MLS: Pending Barnetta exit adds incentive for Union

One of the key figures in Philadelphia’s quest to upset Toronto FC in the Knockout Round needs a victory to extend his MLS career.

Swiss international Tranquillo Barnetta announced last month that he’s leaving once the season ends to rejoin St. Gallen in his native country, and given the opposition and location the Union will face, Wednesday could be it. Philly plays TFC at BMO Field as a stark underdog, yet head coach Jim Curtin sees opportunity as well as challenge.

“It’s a one-off soccer game on the road in a hostile environment, and one that I think my guys are eager to show that they can win a game on the road,” said Curtin during his first playoff press conference on Monday. Philly’s only previous playoff appearance occurred in 2011, three years before Curtin replaced predecessor John Hackworth.

Philly’s chances rest heavily on how successful Barnetta and U.S. international Alejandro Bedoya can be against the TFC back line, and how much it can dull the brilliance of Sebastian Giovinco and strength of Jozy Altidore. If Barnetta and Bedoya can make the TFC back line and Michael Bradley work hard defensively TFC’s big guns won’t see as much of the ball. Curtin elected not to start several of his regulars in Philly’s season finale on Sunday, while Toronto gave 90 minutes to Giovinco and most of the other starters.

This is the second MLS season for Barnetta, 31, who has battled tendinitis while registering five goals and four assists in 29 games. He bade farewell to the home fans Sunday against the Red Bulls and was greeted by a tremendous ovation when he entered the game in the 62nd minute.

“He been embraced by our fan base,” said Curtin. “I have talked a ton of how special of a player he is. He’s been a great attribute for the Philadelphia Union and he’s a guy we want to prolong the season for. We don’t want this to be his last game. There’s a little extra in that. “He’s a guy who’s played in the big spots, in the big games.

“We were able to keep him fresh, I believe he’ll be excited and ready to go. We saved some legs with [Chris] Pontius and [C.J.] Sapong as well. Toronto put a ton into their game and we are a team now that can go on the road and get a result with some fresh legs.”

Lately the Union has looked anything but fresh. It wheezed into the playoffs on a seven-game winless skid and finished with just 42 points, seven fewer than TFC accumulated last year while finishing sixth. TFC has also wobbled down the stretch; it needed to rally in the season finale to beat lowly Chicago after failing to win any of its previous five games. Combined the teams have qualified for the playoffs just four times in 17 seasons of MLS play.

“It’s a new season,” said Curtin, and used as emphasis a message board posted in the team’s weight room. It normally shows the standings. Now it’s nearly blank. “The only tag that remained up there was Toronto,” he said. “That was the only one that was left on the board and that’s the singular focus right now.”

In 2011, Philly lost both games of the Eastern Conference semifinals to eventual MLS Cup finalist Houston. Beating TFC would provide the Union with just the second home playoff game in its history as well as another opportunity for its fans to salute Barnetta.

“There is still a chance my time here goes on and I am going to focus on that,” said the man selected by Switzerland to three World Cup squads. “It's a knockout game and we know we need to win and it's great that I can still play with all my teammates.”

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