After months of “big games” and “must-win” affairs, the Union face their most important match yet when they take on the Columbus Crew Saturday at PPL Park.
And they are fully aware of the situation.
“There’s no denying the window of opportunity is closing and there’s no room for, ‘We’ll get it right next game,’” Union interim manager Jim Curtin said. “That's done. That’s out the window. The coaches feel that, the players feel that and the good ones rise to the occasion.”
And the Union will have to rise to the occasion on Saturday just to keep their playoff dream alive. Currently eighth in the Eastern Conference, the club is two wins (four points) behind the Crew for the fifth and final playoff spot.
At 9-10-12, the Union play the Crew twice in their final three games, giving them a beneficial final grasp at climbing up the playoff ladder.
“You are exactly what your record says,” Curtin said. “I really do believe that and right now we’re about a .500 team. That’s what we are. We have an opportunity to improve that with our last three games and it will be sink or swim. It’s up to us to take that next step.”
To take that next step, the Union need to stick together. Although the club proved tight-knit through the ups and downs of the 2014 season, last Thursday’s 1-1 draw with the Chicago Fire put them to the test. After struggling to the one-goal lead, goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi made an errant pass in stoppage time that was easily scored, stunning the Union players.
“The biggest thing we’ve stressed this week is not branching off into little groups of twos and threes and passing blame on who’s at fault with different things in mistakes that have happened on the field,” Curtin said. “That’s what losers do. That’s for losers. If we want to fight through this and win our final three games we’re going to have to do it together. We’re gonna have to stick together.”
An injection of leadership could help the Union come together for a final late-season push. Missing from Thursday’s match was striker Conor Casey, Sebastien Le Toux, Sheanon Williams and Ethan White.
Casey, Le Toux and Williams are healthy for Saturday, while White, suffering a back injury in practice, and Cristian Maidana, down with flu-like symptoms, could miss time.
“We’re getting guys back healthy,” Curtin said with optimism. “Looks like Sebastien and Conor will be ready to go, so that is a positive.”
Meanwhile, the 11-10-10 Crew will patch together a roster for Saturday. The visitors are missing dangerous attacking midfielder Federico Higuain and playmaking leftback Waylon Francis to suspension. However, Ethan Finlay is playing, and that’s who the Union will work to stop.
“He’s got speed, he’s got something that you can’t really coach,” Curtin said of Finlay, who has nine goals on the season. “He really threatens the back line. Higuain being out helps us. That’s an advantage. But Finlay is definitely someone we’re strongly focusing on going into the weekend and trying to neutralize him.”
If the Union can shut down Finlay and scratch out three points on Saturday, they could be back in the playoff race with two games remaining. But don’t tell that to Curtin.
“I know it’s cliche, but before we win three games in a row we have to win one game in a row.” he said. “You look to taking care of business on our home field, doing it again against Kansas City and then that leaves what could set up as the game where winner goes into the playoffs and the loser goes home. The final one.”