Are the Union the dark horses of the Eastern Conference?

Philadelphia Union v Sporting Kansas City
KANSAS CITY, KS – MAY 14: Philadelphia Union players celebrate after the Union defeated Sporting KC 2-1 to win the game at Sporting Park on May 14, 2014 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

This Friday night, the Philadelphia Union take on first place Orlando City Soccer Club with a chance to overtake them for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Through the opening four games of the season, the U has two wins and two losses but they have looked pretty formidable. Aside from a lack of judgement on Warren Creavalle resulting in a red card in last Saturday’s loss to Chicago, this team could already have the outright lead in the East. Is now the time to start looking at The Union as a pivotal player in the East in 2016?

I’d say that while four games is a small sample size, you can see the start of certain Eastern Conference team tendencies. The major teams from 2015 have struggled in the first month of the year. The Red Bulls have lost three games, DC United and Columbus are winless, and six teams have only one win. There are three main contenders in the east right now: Montreal, Philadelphia, and Orlando. All three teams have two wins, but none have really looked liked they could break away fro the pack. Montreal have lost twice getting shut out both times, Philly has also accomplished that. Orlando hasn’t lost yet, making them the last undefeated Eastern Conference team, but they have caught the early injury bug. Kaka was out for the first three games of the season but as he returns, Canadian national team striker and Orlando’s leading goal scorer, Cyle Larin is dealing with a hamstring injury. Starting defender Tommy Redding is also out with a head injury. Orlando is somewhat short-handed for tomorrow night’s fixture against Philadelphia, where the Union look to bounce back from a 1-0 loss toChicago in the weekend before.

Philly has a great opportunity to grab first place Friday. Orlando is not only dealing with injuries but also suspensions, as defender Brek Shea will not be able to play after committing a reckless tackle in Orlando’s blow out win last Sunday against Portland. If the Union play smart and don’t commit unnecessary fouls then thy should be able to pick up the win, on what will be a cold and windy Friday night. The weather could play a factor that helps the Union to three points as Orlando have to come to blustery cold Philadelphia, after training at their 80 degree home all week. The boys in blue should be able to pull this result out. It will still be difficult, Orlando wont roll over and die just because three of their starters wont play, but if Philly play their high pressure and counterattacking style, they should be able to get the three points.

If the Union get this win, and Montreal loses or ties to Columbus on Saturday, then Philly will have full command of first place and a favorable next few games to keep them at the top. After this Friday’s game the Union will have three more matchups in the month of April. They play at Seattle on April 16th, before hosting NYCFC on April 23rd and San Jose on April 30th

. The road game against Seattle is a tough game with the far travel and time change, but Seattle have struggled early this season. If the Union can take points from that game it can be considered a victory. The next two home games are against teams that did not make the playoffs last year. NYCFC have a great attacking team, but have been caught out of position many times against teams that play a counter attacking style. What kind of style do the Union play? oh thats right, a high pressing, counter attacking style. If they can do this well against New York City at home I think three points is something that can be achievable.

San Jose then come to town to finish up April. They have been a good team this year, but have struggled when coming east to play games. The last time they came to Philly they lost 4-2 in 2014. It was a thrilling game that featured a goal of the year from ex-Union player Andrew Wenger. I Think the Union should be able to get the win against a San Jose team that struggles to get results in the eastern time zone, and finish April on a two game win streak. This would put the Union at 16 points at the beginning of May.

Now I know that the Union have been the team to have opportunities to string good results together in the past, and they inevitably find a way to fail. This has led many fans to write them off, but this year just feels different. This team has gelled well together early and the chemistry between the players will grow even stronger as time passes.

If the results come to pass they will have 16 points or more almost a month and a half earlier than they did in 2015. Only time, and results, will tell if the Union are truly an evolved form of their 2015 selves, but when you look at the way things are playing out in the Eastern Conference there is no reason the Union can’t go on a run that puts them close to, or at the top, of the east. At this point one thing is clear, no one is ahead of the pack early in what’s becoming a very balanced and competitive Conference, and the Union have opportunities in the month of April to get good results. So why can’t the Union go on a run and claim the top spot in the east, and put distance between themselves and the other teams?

photo credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images