Things are about to get real for the boys in blue.
Through Week 10, they’ve have had at least six days between matches. Now they’ll play six matches in 22 days. They’ll play three away and three at home, two against Western opponents and four in their conference. They’ll start off by hosting the LA Galaxy on May 11th, then travel to Montreal three days later to face the only team in the East with more points than them going into this weekend. From there, they’ll have the longest break in this part of their schedule (six days) before they host rival DC United on Friday, May 20th. A mid-week rematch at Orlando City SC beckons the following Wednesday before the boys in blue travel to West-leading Colorado for their Saturday match against the Rapids on May 28th. A home date with the Columbus Crew rounds out this stretch of the schedule on June 1st, after which the Union do not play for 17 days.
These next 22 days will test their depth and their resolve; this can either be a great chance to pick up points, or a horrible time to drop them. Teams above and below them in the East will be gaining points with relatively rested legs while the Union grind out an average of two matches a week, heavy legs and all. A bad game could turn into two or three with little time to adjust. We’re about to see how Jim Curtin’s club plays with their feet held to the fire, and the true character of this team just might be revealed in the process.
A stretch like this could set a team back significantly in their pursuit of the playoffs. This preseason we set a goal of 49 points for the Union, the amount that would likely let them qualify for the playoffs. Eight matches in, they’re on 13 points. A little napkin math tells us for them to stay on pace for a minimum of 49 points, they need seven points from these upcoming six matches. Let’s take a look on how it could happen:
Union vs LA Galaxy – The Galaxy are in fine form but like to rest people on East coast trips. The Union could nick a point here.
Union at Montreal Impact – Montreal is a tough place to play and the Impact are at the top of the East. Again, to nick a point (and deny Montreal two points) would be big. Let’s say the Union get a point between these two matches. Points this stretch – 1
Union vs DC United – This is not a good DCU team. This is a match the Union have to win if they’re to assert themselves in the East. They do. Points this stretch – 4
Union at Orlando City SC – Orlando is another tough place to play. Kaka’s fitness plays into this, but Orlando has Cyle Larin back and finds a way to win at home. Points this stretch – 4
Union at Colorado Rapids – The Rapids look to be for real. No one has gone into Colorado yet and come away with points. Neither will the Union. Points this stretch – 4
Union vs Columbus Crew – The Crew are an abject mess. This is three points begging to be taken, and the Union do. Total points this stretch – 7
Questions will be raised of the U:
-Can CJ Sapong withstand the kind of beating he takes every match as a target forward six times in 22 days? On a team built with depth for nearly every position, there is no one else on the roster who can give the Union the kind of hold-up play he does. Remember, the Union let veteran forward Conor Casey go in the off-season (and rightly so, due to the money he would have commanded in his limited role). If Sapong has to come out or picks up a knock, they’ll have to play a bit differently, either putting Le Toux or Pontius up top or starting Fabian Herbers while using movement to open holes instead of running off of CJ.
-What can Ilsinho give them? It would be big to get the Brazilian back for this stretch, but how fit is he? Is he ready to go 90 on a wing if called upon?
-Will Jim Curtin go with what’s been working generally, or will he go to people who have come back from an injury and look good? Will Ilsinho replace Le Toux on the ring wing? Will Ken Tribbett take his starting spot back from Josh Yaro? How many matches can Curtin throw Brian Carroll out there, especially with Warren Creavalle looking good (except for that Simon Dawkins goal). They are tough but good questions for a head coach. How will they be answered?
-Can the Union play better with an advantage, as they had before the San Jose match? That looked suspiciously like the same old Union last week. The new Union weren’t supposed to concede that heartbreaking goal up a man and a goal. The new Union were supposed to drive play, have a bit more of the ball. Instead, this looked a lot like old Union teams who, when given an advantage, couldn’t finish a foe off. If they can’t find that killer instinct to either find a second goal or defend and kill a game off, more precious points will be lost during this stretch and more hearts broken.
-Can the Union keep getting points where they can as May turns into June? They better. The East is underwhelming thus far but it may not stay that way; the boys in blue need to maintain their good start to stay ahead of the pack. They are not the most talented team and don’t have a whole lot of room for error, so they need to make each match count (all the more reason why the two points dropped against San Jose hurts). Taking points from LA would set them back on the right path.
This could be one long coming out party for the Union, a tailspin in the standings, or something in between. Regardless of what happens, we’ll know much more about the boys in blue after June 1st than we do right now.