The silver lining in the Union's recent struggles
|Back in 2012, a youthful Brian Carroll helped the Union navigate |
a late-summer rough patch akin to the one they've just endured.
The causes for that tumble are myriad and not entirely cured by Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of New England, though that road result goes a long way in augmenting players’ intangible confidence category.
Using history as a guide, though, there wasn’t much reason to panic, and Saturday’s result more affirms that the Union can turn things around rather than providing the outright proof.
The Union’s past is limited; instances where they have been in playoff position as they are now are even scarcer. Time and again this season, I’ve returned to the 2011 season as the blueprint of a playoff campaign, the only time the Union have qualified for the postseason. And while the seasons are vastly different in construction and approach, the ebb and flow of a playoff chase in a marathon season remains applicable. And through that lens, the Union from late June on have merely been ticking off another box on the 2011 replication checklist.
Travel back to that summer, and you may recall the dreadful stretch the Union endured, an eight-game winless run (0-3-5) from late July to mid-September that threatened to derail their playoff hopes.
It started the way the 2016 stretch of futility ended: With a win at Foxborough. That result, July 16, 2011, a 3-0 demolition of the Revs (man, the Revs are terrible at home against the Union!) put them into sole possession of first place in the East. It would be two months until they got their next win, Sept. 17, with an undermanned team beating then-East-leading Columbus, 1-0, at home in what was billed as “one of the most important games in Union history.”
In between those wins, the Union couldn’t get a result, including a loss and four consecutive draws at PPL Park, the last a desperately dire 0-0 stalemate with Portland. That stretch included the first and only loss at home in a season where the Union drew nine times(!) at PPL. It took the Union over a month to get a win with marquee summer signing Freddy Adu in the fold, while the wait with Alejandro Bedoya this year was much shorter.
The Union didn’t lose much ground in the standings – that was a year, much like this one, where the top four teams in MLS hailed from the West in a schedule featuring more inter-conference play – despite the eight-game winless run setting a franchise record that was only bettered (worsened?) in the death throes of John Hackworth’s administration.
And what was important in 2011 was how quickly the Union turned on a dime. They drew two straight games to start September, then alternated wins and draws over the next seven. The win over Columbus transformed the “form” talking point from an eight-game winless streak to a three-game unbeaten run, which grew to eight behind MLS Player of the Month for September Sebastien Le Toux.
The trip down memory lane highlights what remains obvious about MLS’s table dynamics. The difference between a win and a draw is often so slight on the field during 90 minutes – see D.C. United two weeks ago. But the difference in the standings of the top points gained by what could be one decisive moment in either 18-yard area or an (un)lucky bounce is massive. That’s why you saw the Union take more than a month to shimmy down from second to fifth in the standings this year, and they can vault back up to second if they make it two straight wins with Toronto coming to town next Saturday.
Ultimately, the lurching swings of the pendulum in 2011 landed the Union in the postseason. So far this season, the team appears bound for the same fate.