CHESTER, Pa. — Over the past two months, the Philadelphia Union have plummeted down the Eastern Conference table, going 0-5-2 and only sneaking into the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs because of a hot stretch earlier in season.
But heading into Wednesday’s Knockout Round matchup with Toronto FC (7:30 pm ET, ESPN2, UniMas, TSN2), Philly head coach Jim Curtin is convinced his team is more like the one that skyrocketed to the top of the East in June than the one that’s lost three straight to finish the regular season with fewer points than any other postseason team.
“There are 20 teams in the league and I think we are somewhere between six to 10 with the ability to beat anyone in the top five,” Curtin said. “And I would put Toronto in that top five, for what it’s worth. It’s a challenge but one we’re going to be up for.”
Why have the Union struggled so much recently?
Curtin pointed to “a couple bounces that haven’t gone our way” more than anything else. But the Union head coach did concede that giving up breakaway goals in their last two home losses has been a major point of emphasis as they prepare to deal with Toronto's potent attacking duo of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.
“It is inexcusable at the professional level to give up breakaways from midfield, especially in back-to-back weeks,” Curtin said. “That is something that can’t happen, and it’s happened too much in recent weeks. Making early decisions and being on the same page and communicating are all part of the process of the group growing together.
"It’s been a little disjointed with guys in and out with different things and injuries, but you have to be on the same page when you’re going against top strikers like Jozy and Giovinco. There’s no margin for error.”
Philly’s backline has been disjointed in the sense that Ken Tribbett and Joshua Yaro have been mostly platooning at center back, with Tribbett set to start in the playoffs while Yaro deals with another injury.
But rookie right back Keegan Rosenberry was the only field player in MLS to play every minute this season and center back Richie Marquez finished third in the league in minutes played. Other starters have also logged a lot of time this season, leading Curtin to give rest to leading scorer Chris Pontius, slumping striker C.J. Sapong and top playmaker Tranquillo Barnetta in Sunday’s regular-season finale loss to the New York Red Bulls.
Curtin believes having “some fresh legs” will be important for their daunting trip to Toronto. At the same time, Rosenberry doesn’t believe he or anyone else on the team is worn down, even though he’s never come off the field.
“Maybe just the mental exhaustion gets to you a little bit,” Rosenberry told MLSsoccer.com Tuesday shortly before the team flew to Toronto. “But physically the staff does a great job of staying on you about doing recovery stuff and things like that. I’m thankful for that and blessed to have the opportunity to play every game.”
Like his coach, Rosenberry believes the team is better than its last two months of results might indicate, pointing to a high level of play in training and a belief in the locker room of the “quality we have.” But he understands why those from the outside may be expecting little of the slumping Union in the playoffs — something both he and his teammates don’t mind.
“This is the show now,” said Pontius, who’s matched a career-high with 12 goals this season. “So put aside everything that’s happened in the regular season. It’s a different animal. It’s a different beast.
“We just haven’t played well [recently]. … But we’ve got to get back to being that fearless team we were earlier on in the year. I know we’re capable of it.”