Fair or not, the Union’s 2016 season will end up being classified by one game.
If they beat Toronto FC in the first round of the playoffs Wednesday (7:30 p.m., ESPN2), it will be considered a success.
If they lose, it will be nothing more than an average season — slightly above average for those who think getting to the postseason for the second time in club history was the ultimate goal; slightly below average for those paying more attention to the fact they finished the regular season on a seven-game winless streak to barely grab the final spot.
Can the slumping team go on the road and beat Toronto in an elimination game? Probably not. But it’s certainly possible. And while every player in the lineup needs to play well for the Union to pull off the upset, there are five in particular that will likely be the difference between an early exit or a trip to the Eastern Conference Semifinals:
- Andre Blake: You might know him as Superman, or the best damn goalie in all of MLS. The guy has come up with some incredible saves this season, some of which have helped the Union earn points, others which came in a losing effort. There’s a distinct chance the Union are still bounced even if Blake does make a monster save or two. But if he doesn’t and just has an average game, it’s almost a certainty the Union’s offseason will begin on Thursday.
- C.J. Sapong: It’s no coincidence that the Union rose to the top of the table early in the season when Sapong was scoring goals and getting U.S. national team buzz. And it’s no coincidence they sunk to sixth place as Sapong hit a massive goal-scoring drought. It’s now been 10 games since Sapong scored in a 4-0 win over New England, and the Union are 2-6-2 in that stretch. Now would be a good time for the striker to snap out of his slump.
- Ken Tribbett: Oh, Ken. The center back out of Drexel has had some rough moments in his first MLS season, none more memorable than when he was burned for three first-half goals vs. Toronto on Aug. 20 and yanked from the game at halftime. But Tribbett had a solid outing in Philly’s last game vs. Toronto — a 1-1 draw on Sept. 24 — and will be called upon to start again with platoon-mate Josh Yaro dealing with an MCL sprain. Can he stop Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore? Not on his own. The key will be getting help from the rest of the backline and avoiding critical mistakes.
- Alejandro Bedoya: On top of Giovinco and Altidore, Toronto FC also boast one of the country’s top players in Michael Bradley. The Union cannot match that kind of star power. The closest they can come is with Bedoya, who knows Bradley and Altidore well from the U.S. national team. Adjusting to MLS is never easy for players who arrive in the middle of season, and that’s certainly been the case for Bedoya. But if the newcomer is able to control the midfield and go to-to-toe with Bradley, the Union will have a much better chance of surviving.
- Tranquillo Barnetta: Will this be the final MLS game for Barnetta, who announced he’ll be leaving after the season to finish his career in his native Switzerland? That alone should be the perfect motivation for the Union to win. More than that though, nobody on this team has the ability to make something out of nothing and score a special goal than Barnetta. Can he do that in Toronto to keep his MLS career alive for at least another week? We’ll find out soon enough.