CHESTER, Pa. — Five years ago, there were few certainties in MLS ... but one of them was Brian Carroll making the playoffs.
From his first season in the league in 2003 all the way through 2011, Carroll’s teams got into the postseason every single year, leading then-Union manager Peter Nowak to quip, on the cusp of Philly’s first-ever postseason game, “That’s why we got him — because he never misses the playoffs.”
But then things, um, changed.
Carroll himself remained a consistent player for the most part, but all around him, the Union were shook by turbulence, missing out on the playoffs in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, sometimes in crushing fashion, other times by a country mile.
Now, five years later, as the Union prepare to return to the postseason with Wednesday’s knockout round matchup in Toronto (7:30 p.m., ESPN2), Carroll is the only Union player left from the team’s last playoff squad in 2011. And you can be sure his playoff streak followed by his playoff drought makes the return trip that much more gratifying for one of the league’s longest-tenured players.
“I had a great run to start my career qualifying for the playoffs, carrying that through up to here,” the 35-year-old midfielder said. “But it hasn’t been easy of late. It’s a great feeling having accomplished that goal of getting back into the playoffs. Now that’s in the past and it’s already about what we can do and how well we can play and try to get a win, try to keep it going.”
With Maurice Edu officially on the shelf until 2017 and Warren Creavalle also nursing an injury, Brian Carroll will likely start in the defensive midfield, just as he did when the Union were swept out of the playoffs by the Houston Dynamo in the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals. And he’ll play a critical role, shielding a young backline matching up against a star-studded attack that features two of the league’s top offensive players in Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.
Perhaps just as importantly, Carroll will bring a veteran, winning presence to the lineup. During his stretch of making the playoffs in nine straight seasons — three shy of the MLS record — he captured championships with D.C. and Columbus, meaning he’s one of the only players on the team who knows what it’s like to win in the MLS postseason.
“Brian has been a guy who’s done it and won championships and lifted trophies,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “It was a long absence for him. There are a lot of guys in our locker room that have been in the league for a long time that have never been on a team that’s made the playoffs. It’s a new experience for a lot of guys. Brian will fall in the category of a guy I’ll lean on to talk with those guys and tell them what it’s like, what happens when that first whistle blows — and to really embrace the moment because you never know when you’re gonna be back.”
What will Carroll try to tell the young guys based on his past experiences?
“Everything is more intense,” Carroll said. “Everything is heightened. Just go out there and play without any fear. Play as best we can — connect passes, create chances, make defensive plays, play solid, control your emotions, but use the playoff adrenaline in a positive way. Put everything we have and lay it all out there. It’s one game and you never know what can happen, so hopefully we can go out there and play together and get something done.”
While it’s certainly true anything can happen in an elimination game, it’s also true that few people will think the Union can go up to Canada and beat a Toronto team that, despite stumbling to the finish, remains a top contender to win the MLS Cup. And given the Union’s history and the fact that they’re winless in their last seven games, that will make for an even bigger upset if the Union can return with a victory.
But even if just getting to the playoffs is an accomplishment for the franchise, Carroll knows winning the club’s first-ever playoff game would be a far greater one.
“It’s good to be back in the playoffs,” Carroll said. “We have a chance in the second season to come together and do something that maybe nobody is giving us much of a chance to. We’re going to go up there and do the best we can and enjoy the opportunity. Hopefully we’re able to accomplish something that nobody’s expecting right now.”
Once upon a time, everyone expected Carroll to be in the playoffs. But, as he says, sometimes it’s just as much fun doing things nobody expects.
That can happen Wednesday for a team that’s never won a playoff game and for a player who continues to turn back the clock every day as retirement draws closer and closer.
“It’s never a given,” Carroll said. “It’s a lot more difficult to accomplish this feat with more teams and better competition. But I think it’s a real positive step for our club and a good building block to do what we’ve done in accomplishing [making] the playoffs this year. Now it’s about taking the opportunity as best we can.”