Right in the mix: Resurgent Philadelphia Union call defeat of New York Red Bulls "a statement game"

CHESTER, Pa. – When the Philadelphia Union took a 3-1 lead in the second half of Wednesday’s game against the New York Red Bulls, it should have been an exciting moment for Philly interim manager Jim Curtin.

Instead, it was mostly filled with apprehension and dread.

“I was half-joking on the bench,” Curtin said. “As soon as it went 3-1, I said, ‘Uh-oh, this is the most dangerous lead for the Union this year.’”

Curtin had good reason to be worried. Only four days earlier, the Union blew a 3-1 lead in the final 11 minutes to tie the Colorado Rapids. And in their two previous league matches at PPL Park, the Union also scored three goals without a win to show for it.

But this time, with an ESPN2 audience tuning in, the Union buckled down to earn a hard-fought victory – and, Curtin hopes, change the course of the season.

“We made a statement tonight,” Curtin said. “We talked before the game that respect isn’t given; it’s earned. And we had to grab it. And we did that tonight.

“On national TV, we know the whole league’s watching, and I think the Union tonight made a statement that we’re going to be a team in the Eastern Conference that’s going to be not just pushing for the fourth spot or fifth spot but a team that can play with anybody.”

Wednesday’s game certainly could have been one where the Union buckled, just as they had in so many other games this season. Not only were they playing one of the hottest teams in the league, they were also without the services of suspended midfielders Michael Lahoud and Amobi Okugo. And they saw their midfield further depleted when playmaker Cristian Maidana went down with a first-half hamstring injury.

But with the team’s playoff hopes possibly hanging in the balance, the Union relied on three of their most veteran players – the red-hot Conor Casey, Sebastien Le Toux and the seldom-used Fred – to deliver the goals and goalkeeper Zac MacMath to make five saves and, in Curtin’s words, “bail us out a few times."

For that reason, Union defender Sheanon Williams agreed with his coach about the magnitude of Wednesday’s win.

“It’s on ESPN. It’s against the Red Bull. It’s a rivalry game,” Williams said. “They’re in front of us. We’re chasing them. So yeah, I would definitely say you could call it a statement game. But obviously now we need to improve on this. We can’t take a forward and take a step back.”

And now, the team believes a win like this can launch them on a playoff push, starting with their next game Saturday (8:30 pm ET, MLS Live) against a Chicago Fire team that’s also below the red line in the Eastern Conference.

“Did we dig a hole earlier in the year?” Curtin said. “Yeah, we did. But we’re going to fight our way out of it. We’re right in the mix. Fortunately, no one’s really running away from the East right now. So you’re a couple of wins out of being in the top spot.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.