'Squeaky-bum time' (noun). The tense final stages of a league competition, especially from the point of view of the leaders.
- Oxford English Dictionary
Sir Alex Ferguson would call this "squeaky bum time."
Manchester United's legendary former manager was talking English Premier League when he coined that phrase, but it's a perfect way to describe this year's MLS playoff race.
Maybe it's parity, or maybe it's just a lack of opportunism, but four Eastern Conference teams remain bunched toghether in the middle of the pack. Philadelphia is holding steady in the four spot, but only three measly points separate the Union from the Chicago Fire, who could only muster a 1-1 with Toronto FC on Wednesday night.
Union boss John Hackworth knows it's crunch time.
"Right now I think we're focused one-hundred percent on trying to make sure we get a good result on Saturday night, thereby allowing ourselves to still be in the conversation," Hackworth told reporters at his midweek press conference. "If the result doesn't go our way Saturday night, it doesn't mean we're out, but the likelihood is far less that we're going to come back in the remaining five games and get the results we need. Our focus is solely on Houston right now."
Here's what the playoff race in the Eastern Conference looks like:
1. Montreal: 45 points (two games in hand)
2. New York: 45 points
3. Sporting Kansas City: 45 points
4. Philadelphia: 39 points
5. New England: 37 points (two games in hand)
6. Houston: 37 points (two games in hand)
7. Chicago: 36 points (one game in hand)
8. Columbus: 32 points
The Union have a two point edge right now, but those extra games in hand will make a big difference down the stretch for Chicago, New England, and Saturday opponent Houston.
"Just to be honest, [the time for urgency] is now," said captain Brian Carroll. "But if we allow it to make us, as a group, too nervous and it affects our play negatively, then that's not a great thing either. I think we all understand that all of these performances going forward are going to be very important and we're going to need the best from everybody. We need to have it bring the best out of everybody and not have people so tense and so nervous that it detracts from what we're trying to do and affect us negatively. So yes, it's pressure packed, but need to use it to play positive and bring the best out of us, and nothing less."
Take a look at the remaining Union schedule:
vs. Houston, at Sporting Kansas City, vs. Toronto FC, at D.C. United, at Montreal, vs. Sporting Kansas City
You've got 18 possible points to play for with difficult road trips to Montreal and Kansas City still on the docket.
In order of importance, the best case scenario for this weekend is as follows:
- A. Union defeats Houston
- B. Chicago and New England draw
- C. Montreal beats Columbus
- D. Toronto upsets New York
"A" is the only controllable result right now.
"I think three points this Saturday puts us in a position to really still be involved in that playoff race." Hackworth added, "That I think is our focus, more than 'hey we need to get three points because we want to jump into the top three'. I think right now things are so tight that we want to focus on the only thing we can control, which is our result against Houston.
Contact Union writer Kevin Kinkead at firstname.lastname@example.org