CHESTER, Pa. — Celebratory beers sat mostly untouched in the Union locker room.
Following a 5-1 playoff-clinching win over Minnesota United on Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium (see observations), the players had reason to celebrate. Instead, they were jovial but subdued. With two matches remaining and first-round home-field advantage in play, the reason was made clear.
“They’re not satisfied,” said Union manager Jim Curtin, whose club can finish as high as third in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. “We have a very humble and hungry locker room.”
It’s just the third time the Union have clinched a playoff berth, and nearly a decade since they did so with confidence. Curtin’s club limped into the postseason in 2016 riding a bevy of losses, only to be dismantled by Toronto FC when it got there.
“We had just backed in, we weren’t in good form going into that game against Toronto,” Union captain Alejandro Bedoya. “This feels a lot better.”
It also feels different.
“You learn the most about your group in the hard moments,” said Curtin, who transformed his struggling club into an Eastern Conference player. “Not only did they pass, but they did so with style.”
With the win on Saturday, the Union, who already demolished a franchise record with 15 wins, surpassed the 2011 team for the franchise-high point total with 50. But what seemed like a true departure from past Union teams, is with a chance to take the easy road with a victory against a non-playoff team at home — they took it with authority.
“I’ve been here for a while, I’ve seen it all,” Union goalkeeper Andre Blake said. “I’ve seen this team grow a lot. We’ve learned to close games out, we’ve learned to dominate when we need to. Tough times can make you or break you and it’s been making us.”
Led by Fafa Picault’s two, the Union scored four first-half goals and toyed with Minnesota throughout. At times it felt more like an early-round U.S. Open Cup match than a late-season MLS tilt. Credit goes to the Union for living up to the moment and seizing opportunity.
“We don’t suck,” Picault said. “We’re doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve been through the hard times together and the good ones. It’s important we continue to do that. We’re not going to get overly confident and overhype the situation.”
The Union are now staring down New York City FC at the No. 3 spot in the East. With the win on Saturday, the Union jumped over the Columbus Crew (48 points) to claim the fourth spot. The Union face NYCFC on the road in the season finale.
“We want to climb the table as high as we can,” Picault said. “We’re trying to get third or fourth place. The job is not done, but tonight we’re happy with what we’ve done on the field and we want to keep that going into the next two games.”