Union vs. New York Red Bulls
4 p.m. on TCN
Having all but officially made the postseason for the first time since 2011, the Union, who are already locked into a first-round road match, could rest players Sunday in the season finale against the New York Red Bulls (15-9-9). But that doesn’t mean the Union (11-13-9) will be mailing it in.
Here are five things to know.
1. Playoff recovery
The Union had hope that last Sunday’s home match against mathematically eliminated Orlando City SC would work as a slump buster, breaking the club’s five-game winless run.
Instead, with a 2-0 loss, it just extended the Union’s slump to six.
“We had a good meeting with the group, we talked a lot about accountability,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Everybody does have to look in the mirror.”
With their last win coming in late August, the Union seem fresh out of ideas. Passing up the ripe opportunity to gain confidence against Orlando City, the club must now host the best team in the Eastern Conference as a pre-playoff test.
“We shot ourselves in the foot in a big spot and we came up a little short,” said Curtin, whose club flubbed an outside chance to host a first-round game and will be on the road regardless of Sunday’s outcome. “It’s the past, though. We have to look forward to the challenge that Red Bulls will present. They are the perfect team to play in terms of a tuneup, to get up to speed with the tempo of a playoff game. It’ll be good for our guys, we’ll use that to get prepared.”
2. Refreshing the lineup
Because Sunday’s match comes just days before the Union’s midweek postseason game, Curtin could look to rest some starters against the Red Bulls, especially the injured ones.
“There are discussions,” he said. “You have to do what’s best. Maybe it’s a new face, a change or a tweak. We won’t change our formation, we won’t change the style that we play but maybe there’s a new body that comes out on the field and gives us a little bit of a lift.”
But Curtin’s team doesn’t just need a lift, it needs healthy bodies. C.J. Sapong suffered a concussion against Orlando City and will likely sit out Saturday. If he does, Charlie Davies could see a chunk of playing time. Davies has only played 81 minutes in eight games since being acquired by the Union in August.
Tranquillo Barnetta and Chris Pontius are also banged up with lower-body ailments.
“Charlie’s been a little bit sharper each day in training,” Curtin said. “It’s tough to forget that he as recently as a month and a half ago was beating cancer so, the sharpness and the fitness is starting to come back. He wants to start, he wants to play, like any striker does, but we have to be smart about what makes the most sense for the team to get a result this weekend.”
3. Mighty Red Bulls
With the Red Bulls already locked into a first-round playoff bye, claiming the top seed in the East, they could float into Sunday’s match like it’s an exhibition — resting starters and providing minimal effort.
But while riding an unbeaten streak that dates back to early July, the Red Bulls aren’t likely to pull their foot off the gas just yet.
“It’s a challenging game for us,” Curtin said. “It’ll be a high tempo, playoff atmosphere. With Red Bull already securing their bye, I envision them playing their full-strength lineup because they don’t want to rest guys for two weeks, and then you could have some rust. We expect their best.”
Though the Red Bulls want to keep things moving Sunday, the Union also want to finish the season strong. Although the match doesn’t hold the importance it could have for either club, Curtin’s team, winless since late August, is grasping for anything it can to catapult itself into the postseason with momentum.
“We want to finish the season the right way for our fans,” Curtin said. “We want to come out with some confidence after the game.”
4. Keep an eye on …
Union: With Sapong hobbled from a concussion, Sunday’s match could put Charlie Davies’ effort on display. The forward, who has been seldom used as he regains conditioning after beating cancer earlier in the year, was acquired by the Union for this exact scenario — providing quality attacking depth.
Red Bulls: Although the match is practically meaningless for the Red Bulls, it could mean something for Bradley Wright-Phillips. The 31-year striker could claim his second golden boot in three seasons. He currently leads MLS with 23 goals — one ahead of David Villa. He has a goal and an assist against the Union this season and 11 goals in his last nine games.
5. This and that
• The Union are 0-1-1 against the Red Bulls this season but did score a win in the U.S. Open Cup round of 16.
• The result of Sunday’s match will leave the Union with one of three postseason road opponents — New York City FC, Montreal Impact and D.C. United. The match will be played the following Wednesday or Thursday.
• With a win on Sunday, the Union would match a club-high in wins with 12 — a record set in 2013.