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September 09, 2016

Fourth place or bust: Union can't settle for a wild card road game

Soccer Union
090916_UnionGadam Daniel Gajdamowicz/Philly Soccer Page

The Philadelphia Union hold the longest playoff drought in Major League Soccer.

Adhering to Jim Mora's cautionary tale, we've steered relatively clear of talking about the Philadelphia Union's playoff chances.

"I just hope we can win a game," the former Colts coach said almost fifteen years ago.

At the risk of jinxing the whole thing, I feel fairly comfortable that the Union will make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, ending the longest postseason drought in Major League Soccer.

But MLS is somewhat like Major League Baseball, which is to say that the postseason format sucks.

After nine months, 34 games, and 17 road trips, your season could come to end on a Wednesday night in New England, with football lines on the pitch and a local broadcast team calling a nationally televised game.

It's like the MLB team (Pittsburgh) that plays 163 games, earns a wild card berth, then loses in a "best of one" playoff series.

Anyway, twelve out of twenty teams make the MLS playoffs, which is another joke. What's the point of the regular season if more than 50% of the teams go to the playoffs? If the postseason began today, Portland would travel to Los Angeles with a losing record and a negative goal differential.

The Union are in a precarious position right now. They're three points ahead of Saturday's opponent, Montreal, and would host the Impact in the wild card round if the standings hold. If Montreal jumps Philly into fourth place, then the Union would play a weeknight game in Quebec. Falling to sixth place would probably send the Union to Toronto.

I don't know if Philly can reach the number two seed with the difficulty of the remaining schedule, and this is how I see those games playing out -

9/10 vs. Montreal - win
9/17 at Portland – draw
9/24 at Toronto – loss
10/1 at Red Bull – loss
10/16 Orlando – win
10/23 vs. Red Bull – draw

That's eight points of 18 and would probably put the Union right around the fourth spot. Where are the points coming from on that road trip? They need a draw in Portland or Toronto, plus a win in one of those games against Red Bull.

Here's what head coach Jim Curtin had to say about the playoff seeding during his midweek press conference:

"For me, it’s no secret; you don’t want to just get in at the six or five spot because you put almost nine or ten months of work together to, all of a sudden, get thrown out there on a Wednesday and it can be over in a second on the road. That’s not what we want to work towards. Again, I think we have the quality in our team, and the belief in our team, that we need to push for those top spots because the value of a bye is incredible in our league. The value of home field in our league is more so than any pro sport that there is right now. The data actually shows that, that the teams that are at home in our league, in MLS - do I know exactly why this is? No, but it is a true home-field advantage. To get that one, two (seed) obviously is the goal, but, worst case, three, four is critical because you want to play a home game. And that one-off game too, it is do or die, and you don’t want to work for nine months to have to go on the road to, insert Montreal, or wherever, and have it be over on a Wednesday. That would be a pretty tough way to end it, and guys have worked too hard to allow that to happen."

When Curtin talks about home-field advantage, he's not kidding. The Union are 8-3-3 at home this season (win-loss-draw), compared to just 3-7-4 on the road. I don't know if a five-seed Philadelphia Union wins in Montreal on a Thursday night.

For reference, last year, all four road teams were eliminated in the wild card round. Six-seed Toronto was blasted 3-0 in their very first playoff experience. Five-seed New England lost 2-1 at D.C. United. Seattle beat LA at home and the eventual champions, Portland, held on for a wild penalty-shootout win against Sporting KC.

In the 2014 playoffs, when only ten out of twenty teams got into the playoffs, both home clubs held serve in the wild card round. New York beat Kansas City and Dallas took care of Vancouver. It was the same in 2013, when Seattle and Houston dispatched Colorado and Montreal.

You'd have to go back to 2012 to find the last time that a five seed advanced in the playoffs. Houston beat Chicago 2 to 1 and went all the way to the MLS Cup.

More from Curtin:

"Listen, we’ve had a good year so far, but the last six games are what’s going to measure whether people call our year good or if people call our year great. And we want to be great, we don’t want to be just a mediocre team. So, there's a lot to still play for. It starts at home against Montreal, who is a good team, who is right below us in the standings, and it’ll be a real fight."

Follow Kevin on Twitter: @Kevin_Kinkead