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Which Philadelphia Union team will we see Sunday against Columbus?

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After grinding out a win over Chicago, the Union head to Columbus aiming to win a trophy

Andrew Zwarych / Philadelphia Union

A win is a win. The Philadelphia Union’s 5-0 win over Toronto FC on Saturday night left us with more than just sore throats from screaming and numb fingers from texting and tweeting until all hours of the night. It reaffirmed our belief that they can win their first MLS Cup. Their performance was the most complete win, perhaps in club history, against the best team in the league.

Wednesday night’s 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire was the exact opposite.

The Union were out-possessed in the opening thirty minutes as Chicago asserted a high line of pressure and an organized midfield shift, crowding out the Union’s attempts at controlling the game without José Martinez and Jamiro Monteiro. But a penalty against Fire captain Francisco Calvo in the 28th minute led to Kacper Przybylko ending his goal drought, and a controversial red card minutes later against Calvo (his suspension was successfully appealed) made the difference as the Union were fortunate to escape with a victory despite being outplayed while up a man.

Messy performance aside, the Union remained unbeaten at home, assured themselves of a top two finish in the Eastern Conference, and are a win away from finishing first overall in MLS with a coveted berth in next year’s Concacaf Champions League.

“Three points feel good,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after the game against Chicago, “but I also feel empty because we’re missing some important people, which hurts. This game cost a lot. These three points cost a lot.”

The Union lost José Martinez to a positive Covid-19 test Tuesday night, Ray Gaddis left at halftime due to thigh and hip injuries, and Andre Blake caught his finger in the net making a late second-half save. Blake had three saves in the game, all of them spectacular, including a late first-half stop to deny Ignacio Aliseda only to have the rebound kept in play by Djordie Mihailovic and headed in by Robert Berić to tie the game at one.

Blake is the Union’s biggest game changer, that one player who can win games when the team is not playing well. His absence will be massive. Curtin reported on Friday in a press conference that Blake has a fracture in his hand but could still be back in time for the playoffs.

Blake did not make the biggest save of the game. That came from Andrew Wooten, whose stoppage-time goal line clearance prevented a disaster and likely saved the Union’s quest for first place on a night where both Toronto and Columbus dropped points.

“He gives everything,” Curtin said about Wooten, “and is exemplary of the group that no one’s bigger than the team, no one’s bigger than the badge. For him to make the play he made in the scramble there wins us two points to be honest.” Wooten made his biggest contribution since an assist in the 4-1 win against Montreal in September.

A few bright spots emerged from beneath a litany of mistakes. Kacper Przybylko scored his first goal in over a month, and Cory Burke scored his first goal in a year and a half, though his circumstances were much different than Przybylko’s. And Ilsinho proved once again why he’s the best player on the field as he immediately jolted the Union attack, setting up Burke’s goal five minutes after the pair came into the game. We also learned that Fontana’s better off the bench, Olivier Mbaizo will be just fine at right back, Jack Elliott can fill in that 6 role, and Joe Bendik, well, let’s just hope that Andre Blake’s okay.

For months, analysts around the league have labeled the Union “A good team, yet not good enough.” Not good enough to beat Toronto, Columbus, or the giants of the West, though they are 1-1-1 versus the West’s current top four and have avenged their loss to Toronto in dominant fashion. The criticism has been fair. The Union have been inconsistent following big wins. They backed a great performance against Sporting Kansas City in the MLS is Back quarterfinals with a clunker against Portland in the semifinals. Their thrashing of D.C. United on August 29 was followed by a stagnant loss to Columbus days later. They had a convincing win over Montreal then tied Cincinnati and played a near flawless game against Inter Miami then lost to Toronto on a few uncharacteristic lapses. And now after the Toronto win, the Union had another drop-off.

At this stage last year, the Union were in first place when they lost three of four to close out the season. They had a nightmare start against the New York Red Bulls in the playoff opener before their comeback, which could rank as the greatest half of Union soccer ever played. Yet the ensuing loss to Atlanta on the road in the conference semifinals had us questioning what if that stretch of games had gone more in the Union’s favor? The Union are now in a position to reverse those misfortunes.

The Union have been good all season. They’ve played solid defensively and earned results against teams they were meant to beat. They also struggled with inferior teams, lacked the creative spark against tighter, organized defenses, and lost the midfield battles when without their top lineup. To many outsiders, the Union still haven’t proved what all of us in the Philadelphia area know—they can be the best. They did that against Toronto, and now they’ll have to do it against Columbus on Sunday, maybe without some key players.

“It’s the nature of the 2020 season,” Curtin said. “We have to find ways to survive and advance. It will be no different now.”