Five years ago, the Philadelphia Union played a two-leg playoff series against the Houston Dynamo. It was Houston’s first season in the Eastern Conference, realigned due to the integration of Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps. The postseason format was different in that season than it is now. Each conference had nine teams, the top five of which qualified. The Union had the Eastern Conference’s third-best record with 48 points, meaning that they avoided the play-in wild card game between the fourth and fifth seeds. The winner of that played the top seed. For finishing third, the Union had to face the second seed. Losing both legs by a goal, 2-1 and 1-0, Union were dispatched by the eventual Eastern Conference Champion.
Making the playoffs was an unexpected treat. Unlike some of the other teams to join Major League Soccer through expansion, Philadelphia Union began from scratch for the 2010 season. Finishing 7th in their first season was a surprise, but not nearly as surprised as we all were with the second-year edition that was in playoff position for virtually the entire season. The upstart team with a roster that was an “Island of Misfit Toys” ground its way to league-wide relevance. Making the playoffs legitimized the project of the team. They weren’t merely a team thrown into a market to satisfy an under-utilized media market; they could compete for the league championship.
Philadelphia currently sits at 42 points and in the sixth and final playoff position. They are three points clear of seventh place New England with two matches left to play. The current playoff format qualifies 6 out of 10 in each conference, but unlike 2011 the Union will not avoid being in the one-game play-in round. With the one additional playoff qualifier, it means only the top two teams go directly to the conference semifinal round. Houston meanwhile is back in the Western Conference.
The seasons have other similarities, as well. Back in 2011, the Union spent time atop the conference standings. I remember walking out of RFK Stadium the Saturday of Independence Day weekend after a 2-2 draw chanting “We’re top of the table!” to the tune of White Stripes “Seven Nation Army”. That feeling bled away, as Union won only four matches over that season’s last four months. The 2016 season has taken that same familiar path - the Union currently have only four wins since the beginning of July with just the two matches remaining.
The four seasons in between then and now have been rife with frustration. Some of the frustration has been with the on-field product, some of it has been with the front office. From players not meeting their alleged potential, a la Freddy Adu, to Jay Sugarman not spending at the level of his competitors, the short-comings have taken a toll on the supporter base. Too many goalkeepers and not enough wins will do that to anyone. In a league where more than half of the teams make the playoffs, simply making it is not a crowning achievement, but it signifies that corrections have been made. It would lend credence to what Earnie Stewart and company are constructing. The results have not been good of late, and right now the Union do not look like serious contenders to win MLS Cup. But, for the first time since 2011 (and in a familiar fashion), they seem poised to have a match to play beyond their last scheduled regular season game.