It is extremely likely that Sunday’s 4:00 pm kickoff will not be the Philadelphia Union’s last of 2016. There is a .01% chance they don’t make the playoffs. When the Union seal the playoff berth, they will be on the road for the Wildcard Round. Here’s how it all breaks down:
Scenario #1: That pesky .01%
The order of Major League Soccer tiebreakers for teams that end up with the same number of points is first, number of wins, and second, goal differential. The only way the Union are not playing a playoff game either October 26th or 27th is if they lose to New York Red Bulls, New England defeats Montreal Impact, and the goal differential in those two matches would have to be at least 13.
For example, if the Union were to lose 7-0, and New England won 6-0, the two teams would end up with identical 11-14-9 records. But, the Revs’ goal differential would become -7, Union’s would drop to -8, and the Union would head home for the winter. As I said, extremely unlikely. However, there are two scenarios for Union’s almost-certain playoff fate: At Toronto FC, or at D.C. United.
Scenario #2: Over the Border
The most likely of the three possibilities is that the Union will head to Toronto. They can make that happen by repeating their match from two weeks ago at Red Bull Arena, which was a 3-2 defeat to the Eastern Conference leaders. Red Bull don’t have much to play for as they already have the #1 seed locked up, though there may be some motivation to ensure that Bradley Wright-Phillips stays atop the Golden Boot standings. He holds a one-goal advantage over Hudson River rival David Villa, 23-22. Red Bull get a full week’s rest before their next match, so resting players will not be as much a factor for them as it may be for the Union. With both team’s fates virtually certain, and the Union having to play mid-week, they may not play the normal starters. This is a recipe for a Union non-win. Even if the Union find an unlikely win on Fan Appreciation Day, there is still a chance Montreal continues their string of three matches unbeaten (Win-Win-Draw). A draw or victory for the visiting Impact, and Union would be locked into 6th. Philadelphia would go to Toronto FC, and the Montreal Impact would visit D.C.
Scenario #3: Down the Turnpike We’d Go
This is also a long-shot, but is not a ridiculous upset. Should the Union find a way to beat their geographically-nearest rival, Montreal as the better team on the season is not a shoe-in to lock it up. Back on September 17th, the Impact were handed a 3-1 home defeat by New England. The Revolution NEED to win to even have a glimmer of playoff hope, so they’ll come out playing hard. Montreal is going to the playoffs regardless, and may keep players in tune, but not play so hard as to risk yellow or red card suspensions, so in this instance, the Union win and Montreal loses, both teams end up at 45 points on the season. The first tiebreaker would come into effect here, as the Union would have a 12-13-9 record, having one more win than Montreal’s 11-11-12 record. That would result in the Union visiting D.C. United and Montreal visiting Toronto FC.
Scenario #4: Rumble in the Bronx
Toronto has a chance to earn a bye to the conference semi-final, though. If they were to win their home match against the Chicago Fire, and NYCFC draw or lose to Columbus Crew SC, TFC ends with 53 points and NYCFC would have 52 or 51 points. A draw by TFC bring them level at 51 points does no good because NYCFC has one more win in that scenario. So, if Toronto wins, NYCFC doesn't win, and Montreal doesn't lose, then the Union play their playoff soccer in a baseball stadium. I think this is the second-least likely scenario of the four listed here. NYCFC needs to win to secure a bye, and they might try to get David Villa a couple of goals to improve his chances of winning the Golden Boot. Also, City are playing at home, so I'm thinking a win against the Eastern Conference's 9th-place team is fairly likely.
To recap, the first option is only listed because it’s a mathematical possibility, but it would be an unprecedented happening. The Union went 1-1-1 against Red Bull in 2016 so a win isn’t out of the question, but NY looked clearly superior during the October 1st meeting, and it’s worth noting that the Union’s win came in the US Open Cup. It’s not a stretch the circumstances surrounding those matches were quite different, but the Union’s visitors have nothing at stake, so maybe they lose by virtue of not playing to win. Maybe the Drogba drama has a large impact on Montreal’s spirit and they drop their match. Or New England could just send their home fans happy with a brilliant performance. Or maybe they’ll be as bad as they have been for most of the season. Regardless, keep in mind there is a 99.99% chance that we will have another match preview to write.
Editor’s note: Scenario 4 was added to the story post-publish. Thanks to user SilverRey for pointing that out.