After a very tumultuous summer, with the highs of hard-fought U.S. Open Cup victories and lows of more late leads snatched away, the Union find themselves in a very similar situation to the last few seasons. With eight games left in the MLS regular season, the Union sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference (18th place in all of MLS) yet are only one point out of the sixth and final playoff spot. With a second straight U.S. Open Cup final looming, this time against the ever dangerous Sporting Kansas City, the Union must decide how they are going to attack the rest of the season. Will they fight for that final playing spot even though the odds are against them and risk losing the Open Cup, or will they put all their energy into winning the Open Cup while giving younger players time in MLS?
Although the Union are only one point out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference standings, the odds are stacked against them making the playoffs. The competition for the final spot is fierce among four teams: the Montreal Impact, New York City FC, Orlando City SC and the Union.
- Montreal is in the pole position due to the fact they have 28 points having played four fewer games than the other three teams. Montreal has looked like a different team this past season after their inspiring run to the CONCACAF Champions League Final. With the recent addition of Chelsea and Ivory Coast legend, Didier Drogba, it looks unlikely that the Impact will collapse to the point where the Union can take advantage.
- NYCFC and OCSC are neck and neck with 28 points, one point more than the Union. In addition, the star power of NYCFC and Orlando city always leaves them as a threat to make a late season push.
The Union also have the U.S. Open Cup Final to consider. Having lost last year at home to the Seattle Sounders, the Union must dedicate extra effort to win the first trophy in club history. This is no small task as the Union play a Sporting Kansas City team led by a resurgent Benny Feilhaber. SKC is a dangerous team that has been consistently one of the best teams in MLS the last few seasons, winning the Open Cup in 2012 and the MLS Cup in 2013. They have an all-star loaded team with 2014 Golden Boot contender Dom Dwyer up front, USMNT stars Graham Zusi and Matt Besler and of course MVP candidate Feilhaber. Feilhaber has been on fire this year with eight goals and 13 assists in MLS and has set club records for number of goals and assists across all competitions this year. While the team has entered a small slump recently, being thrashed by San Jose and allowing the Columbus Crew to mount a comeback against them in their last two games, you can never underestimate this team with its great firepower and trademark defensive culture.
Given the difficulty of making the playoffs and winning the U.S. Open Cup, the Union should make a choice about which path to pursue. Each path has its benefits. By pursuing the playoffs, the Union have the opportunity to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and the second time in club history. While difficult to make for the Union, crazy things always seem to happen in the playoffs, and the Union have enough talent to advance a few rounds. But the MLS season is long and pursuing the playoffs is quite a mountain for the Union to climb at the moment. Injuries have hurt the squad in recent months as Maurice Edu, Vincent Noguiera, Fernando Aristeguieta, and Steven Vitoria all are currently injured or have recently returned from long injuries. Exposing them too early in the eight regular season games that remain could cause them to be reinjured or tire them out for the U.S. Open Cup final. With the odds against them in the playoff race, the injury and endurance risks may be too great.
On the other hand, the Union can rest starters and prepare for U.S. Open Cup final. While this will hurt the fans’ already negative impression of the team if they fail to win the cup, it could set the Union up for the future. Only 12 players have accumulated over 1000 minutes on the field with another 12 having played less than 300 minutes. By resting starters, the Union can give the bench players, most of whom are young or new to the league, more playing time and help facilitate new development. For example, the second Homegrown player in Union history, Jimmy McLaughlin, was signed by the Union in 2012 but has only played 1 minute for the Union. At 22, many people feel it is time to give McLaughlin and other recent draftees more playing time to help develop them to provide more of an impact on the first team in the future.
Previously, I have written about the benefits of winning the U.S. Open Cup. Combined with facilitating the development of younger players, resting starters for the final may be the best course of action for this Union team.
Jim Curtin has shown no signs of giving up on the playoffs or the Open Cup but what do you think?