There was a certain sense of inevitability in the air at PPL Park yesterday afternoon.
Despite the best attempts of fans and media to put the situation in a positive light, it had been clear for some time that the Union were not going to make the playoffs this season.
Yes, the team was still mathematically in the race at the start of the day, even after Wednesday's loss at Colorado. But there were so many clearly better teams to overcome in the standings that the task seemed all but impossible.
The last flickering embers of hope were finally extinguished when Seattle wrapped up a 3-2 win over Toronto during the second half of the Union's 1-1 draw against Houston. But the first admission of reality came an hour before kickoff.
When the starting lineups were announced, the Union's XI was missing four veterans: Danny Califf, Justin Mapp, Stefani Miglioranzi and Fred. Nowak said after the game that he wanted to give them a game off, because of the quick turnaround from Wednesday's game and the fact that it was played at altidute in Colorado.
Still, the names on the teamsheet were surprising. Juan Diego Gonzalez paired with Michael Orozco Fiscal in central defense, and the midfield was comprised of Kyle Nakazawa, Andrew Jacobson, Roger Torres and Sebastien Le Toux. With Danny Mwanga still nursing an injured shoulder, Nick Zimmerman partnered with Alejandro Moreno up front.
It was a statement not just about the present, but about the future. Yes, the Union are already looking towards next season, and the last three games of this year will go a long way towards proving who stays and who goes.
I'm sure that will disappoint the segment of Philadelphia sports fans who demand that the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup be won every five minutes. But with all due respect, Peter Nowak does not care what you think. He is of a firm believe that his task with the Union is to build a team that will grow towards success over time.
That's not news, to be sure. Nowak expressed his philosophy all the way back at the Expansion Draft, and reinforced it by not signing a designated player.
That doesn't mean Nowak doesn't want to win. The Union played the last 10 minutes of yesterday's game with four forwards, throwing as much as they could at the Dynamo in order to find the winning goal. That the strategy backfired - Houston had most of the possessin and almost all of the chances in the latter stages of the match - is beside the point. It was clear that the Union intended to give everything they had to win.
So where to from here? Fortunately for the Union, their last three games of the season will offer plenty of motivation. Los Angeles and New York will bring superstars and sold-out crowds to PPL Park, while the trip to Columbus will be the last chance for players to prove they should be here next season.
In the audio player below, you'll hear from Nowak and a number of his players about how they'll keep their heads up as the team plays out the stretch. There is every reason for Union fans to take them at their word.
Of course I wouldn't overlook the best moment of yesterday's game. Sebastien Le Toux scored arguably the Union's goal of the year, trapping an inch-perfect pass from Roger Torres with his left foot and calmly slotting the ball home with his right. A "golazo" if ever there was.
The finish further strengthened Le Toux's case to be this season's Most Valuable Player in MLS, and again showed Torres' potential as a playmaker. I'll get into this more in Take Two, but I thought Torres had the most creative license today of any game he's played this season.
Here's the video: