Cory Burke's rise leaves Union at a crossroads as race to MLS playoffs begins

There’s still a lot of time left in the season, but with just more than half the year’s games in the books, the Union are at a bit of a crossroads.

As MLS’ unofficial World Cup break ends, Jim Curtin’s squad is in eighth place in the Eastern Conference (5-7-3, 18 points), but just one point out of the playoff places that go to the top six. The race for that spot is going to be wide-open, particularly with sixth-place Orlando recently firing its coach after a six-game winless streak in league games.

The Union think they’re a good team but know a lot of people don’t believe them. Curtin gave the impression this week that he doesn’t fully blame the skeptics.

“A lot of our best possession games and aesthetically pleasing games, ones that we have complete control of, we didn’t win,” he said. “In recent weeks we’ve had some games where I don’t think we’ve played well, but we’ve gotten results. If you take the big snapshot . . . you would say decent. We want more.”

How to get more is the big question. The young defense has played well, anchored by the centerback pairing of Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie. The midfield can produce some attractive soccer, even with Haris Medunjanin suspended.

What’s left is a familiar refrain: questions at striker.

In some ways, it isn’t a good thing that Cory Burke has risen to the top of the depth chart in recent weeks. His goals have been welcome, of course, and his hustle, too. But his rise has left more than $1.1 million in salary on the bench, from Jay Simpson ($623,341.33) and presumed No. 1 C.J. Sapong ($525,000.00).

Curtin has indicated, both by words and by lineup choices, that he’s inclined to stick with Burke. He sent another message this week.

“The game is about opportunities, and whether you get 10 minutes, whether you get 90 minutes, making the most of them,” Curtin said. “Cory did that. It’s not something that puts pressure on C.J., but it does bring the best out of guys when they see players in their position do well . . . We have a decision to make in that regard. C.J. has been a proven goal-scorer. Cory has stepped in now and done very well in recent weeks. It’s a good problem for me to have.”

Curtin admitted that he knows the Union can’t overtake the Eastern Conference’s big-spending elite teams, such as Atlanta United and New York City FC. But he believes his team can, and should make the playoffs.

“Realistically, at the beginning of the year, if everything goes perfectly, I thought we could push for a home game to play in the playoffs,” he said, a reference to finishing fourth. “Having a solid season, we’re fighting for that No. 5 or No. 6 spot. We’re in striking distance of that.”

Now the team has to get there.

Union vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

Saturday, 5 p.m. at Talen Energy Stadium

TV: PHL17.

Union’s record: 5-7-3, 18 points (8th in the East); 4-2-2 at home
Whitecaps’ record: 6-5-5, 23 points (4th in the West); 3-4-1 on the road

Series history: Union 2 wins, Whitecaps 3 wins, 3 ties
At Talen Energy Stadium: Union 1 win, Whitecaps 1 win, 2 ties

Vancouver players to watch

M Alphonso Davies: He’s tied for third in the assist charts this year, thanks to a command performance in his last game: three assists and a goal in a 5-2 rout of Orlando on June 9.

F Kei Kamara: A big bully of a striker at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds. He can score, of course, but also create: He has three assists with his six goals this year.

M Felipe Martins: The Brazil native isn’t in the headlines as much as his colleagues, but maybe he should be. He leads the Whitecaps in chances created with an average of 2.2 per game.