. … It seems like I keep going to that well. And this is, yeah, it’s another big game.”
As clichéd as it may sound, Curtin is right, and will be even if the Union don’t win. The Union haven’t beaten the other three top teams in the East — Toronto, Columbus and Orlando — in any of their meetings this year.
This is the first and only time the Union will play any of those teams at home in the regular season, which makes the game even more of a measuring stick.
It won’t be a disaster if the Union don’t win it, but it will certainly be a statement if they do.