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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Four seasons to the wind: Perspective to the Union's playoff drought

We’ve reached the juncture in the season where it’s time to deploy this little tidbit about the Philadelphia Union.

I think we all can agree – even Jim Curtin acknowledges the possibility, to a degree – that the MLS Cup Playoffs will likely commence for a fourth consecutive season season without the Union, the final nail of many likely being the 1-0 loss Saturday to New England. Officially, the percentage of the Union making the playoffs is listed as 4.0. (The journalist in me who won't allow me to state assertions as facts is the reason for the hedging, so apologies.)

With seven matches (four on the road) remaining, they sit last in the Eastern Conference with 27 points from 27 games. They’re just two points behind Orlando City for the sixth and final playoff spot, but there’s also the struggling Montreal Impact in seventh with four games in hand and a crowd of four teams to hop over to get back into contention. The Union also have to travel to four bona fide playoff contenders (New York Red Bulls, Toronto, New England and San Jose) among their four games, so the likelihood of summoning the form to get back into the playoff picture, especially around the Sept. 30 U.S. Open Cup final date, is remote.

If – and it is still, technically, an “if” – the Union miss the playoffs this season, it would be the fourth straight time that they have failed to qualify for the postseason. Where does that rank in the annals of MLS history?

Well, it’s a thorny proposition to put that into the appropriate context in a league where a minimum of two-thirds of teams made the playoff through its first decade. Eight of 10 teams making the playoffs strips the accolade of much of its prestige while hiding plenty of warts on teams that qualified via numerical necessity. It may not be until we see several seasons of a 20-plus team MLS that we can gauge just how devastating a four-season absence is. Or if, you know, something that rhymes with "go/fell" happens.

Even so, if the Union miss the postseason in 2015, they’d join very, very select company:

Toronto 8 (2007-2014)*
Chivas USA 5 (2010-2014)
Union 4 (2012-2015)*
D.C. United 4 (2008-2011)
San Jose 4 (1997-2000)

(Two of those streaks are active and can continue. But, terrifying as this may be to some in Ontario, Toronto is pegged as a virtual statistical certainty to end its playoff torment, while the Union are extremely likely to perpetuate theirs.)

That isn’t the group you want to be in, not least of which for what happened after the droughts ended.
D.C. United arrested its slide in 2012, but that only laid the groundwork for the worst season in MLS history in 2013. Chivas USA was so bad it was contracted, for a variety of non-performance-related reasons, too. There is good news from that cohort – that San Jose responded to four straight playoff absences by winning two of the next three MLS Cups – but then they left town.

Really, the better number for playoff droughts (as opposed to zero, of course) is three. Droughts of that length tend to portend good things. Here are all the MLS postseason droughts that ended at three seasons:

D.C. United, 2000-02; won MLS Cup in 2004
Columbus, 2005-07; won MLS Cup in 2008 
Real Salt Lake, 2005-07; won MLS Cup in 2009 
Colorado, 2007-09; won MLS Cup in 2010 
L.A. Galaxy, 2006-08; won Western Conference 2009-11, including MLS Cup in 2011 

If you were looking through that historical lens, you might have posited this season as pivotal in the Union’s quest for MLS Cup 2016. Instead, well, it’s just another season down the drain.

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