That week-two bye back in March sure would be nice to have back for the Philadelphia Union.
Originally scheduled to travel to Seattle a week after opening the season at home in March, the Union were off the second week of the season because the league moved the game to ensure the Seattle Sounders were well rested for a midweek Champions League match.
Even at the time, when head coach Jim Curtin was discussing the scheduling change, it felt like the Union would end up getting the raw end of the deal. That was long before the Union advanced to the Open Cup final, put together a five-game unbeaten streak to move into playoff position and the Sounders caught fire, rattling off nine straight wins.
“It’s a challenge because you know you want to get in a rhythm, you want to get momentum, obviously we came off a pretty good performance so you want to play again but at the same time you understand the importance of an MLS team winning Champions League,” Curtin said. “It’s something that’s never been done. Obviously Mexico has had a pretty strong stranglehold on this competition.”
Looking ahead to September, the change will make an already challenging stretch of games even tougher for the Union. The Union will have to travel to Seattle for a Wednesday game on the 19th, four days after hosting Sporting Kansas City at home. They will then complete a three-game road trip the following Saturday in Columbus.
That’s a journey of nearly 6,000 miles over a 10-day stretch in one of the most crucial times of the season. It could end up being the difference between making the playoffs or ending the season at Yankee Stadium on October 28.
Instead of getting to play the Sounders when they were opening the season winless in their first four, the blue and gold now get a team that has outscored opponents 21-5 over their past nine games.
“I’m certain that Philly would have preferred to face the Sounders back when the Sounders were awful,” Dave Clark, of fellow SB Nation site Sounder at Heart, wrote in an email. “That doesn’t mean this match will be easy. Many coaches would switch the Best XI onto the midweek schedule needed for the Open Cup Final. Union also have plenty of motivation — they can end a historic run; they need points for the East playoff hunt. At this point my expectations are that the Sounders find a way to win, but that nothing is easy.”
Had the Union picked up more than a point in their last two games — settling for a draw in Orlando after taking the lead in the 88th minute and getting blown out 4-1 by a lethal counter-attacking Montreal on Saturday — one could make the case for Curtin to throw out a reserve-heavy lineup and focus attention on getting all three points against Sporting Kansas City at home on Sunday and lifting the club’s first trophy three days later (a feat, ironically enough, that would put the Union in the Champions League for the first time in club history).
The playoff race is much too tight in the Eastern Conference for that. The Union are one point (with a game in hand) above sixth place Montreal and five and six points clear of seventh place D.C. United and eighth place New England Revolution.
Star midfielder and MLS assist leader Bořek Dočkal is a big question mark for the Union after he returned from injury to play 72 minutes in the loss to Montreal Impact on Saturday.
Should Curtin keep Dočkal out of the lineup, he could go with a similar look he had when he subbed Derrick Jones into Saturday’s game, with Jones, Haris Medunjanin and captain Alejandro Bedoya forming the central midfield trio. Anthony Fontana has fitness questions since only recently coming back from injury so it’s hard to say how the Union midfield will look exactly when the game kicks off at 11 P.M. Eastern time.
Curtin told reporters on Monday that he had a plan in place, but wasn’t tipping his hand. Dočkal did not train with the team in their last session back in Chester on Monday, while Ilsinho and Matt Real were both training to the side.
“The stakes are high in all of these games,” Curtin said. “Even if you reflect back starting with D.C. and the two New England games and these teams are all in and around us so they’re all important. We know we had a home game and we let ourselves down a bit but at the same time we have to pick ourselves up.”
The game will be broadcast live on PHL17.