Play-by-Play Plus: Second half playoff race will be determined by many factors

The latest column from Union play-by-play man JP Dellacamera

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With two games on Wednesday's schedule potentially changing the standings in MLS’ Eastern Conference, no matter the results, the Union will be no lower than fourth place in the East.

They would drop from third to fourth only if Houston wins or secures a draw at Montreal.  A top five finish puts this team back in the playoffs after missing out last season.  With 19 games to go, the Union sits in a pretty good spot.  Just under the playoff bar lurk New England, Columbus, Chicago, Toronto and D.C. United.

Personally, I'd be worried about two teams here – not all five. 

New England has been playing much better soccer lately and has moved up in the standings.  Chicago too has been better with the acquisitions of Mike Magee and Bakary Soumare, but the threat from Chicago comes from their willingness to spend money to improve the club. While it hasn't always worked out for them, they did spend dollars in the past to bring in Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Freddie Ljungberg, Nery Castillo, Pavel Pardo and Alvaro Fernandez. 

Once the transfer window opens on July 9, I do expect them to make a big play for someone, most likely a top striker.

Here are some of the factors that can change the standings in MLS’ Eastern Conference:

Trades and transfers

Which clubs have the money (cap space) and which teams are willing and able to pull the trigger on a big player will have an impact on the standings?

While Toronto is far enough out of the playoff picture, what if they bring in a designated player that doesn't help them get to the playoffs, but makes them a much tougher team to beat?

The same goes for a club like D.C .United. While they may not make the playoffs, a few good signings will make them a tougher opponent to play down the stretch.

The Gold Cup

This could greatly affect several teams especially the Philadelphia Union.  Jack McInerney's 10 goals lead MLS as do his five game winning goals.  If he gets a Gold Cup call-up – and in my opinion he should – there's a chance he could miss three to five games depending on how the United States fares.  This means that others like Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux will have to step up more.  Seba's six assists leads MLS but more goals will be needed if Jack Mac goes to the Gold Cup. 

Other Eastern Conference teams could be hard hit as well.

On the Gold Cup provisional roster of 35 are players like:

Houston's Tally Hall, Will Bruin, Brad Davis and Corey Ashe, Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler, Benny Feilhaber and Graham Zusi plus goalkeepers Bill Hamid of D.C. United and Sean Johnson of the Chicago Fire.

No one knows at this point who will be picked, but there are a lot of players from MLS’ Eastern Conference on this list.

Injuries

A key injury here or there can swing the balance of power.  The Columbus Crew just lost central defender Glauber for the season because of an ACL.  They had previously lost winger Eddie Gaven to a similar injury.  These are two players difficult for any team to replace, much less Columbus, a team that in the past has not gone overboard in terms of spending.

The Crew was successful in their first game without Glauber, beating Montreal at home 2-0, but can that continue?

Inactivity

Because of World Cup Qualifying in June, MLS teams have played an abbreviated schedule. 

The Union has not played an MLS game since June 5 and their next opponent the New York Red Bulls has not played an MLS game since June 1.

Granted, both teams have played in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup games, and the Union will have played against Reading and Harrisburg, but it's not the same as a league match.  So how do these two teams and others play this weekend? Do they show signs of rust, or do they play with energy having had time to rest and recover.

These are just some of the factors that will determine the fate of the Union and others in the eastern conference playoff race.

Regardless of whether or not the Union can make changes to improve their roster, there are three key things they need to do in the second half of the year:

Home field advantage

A 3-3-2 record at home (10 goals for; 10 goals against) isn't good enough. Four of the next six games are at home starting with two tough opponents, New York and FC Dallas.

It's time to make PPL Park a very tough place for the visiting teams.

Scoring goals

The club is scoring goals for sure, holding down the sixth best mark in the league, but it's mostly one player doing the damage.  Jack McInerney has 10 of the club's 22 goals.  The next best scorer Conor Casey has three.  Several others have two.  Whether McInerney goes to the Gold Cup or not, others have to pick up in the scoring.

Team defending

I know that five goals against Montreal and four goals allowed against Chicago will bring up your goals against average, but a 1.60 GAA is too high, ranking 17th of 19 teams.  If the Union wants to make the playoffs, that number has to go down.

This is not exclusively a goalkeeping stat, though it shows up on Zac MacMath's numbers.  It's about team defending, a one for all attitude that you need to succeed.

For the Philadelphia Union, these last three needed areas of focus can begin this Sunday, 5 p.m. at PPL Park.

Check out JP Dellacamera's past Play-by-Play columns on philadelphiaunion.com