Photo: Nicolae Stoian
Hurricane Irene closed airports, flooded roads and rails, and generally made it impossible to get around on the east coast.
Despite this disrupting natural disaster, it will be hard for MLS’s Eastern Conference teams to argue that the storm was the reason they didn’t show up on Saturday night. I don’t think even Chicago and Toronto thought there would be a week this year when they were the only teams in the east to earn points.
The Union and its hometown residents may have many complaints this weekend, but they won’t be about last night’s results.
If the playoffs started today, the Union would be the third seed in MLS’s cute, little absurdity known as the wild card round. The top three teams in each conference cool their heels while the next four highest point-getters, regardless of conference battle it out for a chance to play either the Supporter’s Shield winners or the #1 seed in the other conference. This is really stupid*, but it’s not what we are here to talk about.
Irene has handed the Union a game in hand and a much-needed breather. The team can take this time to get healthy (Carroll), refocus (everyone), and send Peter Nowak Hallmark cards with messages like, Roses are red / Freddy is little / If you like the playoffs / Put him in the middle.
Or: Cheesesteaks are awesome / Gaga’s a singer / Put Adu in the middle / And Daniel at winger.
Or: It’s a little confusing / And it’s not that we’re bitter / Why blame us for Ruiz / Then be so nice on Twitter?
Take the games in hand by the scruff of their necks
But back to the standings, the playoffs, and the last two months of the season.
The Union absolutely have to make the most of their games in hand (three on Houston, two on KC and the Crew). Why? Take a look at the home/away splits in the east and west.
Not one Eastern Conference team has a winning record on the road. The only sub-500 team in the Western Conference race is Real Salt Lake. Think anyone wants to play them in the postseason?
Of course, MLS isn’t going to let a first place finish go unpunished. Even if the Union recapture the one seed, there is a chance they play a Western Conference opponent that could very conceivably have more points than the best team in the east!
So is the best scenario a second place finish and an away game in the conference final? Or a first place finish and a possible matchup with an opponent from the west in the conference semis?
A Special September
The next five games will tell us a lot about how prepared the Union are for the postseason. At this point in the year, strong performances and consistent chance creation count for little. The standings are tight, and this team needs wins. The Union play RSL and Kansas City on the road. Wins would not only pull their away record up to .500, but they would show that, no matter where this team finishes in the standings, they can make a strong run through the playoffs.
Home wins over New England and Portland will re-establish PPL Park as a fortress, while a victory over Columbus will require an effort similar to the one that earned three points against New York (dedicated, emotional, uncompromising).
Dependent on the outcome of these next five, October will either be a chance to rest key figures and prep for a postseason run or a bruising fight for a spot at the big boys table.
Irene gave the Union a chance to watch their rivals get bruised, battered and beaten. They saw that everyone in the east, no matter their form, can be had. Now they just have to go get them.