Three games stand between the Philadelphia Union and the postseason. One win will put them at 48 points, which matches the club record and in all likelihood secures a spot in the playoffs. That is an incredible turnaround from the 2012 season when the last meaningful game was played in August.
48 points is an unattainable number for the Crew.
Of the three matches remaining, the Union play league-worst D.C. United (3-22-6), who are in prime position to set league futility records in almost every category. Philly also catches a reeling Montreal side who have 1 point to show for their last 4 matches. Finally, the U take on Sporting Kansas City at PPL Park, having split the season series so far. Three days before their meeting, KC will compete in a CONCACAF Champions League match at home (needing a result after a poor showing in their last CCL contest).
If they make the playoffs, the Union will have a puncher's chance against any team. While they have dropped some points along the way, they have earned results (in some cases on the road) against 7 of the top 8 teams in the Supporters' Shield race. Strange things happen in the postseason. In 2012, MLS Cup was decided between the #4 seed of the Western Conference and #5 in the East. Conor Casey and the Colorado Rapids launched their successful cup run in 2010 as #7 out of 8.
How did the Union get here?
Zac MacMath leads the league with 12 shutouts. Those shutouts are especially impressive considering only 5 goalkeepers have faced more shots in 2013. MacMath is 5th overall in saves. At 23 career shutouts in 71 starts (and only 22 years old), Zac is now tied for 20th all-time in MLS shutouts earned. His next shutout will match Brad Guzan's 24 in 79 starts. Tim Howard only managed 15 in 83 starts.
Conor Casey and Jack McInerney are each making less than $200,000 a year, but they are tied for 7th in scoring with 10 goals apiece. Their goal totals have them right in the mix with designated players Tim Cahill, Claudio Bieler, Alvaro Saborio, Federico Higuain, Landon Donovan and ahead of Thierry Henry, Chris Wondolowski, Eddie Johnson, Diego Valeri, and Obafemi Martins. Conor Casey is tied for 24th all-time in league scoring, just one behind Clint Mathis.
Sebastien Le Toux leads the league with a personal best 12 assists and Sheanon Williams - tied for 6th overall - leads all defenders with 8. They are also keeping company with people making hundreds of thousands (and in some cases millions) of dollars more than they are. Le Toux's provided 37 assists in his MLS career - 3 fewer than David Beckham.
The team as a whole has secured 12 wins - more than any other season including their playoff run in 2011... that's with three games to play, at least two match-altering good goals being disallowed, and two points being stolen in the 7th minute of 5 added minutes against RSL.
While all of this was going on, Jimmy McLaughlin, Cristhian Hernandez, Greg Jordan, Don Anding, Leo Fernandes, and Aaron Wheeler were providing goals and earning a few thousand combined competitive minutes on loan in Harrisburg. All accounts suggest Zach Pfeffer's time with the Hoffenheim youth set-up has been a positive experience. Several Union Academy hopefuls have worked together at Reading United, wrapped up the U19 National Championship with Lehigh Valley United, and played meaningful minutes for nationally ranked college powerhouse teams over the last few months. The club even started a high school to make me feel like my thousands of co-ed league dollars spent at YSC will go directly towards a soccer version of Hogwarts.
I, for one, am excited by the prospect of playoffs. Like Chip Kelly and Ryne Sandberg who inherited bad hands, Hackworth deserved a grace period to put his squad in a better place (8 fewer losses and in the playoff hunt is a better place) and he has earned a second full year in charge. I look forward to what he and the Front Office can do with a top 3 draft pick, their own first round pick, and over a million dollars of cap room next year. Obviously, Hack will need to show significant improvement with so much at his disposal in order to keep his job next year, but teams in this league do not get better by firing managers one year into a rebuilding process.
Think the Union are on the edge of their best season to date? Leave your thoughts below!