Down the Stretch They Come: What the Union Need to Do to Make Waves in MLS

Down the Stretch They Come: What the Union Need to Do to Make Waves in MLS

With just one game a week (usually) and 34 games to play, it seems like the Major League Soccer season goes on forever. But, if you can believe it, the Union have just nine games left before playoff positioning is decided.

And the Union are right in the thick of that chase, and are even in the discussion for the Supporters Shield, an absolutely massive trophy given to the team with the most regular season points. In case you were curious how much one bounce or one mistake can make a difference in a long season, I present this tweet that caught my attention from last week from Union writer Kevin Kinkead:

That free kick came back on July 3 while you were out watching fireworks, when the Union watched a  sure three points slip away in Salt Lake City.

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Since that tweet from Kinkead, Real Salt Lake picked up another point with a draw against Portland, but the discussion remains the same. Your Philadelphia Union, with all their flaws, hiccups and bumps in the road, are -- at least right now -- part of MLS's elite tier.

The Union begin the final stretch on the road Sunday night in New England before returning home next Saturday for a critical home game against Montreal.

The way I see it, there are three realistic scenarios for the Union: Get hot and stay in the hunt for the Supporters Shield, play solidly and secure a playoff berth, or fall apart and watch the postseason from home.

Here's what the Union will need for each scenario:

To Win the Supporters Shield (or at least be there at the end):

As optimistic as I'd like to be, this seems somewhat unlikely. But it's not impossible.

In the last three years, the Supporters Shield winner had 66 (San Jose), 67 (LA Galaxy) and 59 points (LA Galaxy). The total this year is more likely to be in the 50s than the 60s, considering the parity in the league right now -- Real Salt Lake has 42 points while four teams have 39 (Sporting KC, New York, Colorado and Portland). The Union and Montreal are on 38 points, while EIGHT other teams have over 30.

With nine games left, that means there are 27 points on the table. To stay in the race or win the Shield, the Union likely need at least 20 of those (likely more). Here's how to get there:

  • WIN ALL 4 HOME GAMES (12 points): This is much easier said than done, with Montreal coming next week and Sporting Kansas City to end the year (Houston and Toronto are the other two). But top teams win their home games. End of story.
  • 2 WINS, 2 DRAWS AND 1 LOSS AWAY (8 points): This could actually prove easier than Step 1. Road games at New England and DC United are must-wins, while the game against a disappointing San Jose team needs to be at least a draw. A win at Sporting KC might be too much to ask for, but draws in Montreal and San Jose could be enough.

To Finish Top 3 in the East (and earn a first-round bye):

This is more realistic -- and more important -- than winning the Shield. To get there, the Union likely need 16-18 points.

  • WIN 3 HOME GAMES AND LOSE 1 (9 points): Ideally, the fourth one would be a draw, but let's say the Union lay an egg against KC or Montreal. If they can get wins over Houston, Toronto and KC or Montreal, that would still be a strong finish.
  • 2 WINS, 1 DRAW AND 2 LOSSES AWAY (7 points): Beating DC United is a must, plus a win over either San Jose or New England. Draw the other one and lose to Montreal and KC, and the Union would still have 54 points. That should be enough for a top-three finish.

To Miss the Playoffs or Be on the Bubble come late-October:

With the way this team has played -- especially on the road -- I don't see this happening. We've officially reached the point of the season where this would be a MASSIVE disappointment (10 points or fewer).

  • WIN JUST TWICE AT HOME (6 points): With Montreal and KC coming in, this is still possible. But it would make things quite difficult for the Union.
  • WIN 1, DRAW 1, LOSE 3 AWAY (4 points): OK, the Union beat DC United. But they only draw on Sunday in New England and then lose to Montreal, San Jose and KC. On their own, those are all very possible. But as a whole, this would be a huge collapse.

As it stands now, the second scenario is the most realistic and would be a great result. A Supporters Shield would be an enormous shock, but so would missing out on a top-three finish.

We'll have a much clearer picture in nine days time, after Sunday's trip to Foxboro and next week's home date with Montreal. As for Sunday...

PREDICTION SURE TO GO WRONG:

UNION 2, REVOLUTION 0

The Revs are much better than they have been in recent years, with Juan Agudelo (please watch the video below for the goal of the year) and the world's second-most-famous Boston College product (Doug Flutie, of course) -- Charlie Davies -- on the roster.

But, I'm loving Fabinho at left back and Zac MacMath is playing like a man possessed of late. Jack McInerney breaks out of his slump and Conor Casey ices the game with a second-half goal.

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Flyers-Blackhawks 5 things: Matinee showdown with Western Conference leader

Flyers-Blackhawks 5 things: Matinee showdown with Western Conference leader

Flyers (12-10-3) vs. Blackhawks (16-6-3)
1 p.m. on CSN and CSNPhilly.com

Behind captain Claude Giroux's two goals and overtime heroics Thursday, the Flyers enter Saturday's matinee with the Chicago Blackhawks on their longest win streak of the season.

That and more as we get ready for the afternoon showdown at the Wells Fargo Center.

1. Three's company
With their 3-2 OT win over the Senators, the Flyers have now won three (3!) games in a row for the second time this season, a sign the ship might be turning in the right direction.

Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol applauded his team's 61-minute effort afterward. Comparing it to Tuesday's win over Boston in which Steve Mason single-handedly stole two points from the Bruins, Hakstol said the Ottawa game was a "real, good, consistent effort" throughout the lineup, which the Flyers will have to mimic again Saturday in order to beat Chicago.

