The Eastern Conference picture in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs is jumbled and blurry. But over the next few weeks, its features will inevitably come into focus.
The New England Revolution have long separated themselves from the pack and are a distant 15 points ahead. Nashville SC are beginning to create some distance in second place as well, five points in front of New York City FC in third. But then the gap between the Cityzens and 10th-place Columbus Crew SC is only eight points. Three of the eight clubs in that mix won't have a playoff chair when the music stops after Decision Day on November 7.
Of course, the teams out East jockeying for playoff survival and seedings would prefer to follow Nashville in their climb above the ruckus. The Philadelphia Union, sitting in seventh place though holding a game in hand over all teams near them, have their sights on that.
“Do you want to be a team that separates now and put together a little win streak that gets you away from the dangerous pack, or do you want to be a team relying on help?" Curtin asked rhetorically during a virtual press conference Thursday. "[To be in a position where] a bad referee call, a decision that doesn’t go your way? You want to take care of business and be in that playoff picture before you get to Decision Day.”
The Union have a big test this Saturday as they aim to string together a few wins in a row.
Philadelphia host red-hot Atlanta United (3:30 pm ET | Univision, TUDN, Twitter), who are a point above the Union after climbing from far below the playoff line under interim head coach Rob Valentino and then new hire Gonzalo Pineda.
Atlanta have finally unlocked an attack living up to its price tag, with $12 million summer addition Luiz Araujo immediately providing a boost to the group, and Ezequiel Barco in the best form of his MLS career.
“There’s no secret they have an incredible amount of attacking talent, they added a $12 million DP too," Curtin said. "When you watch them, it’s so dynamic and dangerous. With the talent and quality they have, we recognize it’s a difficult task. But at the same time, if we’re organized and disciplined, we can hurt them on the break. ... Pineda has come in and done a great job, they’re flying right now. They’re playing good soccer, they’re fun to watch."
The Union were eliminated from the Concacaf Champions League last week in the semifinal against Club America. Now, for the first time all season, they will focus solely on MLS while having most of their first-choice players available.
The reigning Supporters' Shield winners are confident in their own abilities to navigate this weekend's match and the overall playoff race.
“It’s going to be a really difficult game, but we’ve shown we can punch above our weight and take points off really good teams," Curtin said. "It’ll be a big one, but they’re all big at this point. You can insert any cliche you want, but there’s a big three points on the line.”
Philadelphia and Atlanta have clashed a number of times this year already, first coming in CCL play and then in MLS in June. All three matches had Gabriel Heinze in charge, who was let go by the club in July.
There was also drama between Heinze and Curtin. The former refused to shake the latter's hand after Leg 2 of their CCL tie, prompting Curtin to call Heinze a "sore loser" in a post-game interview and Heinze to shoot back that Curtin "clearly doesn't know me."
Curtin isn't expecting similar pyrotechnics in his first meeting against Pineda.
“I know Pineda as a player, he was a class act on the field," Curtin said. "And he worked under [Brian] Schmetzer for a while, who’s a guy I respect tremendously."
Curtin continued with a chuckle: "Yeah, I think he’ll shake my hand if that’s what you’re getting at.”