Inside Doop: Union tumble from 4th to 6th in the East

Things just got a lot dicier for the Union in their quest to make the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history. And a postseason home game may be slipping away too.

In this week’s Inside Doop, we’ll look back at the Union’s detrimental 3-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls — which, coupled with D.C. United and Montreal wins over the weekend, sent them tumbling from fourth to sixth place in the East. And we’ll look ahead to what now may be two must-win games to close the regular season.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game

1. It certainly was an exciting, playoff-like contest at Red Bull Arena as two rivals traded goals, leads and big plays from their biggest players. But for the Union, it also proved to be frustrating and scary as two starters — center back Joshua Yaro and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya — had to leave early with injuries. The Yaro one was especially bad as the rookie, who was coming off a concussion, got sandwiched between two players on a jump ball and fell to the ground motionless before getting stretchered off the field. He later tweeted he was feeling better but with a head injury like that, you have to wonder if he’s done for the year (more on that later). More immediately, his 31st-minute exit seemed to shake the team up as they lost their early lead and struggled defensively the rest of the way.

2. The good news for the Union is that All-Star goalie Andre Blake made a couple more Superman saves in a season that’s been full of them. The bad news is that even with Blake bailing them out, they still allowed three goals due in large part to some shoddy marking in the box on set pieces. The game-winning goal from Dax McCarty was particularly glaring as the diminutive Red Bulls captain got a free header after losing C.J. Sapong (who continues to be stuck in a nasty slump). Ken Tribbett, who came in for Yaro, also let the speedy Bradley Wright-Phillips get behind him for a goal earlier in the second half, but it’s naturally unfair to blame him entirely for the shift of momentum that resulted from the center back switch.

3. Despite the loss, the Union enjoyed some standout performances on the offensive end with Fabinho logging a pair of assists, rookie Fabian Herbers scoring a goal after getting assists in three straight games, and above all else, Chris Pontius matching a career high with his 12th goal of the season. Pontius also had an assist with a clever pass on Herbers’ goal and nearly scored what would have been an incredible game-tying goal on a bicycle kick but was denied by a great save from Red Bulls goalie Luis Robles. Pontius, who scored just six total goals between 2013 and 2015, has to be a leading contender for the MLS Comeback Player of the Year award.

Three questions for the week(s) ahead

1. While the Union dropped two spots over the weekend, the Eastern Conference playoff picture did become clearer. The two New York teams and Toronto will fight for the top two spots and the accompanying first-round bye, while Montreal, D.C., Philly and seventh-place New England will occupy three of the final four spots. The Union are still in good shape to hold off New England and make the playoffs but they’ve lost control of their own destiny to finish in the top four, which would give them a first-round home game. Meanwhile, their next opponent — ninth-place Orlando City SC — was eliminated from contention over the weekend, which makes for an interesting dynamic. Will Orlando be lifeless at the end of such a disappointing season? Or will they relish the role of spoiler? And how will the Union prepare them with an extra week since the game is not until Oct. 16 due to an international break?

2. It remains to be seen if Yaro will be able to return but you can be sure Curtin and the Union coaching staff and training staff will not be hasty and put his career first. Curtin has shown he’s comfortable with Tribbett as a starter but Tribbett has had some rough moments against some of the league’s top strikers — which they’ll naturally see in the playoffs. Captain Maurice Edu, meanwhile, is healthy and should be able to return for at least some action over the final two games of the regular season and the playoffs. But the Union have been comfortable with either Warren Creavalle or Brian Carroll in his defensive midfield role and have seemed wary of putting Edu in to disrupt the chemistry. It’s been asked before and mostly brushed off but it probably bears repeating at this point: should Edu finish the season as a center back, where he’s played well for most of his Union tenure? Or, put another way: if your option is Tribbett or (a possibly rusty) Edu for an elimination game, who do you go with?

3. Bedoya’s injury appeared to be a minor one as he left early in the second half with rib soreness. He initially was called up to the U.S. national team for their game against Cuba on Friday but had his name withdrawn because of the injury. An extra week between games should help him recover, as should remaining in Philly instead of traveling with the USMNT. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on heading into the Orlando game — and what kind of ripple effects his possible absence or perhaps more limited role could create.

Stat of the week
Fabinho’s six assists this season are the second most for a Union defender in club history. Sheanon Williams had eight in 2013.

Quote of the week
“I think we gave away too many soft goals, two goals on set pieces, and that is inexcusable. We’ve got to do better.”

Alejandro Bedoya, Union midfielder

Player of the week
Despite Blake’s heroics and Herbers staying hot, Pontius is an easy choice here. With his 12th goal, he moved into a tie for second place on the Union’s all-time single-season scoring list with Jack McInerney (2013) and Sebastien Le Toux (2014). Le Toux holds the record with 14 goals in the Union’s expansion season in 2010.