MLS / Union

Can the Union catch LAFC?

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Saturday will be the 27th week of the 2022 MLS season — not the end by any means, but far enough along that it’s reasonable to start wondering how it will end.

That wondering can take many forms, whether the Union will make the playoffs, whether they’ll be able to secure a home playoff game, or whether they’ll be able to hold onto the Eastern Conference lead and secure a first-round bye. But today we’re going to focus on the bigger picture – can the Union catch LAFC and win the Supporters’ Shield?

There’s a whole lot that we can’t know in that regard. Injuries, weather, the vagaries of roster rules, referees, and so forth can all wreak havoc on the best-laid plans. And we won’t know what, if any, of those things will come into play for the remainder of the season. But we can know who the teams will play for the remainder of the season.

So let’s look at the remaining schedule for both the Philadelphia Union and LAFC, and see what we can divine from what is there.

Timing

Right off the bat, LAFC has a game in hand. That is a major advantage for the Californians, who only need to stay ahead of the Union and have a whole extra game to do it.

But that is something of a double edged sword, as it means LAFC still has two midweek games left this season, forcing the team onto the field with short rest. Rest that is sure to feel even shorter for LA, who play both of their Wednesday matchups on the road, after an away weekend game. Conversely the Union’s sole remaining midweek game, next week against Atlanta United, is happening in the friendly confines of Subaru Park after the Union host Colorado this weekend.

While nothing undoes the mathematical reality that LAFC need fewer points from more games to hold onto the lead, two away road games does make that advantage less advantageous. If they accept the fact that road games in MLS are difficult, resting key players ahead of or during those midweek games accepting that it may compromise their results, they are conceding their game in hand advantage. But if they press on regardless, seeking to get full use out of their game in hand advantage by getting points out of those midweek fixtures, they will be putting strain on their players. Strain that could lead to decreased performance in the following games, or even injury (though hopefully not).

So LAFC’s advantage here is undeniable, but not insurmountable. But they’ll need that advantage when you consider who they’ll be playing in these next 45 days.

Opponents

The Union have a fairly mellow final third of the season, with high points being visiting the fourth-place Red Bulls, and then hosting fifth-place Orlando on September 10. Other than that it’s games against Charlotte, Toronto, and two against Atlanta. Technically none of those teams are eliminated from playoff contention yet, but none of them has shown anything to be scared of either.

Meanwhile out west, LAFC has to play Austin (a team that in fairness should be in the Supporters’ Shield conversation as well), Dallas, Minnesota, Real Salt Lake, and Nashville still. All of those teams are currently above the playoff line, currently occupying spots two through six in the Western Conference Standings. No doubt they’ll be working to stay above the playoff line, or get back above it, when they face LAFC.

In summary, the Union will be facing two teams currently above the cutoff the make the MLS Cup Playoffs. And neither of those teams has beat the Union in MLS play this season. And of LAFC’s eight remaining games four are against Playoffs contenders, including an Austin FC that is just nine points behind them (and three behind the Union). LAFC has the harder schedule, of that there can be no doubt, and they’ll have to do more work to get there.

Travel

This was hinted at earlier, but there is one very important part of the schedule where the Union have an advantage that might be more than enough to make up for LAFC’s game in hand — home field advantage.

From a pure numbers standpoint, they have four home games left in the 2022 regular season compared to LAFC’s three. But their away games are positively luxuriant by professional sports standards. It starts with a quick trip up to Harrison, traditionally one the team makes on gameday being just a quick two-hour bus ride up the Jersey Turnpike from Subaru Park. Then there is a trip down to Atlanta, with a game the following week in Charlotte. Could be the team chooses to stay on the road in between, saving themselves the fatigue of back-to-back flights, but even if they don’t it’s not like either option is something one would call grueling.

Alternatively, LAFC starts the remainder of their season this weekend in Austin before heading over to Houston for their first Wednesday game. Then it’s back to LA to face RSL, then back to Texas to face a Dallas team the Union knows doesn’t make it easy on visitors. Then it’s another plane up to Saint Paul to face the Loons midweek, back to LA for Houston, then up the coast to Portland only to meet Nashville back at Banc of California Stadium for decision day.

To put a sense of scale on this difference, if the Union were to drive to every one of these games they would cover 1,733 miles travelling up and down the East Coast. That’s a healthy road trip, but nothing compared to the 7,955 miles, across three time zones, that LAFC would have to face.

Obviously the reality is (other than the Red Bull game) none of these trips will be taken on the road, but even in an era where MLS teams get charter flights direct to to their destination that much travel isn’t anything like relaxing and recovering at home.

Taken all together, timing, opponents, and travel all give the Union an easier remaining schedule than LAFC. It may not be enough, as LAFC is very good and again they have a game in hand. But the Union will have every opportunity to close that gap, and could come into the MLS Cup Playoffs in a better position than their Californian counterparts.

11 Comments

  1. Two caveats, to Jim’s excellent points.
    .
    Toronto have added some spectacular attacking talent.
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    And greater New York traffic can provide travelers real problems. A native of the greater New York experience, Union II head coach Marlon LeBlanc travels up the day before and overnights when playing NYC FC II.
    .

    That destination is not in north Jersey. but several years ago an SOB bus to Red Bull stadium spent a long time sitting in the mess around Newark International and Harrison itself.
    .
    It is not the same as driving the turnpike from Philly to Harrisburg.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      The game is Saturday evening of a holiday weekend when most people have already reached their destinations, so traffic shouldn’t be a big problem then.

  2. Has there been any real intrest in Kai at this point. I’ve seen some things that Europe is knocking on the door but nothing concrete im guessing. Losing him could change the team dynamics. And possibly hurt the U short term. Maybe I’m just reading to much into the thought of him being gone for the run into the playoffs. As much as he deserves a shot at Europe ,I’m hopeful he moves later after the season. The Union has been in control of their own destiny this year and they look poised to keep this run going smoothly.

    Come on the U!!

    • Supposedly Leeds United are very interested in bringing Wagner in and Marsch has been talking with Curtin about it for some time. With the Premier League transfer window closing Sept. 1st though it seems more likely Wagner will stay with Union until end of the season, unless they get an insane offer they can’t refuse between now and 9/1

  3. This would break MLS.com. Their whole algorithm is built on LA, Miami, the latest DP, and whoever is the newest expansion team.

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    Going to Harrison is not really much of a road trip given their home record.

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