On Friday, Hakstol rewarded the Flyers with an optional practice. Brandon Manning, who has missed the last two games because of a possible concussion, returned to practice Friday and was cleared to play. If Manning returns Saturday, Andrew MacDonald seems like the likely candidate to come out.

Manning's return would be welcomed for the Flyers. The 26-year-old has been one of the team's most consistent players. He's been aggressive, both offensively and defensively, and his play is not deserving of a healthy scratch. But with no morning skate and limited player availability Friday, Manning's status for the Blackhawks' game remains unknown.

2. Power hour
For the Flyers to extend their winning streak to a season-high four games Saturday, they will have to do so not only with a sound, defensive game but also on special teams.

If there is one area Chicago has struggled this season, it has been the penalty kill. At 70.1 percent, the Blackhawks have the league's worst PK unit, and have a middle-of-the-road power play despite all of their offensive firepower.

The Flyers, on the other hand, have the league's third-best power play at 23.6 percent, and their penalty-kill units have improved lately, getting up to 80 percent. The Flyers have two PP goals in their last 19 opportunities.

Still, Chicago's power play is dangerous despite its recent struggles. The Blackhawks have just one power-play goal since Nov. 19, and went 0 for 4 on Thursday against the Devils.

3. Corey's crease
The Blackhawks also enter Saturday hot, winning three of their last four games; however, they have gone to overtime in their last three games. Chicago has had issues with slow starts in games recently, and the Devils' game Thursday was another example of that.

New Jersey took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, but easily could have had a larger lead had it not been for Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, who's been excellent this season. Crawford faced 13 shots in the opening period Thursday and kept the 'Hawks in the game, as he has all season long. The Blackhawks sit atop the NHL with 35 points (at the time of this posting), and Crawford is a major reason for that.

Crawford has a 2.27 goals-against average and .927 save percentage this season. He's pitched two shutouts and has faced 33 or more shots in his last four games. Scoring on Crawford has not been easy for opponents this season, but the Flyers do average 3.1 goals, third in the NHL.

4. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: Let's stick with Giroux. The 28-year-old snapped a nine-game goal drought Tuesday with power-play goal, and then added two more Thursday — one at 5-on-5 and one in the 3-on-3 overtime. Giroux's play at even strength has been scrutinized, but his point production remains potent. Giroux has a four-game point streak — three goals, two assists — and has 22 points in 25 games this season. He also got engaged Thursday in Ottawa.

Blackhawks: So many players to watch, but let's highlight the ageless Marian Hossa. The 37-year-old continues to be an effective player even as he grows older. Now in his 18th NHL season, Hossa leads Chicago with 12 goals, including the game-winner in overtime against New Jersey Thursday. Hossa tallied his 500th career goal against the Flyers back on Oct. 18, and has 15 goals in 48 career games against the orange and black. He still has it.

5. This and that
• Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is out for Saturday's game because of an upper-body injury, per CSN Chicago's Tracey Myers. Toews hasn't played since Nov. 23.

• Mason, Saturday's projected starter, is 7-12-3 with a 3.42 GAA and .890 save percentage in 23 career games against the Blackhawks. After a disaster start to the season, Mason has a 2.22 GAA and .912 save percentage over his last nine games.

• Chicago has five players with seven or more goals, and five players with double-digit assists.

TicketIQ: Affordable seats available to see Sixers face marquee opponents

TicketIQ: Affordable seats available to see Sixers face marquee opponents

Editor's Note: The following is sponsored content written by TicketIQ.

The improvements have been obvious for the 76ers this season. Just months removed from a franchise-worst 10-72 record, the Sixers have begun to see return on their rebuild with rookie Joel Embiid leading the charge.
 
December will be a big month for the team as it looks to rise in the Eastern Conference. Attending an upcoming game won’t come attached with big ticket prices, either. With several marquee opponents headed to Wells Fargo Center over the next four weeks, including the Lakers, Celtics and Raptors, fans can find relatively inexpensive ticket prices on the resale market all month long.
 
On TicketIQ, a ticket search engine that pools tickets and data from over 90 percent of the resale market, the average resale price for 76ers tickets in December is just $58. That makes December among the cheapest months to see the Sixers this season.

 
With the Lakers in town for a December 16 game, it will be the only 76ers home game this month that commands an average resale price above $100. On TicketIQ, 76ers vs Lakers tickets own a $112 average and the most inexpensive are listed from $27 each. It will be the Lakers’ sole visit to Philadelphia this season.
 
The Celtics will be the Sixers’ second most expensive opponent this month, but their December 3 visit is currently averaging nearly half the price the Lakers are seeing when they’re in town two weeks later. As it stands now the average resale price for tickets against the Celtics is $69 with a get-in price of $13.
 
The Nets, Pelicans and Raptors are all generating similar demand for their respective stops in Philadelphia later this month. With all three teams visiting over a six-day period between December 14 and 20, no game will average over $55 on the secondary market. Tickets start from as low as $7 each to when Anthony Davis and the Pelicans come to town on the 20th.
 
For those fans with interest in attending the most inexpensive games at Wells Fargo Center this month, the struggling Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets will serve as the most affordable opponents to see in action in December. The Magic play the Sixers on Friday night, where last-minute 76ers vs. Magic tickets are averaging $43. Their next home game against the Nuggets have an average resale price of just $35.