Reality stares back at Jim Curtin every time he looks at the MLS standings.
It’s not just that the Union are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, six points out of the last playoff spot. It’s that they’ve played three more games than Atlanta and two more than Montreal, both of which are tied for sixth; and one more than Orlando, which is tied with the Union on 31 points.
In fact, if the standings were measured by points per game, the Union would be all the way down in 10th.
So while Curtin’s team isn’t officially eliminated from playoff contention, he knows it isn’t worth thinking about.
“We recognize where we are,” he said Wednesday. “It becomes about good performances. … We’re not as concerned now with where we stand in the table.”
Most of the teams that they’ll be playing from here on out, however, are very much concerned with where they stand.
Five of the Union’s remaining seven games are against teams currently in playoff places, including road trips to the New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire and Atlanta United.
The Fire also come to Talen Energy Stadium, as do the defending MLS champion Seattle Sounders.
There is a real chance that the wheels could come off prior to the season finale, at home against Orlando on Oct. 22. Blowing late leads on consecutive Saturdays — and getting blown out on the Wednesday in between — could easily impact a team’s collective psychology.
But that hasn’t happened so far.
“The group is still together,” Curtin said. “You don’t deny that it’s a hard situation. … It is hard on them mentally for sure, but they’ve shown a real belief and real fight.”
The Union’s next game isn’t until Sept. 9 at Minnesota United, thanks to a break for national team games this weekend. That gives Curtin and his players a chance to clear their minds a bit, and figure out what the priorities should be for the rest of the season.
It also gives Curtin some time to focus on improvements that he wants to see from individual players. And he was not shy about which players are on his list.
“For Ray [Gaddis] and Keegan [Rosenberry], it’s one-on-one defending; for Giliano [Wijnaldum] and Fabinho it’s getting up on the left side and working on crossing,” Curtin said, referring to the team’s right backs and left backs, respectively. “C.J. [Sapong] gets lots of reps in front of goal, Ilsinho [works on] making a final through ball.”
Defender Josh Yaro and midfielder Derrick Jones, meanwhile, will join the Union’s minor league team Bethlehem Steel FC for its game Thursday at Orlando City’s minor-league team. So will many other Union players.
It will be important for Yaro as he looks to snap out of a streak of error-prone performances; and it will be especially important for Jones, as he’s a candidate to step in for the suspended Alejandro Bedoya at Minnesota.
Jones hasn’t played for the Union since July 6, in part because of a concussion suffered in the middle of that month. But Curtin noted that Jones also hasn’t always helped himself. That has led to some hard talks between Jones, Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart.
“We’re seeing decent performances for Bethlehem Steel, decent performances in training, but we want more,” Curtin said. “We want more of the Derrick we saw earlier in the year, where he was really changing speeds, really closing the ball down, winning balls, starting attacks for us. Right now it’s been okay, but it’s all at one speed, and we want him to get ramped back up to that level we know he can be at.”