Few would have predicted it back in preseason, but the Philadelphia Union are heading into the stretch of their 2021 MLS campaign fighting for their Audi MLS Cup Playoffs lives.
Ahead of this Sunday's Eastern Conference home matchup against Orlando City SC (4 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes), the reigning Supporters' Shield champions find themselves in the No. 9 spot in the table with 32 points from 23 games. Nonetheless, they remain right in the thick of things in the airtight East, even within striking distance of fourth-place NYCFC (35 points) and third-place Orlando (38 points).
All of that increases the stakes around Sunday's encounter at Subaru Park, especially as Philadelphia look to rebound from their midweek Concacaf Champions League exit at the hands of Club America. And Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin is betting on his team getting a postseason shot.
"You're preaching now at this point in the year, you have to get in," Curtin said at his pre-match press conference. "That's our goal, we want to be a team that's always making the playoffs. There's not just two years in, two years out or anything like that. We want to always be competing for playoff spots, we want to be hosting home games – that's obviously still a goal of ours and it's not an impossible goal. So that's our mindset and our mentality right now."
Wednesday's 4-0 aggregate ouster in CCL is certainly still fresh for Philadelphia, though Curtin said that a quick turnaround can sometimes be the best thing to shake off a setback. So it's imperative for the Union to seize this chance and take advantage of an Orlando team that could be sliding.
"The best remedy is always to get back on the field and do what you love and have another good test in a really strong Orlando team who, again, is obviously going through some adversity with the two red cards in the last game and a little bit of injuries, and they have to travel to come to Philadelphia," Curtin said. "So it's up to us at home to take care of business. We know it'll be a hard-fought game, it's always physical with them. They have a lot of good quality in the attack and defense."
Conversely, a road win could be exactly what Orlando need to get their season back on track. Head coach Oscar Pareja's group has lost two straight to Atlanta United and CF Montréal, and will be without both Nani and Andres Perea after each player was red-carded in the Montréal match, a 4-2 loss midweek.
"When they're not getting results, of course the mood is not happiness at all," Pareja said on Friday. "But they're professionals. Today I saw them with a lot of energy in training and that just lifted my spirit too because we as coaches feel the pain too when we don't win. It's normal."
Before this rough patch, Orlando had gone unbeaten in seven games. Now, the challenge is rediscovering that form to avoid Eastern foes making up ground.
"It looks like we're going to need a lot of energy and character to bounce back and just try to bring back a result," Pareja said. "Philadelphia is battling too, not just in the league, but also in this international competition that they finished. ... We have been trying to maintain our ideas and try to create some difficulties to the other teams, but we couldn't get the results in Atlanta. That was a very bad day, and against Montreal as well. So now we had the boys training again as always and try to see if we can get this result and get back on the road."