The heat is on: Looking ahead to MLS summer labyrinth after the international break

Photo by Paul Rudderow

After a long international break, the Union return to MLS action Sunday against the New York Red Bulls. It also marks the beginning of a crucial three-game home stand that will see Philadelphia through to the midway point of the 2017 season.

At 10th place in an extremely competitive Eastern Conference, the Union have certainly underperformed, but still sit well within striking distance of a very attainable 4th, 5th, or 6th playoff spot. After all, MLS is gonna MLS.

With Toronto, Chicago, and NYCFC looking like they could start to separate themselves from the pack, that leaves three playoff spots seemingly wide open for the rest of the field. This critical three-game stretch precedes a weird and wacky summer schedule that coincides with international absences thanks to Gold Cup play and random summer friendlies.

Given that all three of these games are against Eastern Conference rivals – two of whom are true playoff contenders in the Red Bulls and New England (sorry, D.C.) – this little fluid run of matches could really make or break the Union’s chances of grabbing a coveted playoff spot.

And for those three seemingly open playoff spots, there are eight teams, including the Union, who have shown in one match or another that they can compete with the very best in the league or look like Sunday League schlubs.

While the season is still young, Union fans learned the hard way last year how a summer drop-off can turn the tide of a promising season into a bummer. Let’s take a look at that field to see what’s standing in the way of the Union and a potential playoff run.

For real

New York Red Bulls

Year after year, the Pink Cows have a way of gaining steam as the season wears on. Following a solid performance in the U-20 World Cup, expect Tyler Adams to continue to improve and make fans in Jersey forget the offseason sale of former captain Dax McCarty. Delightfully for Union fans, the Energy Drinks’ away form is miserable. If they want to improve on their current sixth place standing, New York will have to improve their success on the road. Past seasons indicate they’ll figure it out, even with a younger side.

Atlanta United

Yes, a date with Atlanta is terrifying. Sure, sometimes they don’t show up, but more often than not, the black and red’s attack can pull them out of any jam in highlight reel fashion. If they can maneuver through the ups-and-downs of a typical MLS season, expect them to fill one of those three playoff spots and wreak havoc against whoever they face.

Who knows

Orlando City

After a sizzling start to the season, Orlando City has floundered. Despite being tied for points with NYCFC, the Lions’ scoring woes – even with a very good defense – have left them with a -2 goal differential thus far. Not good. That said, Orlando City’s homefield advantage means they can coast to a playoff spot if they can steal points on the road when necessary.

New England Revolution

All of New England’s talent is concentrated up front, meaning Lee Nguyen has lots of creative freedom to look toward goal or share with the bevy of attacking talent around him, including Juan Agudelo, Kei Kamara, Kelyn Rowe, and Diego Fagundez. The defense, expectedly, has not been as good, but the Revs’ home form is approaching fortress status on the Gillette Stadium turf. The verdict on New England’s season will come down to whether they can achieve a balance between attacking firepower and defensive muster.

On the wane

Columbus Crew

Two years ago, Columbus nearly won an MLS Cup. Since then, despite relying on the same system and similar personnel, the Crew have fallen off bad. After a fast start to 2017, Columbus’ defense is again looking porous, no matter how wonder goals Justin Meram or Ola Kamara score. Unless the Crew find a solution quick, their slide down the table will continue.


Montreal Impact

Ignacio Piatti aside, Montreal just don’t have the firepower or depth to compete for the long sludge of an MLS season. A season-ending injury to explosive left back Ambroise Oyongo over the international break won’t help. However, if Matteo Mancosu starts producing like he did last with Didier Drogba breathing down his neck, Montreal may be in the running for a final playoff spot along with the Union.

D.C. United

For the sake of the league, Benny Ball, hopefully, will one day meet its end.

Where do the Union fit in?

Red Bull and Atlanta both look poised to grab two of those three playoff spots. That leaves the Union competing with Orlando City, New England, and Columbus for the final spot. The Union will face both New England and Columbus twice in July (the latter being one of those weird home-and-aways four days apart), while a final date with Orlando lies on the last date of the season. While summer can really be a dangerous falling off point in the MLS schedule, if the Union can maintain their average form across the league while nabbing results against those crucial foes, a playoff spot is well within reach.

These next three games could set the Union up for a playoff run or be the writing on the wall for another disappointing season in the Union’s rebuild. Six points would be solid, seven a boon, and nine would be absolutely ideal. It’s no doubt there for the taking.

The Union must take care of business against the Eastern Conference’s lesser sides in Montreal and D.C. as well as take points at home from other playoff contenders. The next month – beginning with this three-game stretch – will likely decide the fate of the season.


  1. Nick Fishman says:

    Blerim Dzemaili could be a wild card for Montreal. They’ve looked much better since his arrival.

  2. pragmatist says:

    Cyle Larin’s suspension is massive for Orlando. They simply will not be able to replace his scoring. If he is out for an extended period of time (and it’s looking like it), they will struggle.
    I’m not rooting for him to miss games. That’s rough on anyone. But if he is gone, we are likely to have one less hurdle to clear.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I truly hope that this ends up being a footnote on his incredible career and not the thing that ends up defining it…

  3. scottymac says:

    So if we add MTL back in, they’re a 5-1 shot for the 6th spot.
    Tracks to the SEBA projection of 26%.

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