In most major sports, the “bubble” teams are those hovering near the cutoff line for playoff qualification. Every March, a few bubble teams are passed over for selection to the NCAA Division I men's and women's basketball tournaments, and in Major League Baseball, any team in contention for a wild-card slot can be said to be a bubble team.
But MLS, laced as it is with parity, has several layers of bubble teams: those such as Columbus, which are solid teams but not considered – yet -- among the true championship contenders; those bonafide bubble teams bunched right around the cutoff line of the top six teams in each conference; and those in a dark bubble, further down the standings, and seemingly entrapped in frustration and disappointment.
Unfortunately for the Sons of Ben and Philadelphia Union players, coaches and staff, they fall into the third group. So balanced -- or mediocre, depending on your viewpoint -- is the Eastern Conference that Philly is only four points out of a playoff spot despite a dismal record of 6-13-6.
And consider its task this weekend. The team it probably must catch to make the postseason, Montreal, not only has four games in hand, but this weekend it will unveil Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba, whose arrival three weeks ago triggered an airport melee rarely generated by an employee of MLS.
As Jim Curtin, the Union head coach, pointed out in his weekly press conference the Impact -- which roared through the Concacaf Champions League knockout rounds earlier this year to reach the final -- is formidable enough without the 37-year-old veteran and well ahead in the standings at 8-9-4.
“Everybody will be there to see him and cheer him on but they have a lot of other dangerous pieces on the field,” says Curtin. “[Ignacio] Piatti is for me one of the top guys in the league, [Laurent] Ciman I already mentioned at centerback. So, they’re a very good team.”
Philadelphia Playoff Picture:
Record: 6-13-6. Position: 9th in Eastern Conference.
Home (4 games): 8/29 NE, 9/12 CLB, 9/20 HOU, 10/25 ORL.
Away (5 games): 8/22 MTL, 9/5 SJ, 9/26 NE, 10/3 TFC, 10/18 NY.
Key match: 8/22 MTL.
The same cannot be said for the Union, which finished the 2014 season strongly after Curtin was promoted from assistant coach in early June to replace John Hackworth yet still missed the playoffs, and appears poised to do so again. The Union is winless in its last five MLS games -- a run that equals its dismal start to the season -- and its 43 goals allowed is the most in the league.
“It’s no secret -- I’m a realist with you guys, I’m honest with you guys -- we’ve not been good enough from a defensive standpoint, we’ve given up entirely too many goals and rank at the bottom of the league in goals given up as well as save percentage,” said Curtin, who toiled as a centerback for nine seasons with Chicago and Chivas USA. “So we’re at the bottom of the league in that, as well.”
Starters Vincent Nogueira, Maurice Edu and Bryan Sylvestre are all close to recovering from injuries, and though there’s still no resolution to the fiasco that is Algerian goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi, he’s training with English club Bolton as the Union shops him around. Philly spent a reported $400,000 in fees to acquire the Algerian keeper last summer and he played just five games in 2015 before being benched and then banished from training sessions.
The Union’s goalkeeping situation is so dire that Curtin may start No. 1 draft pick Andre Blake, who has yet to start for the team, in goal against Montreal. The Union has already used three keepers this season and though Sylvestre’s sharp play has helped Philly earn five of its six wins, all with shutouts, a hand injury that required stitches just won’t heal completely.
“It’s something that has been sown together now twice,” said Curtin. “It split today in training; he was back in live action yesterday and then today and, at some point during the session, he split it open again. It’s in a tough area of his hand, kind of in the webbing of his hand, and it just won’t heal. So, it’s difficult.”
Like a few MLS teams enveloped in this particular bubble, the Union is at a critical phase in its maturation as an MLS team. It has reached the playoffs just once since joining MLS in 2010, and the enthusiasm generated by that 2011 accomplishment has dissipated. The following year, the club had to fire Peter Nowak when his severe training methods got out of hand, and last year Curtin took over after the team under Hackworth finished eighth (in 2012) and seventh (2013) in the conference.
The Union labors under that perplexing burden of fielding very good players – Sebastien Le Toux, C.J. Sapong, Fernando Aristeguieta, Cristian Maidana, Edu – without melding them into a team capable of consistently accruing points.
Last week, it secured a spectacular 3-3 tie with Chicago as Maidana set a team record for assists by racking one up on each goal to reach 14, but squandered a victory after Le Toux’s goal in the 90th minute provided a 3-2 lead. Chicago equalized in the second minute of stoppage time. Swiss midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta, signed during the summer transfer window, played his third league game and didn’t influence the game all that much.
“We broke that down in the film room a lot -- have to learn from it, have to better from it, have had entirely too many dropped points and late-game collapses as a club in this season,” said Curtin. “Something we need to fix.”
Last week Philly also beat Chicago to reach the Open Cup final, which it will host Sept.30 against Sporting Kansas City. The Montreal game starts a run of six league matches prior to the final and by then the stark difference between a cup run and league grind will be fodder for critique.
“We’re running out of games in league, we know that,” said Curtin. "We’ve dug entirely too deep of a hole for ourselves. We’re not happy with where we are. I’m not happy with how the season’s gone.
“We have to go out against Montreal and put in a good performance, and there is urgency that ties last this past weekend don’t really do us any good in the standings. You have to push the right way to get three points, on the road and at home, from here on out because the one point doesn’t really do you any good at this stage.”