Union manager Jim Curtin calls himself "a firm believer that you learn the most about your group in times of adversity."
This is definitely a time of adversity.
Saturday's 4-1 loss to Montreal was a disastrous start to the season's stretch run. Combined with the dropped points in the 2-2 tie at Orlando on Sept. 1., what seemed like a smooth path to the playoffs now looks bumpy.
A mid-week trip across the country to face the Seattle Sounders, on a MLS-record nine-game winning streak, isn't what you want next. And with the game after that against West-leading Kansas City on Sunday, and with the game after that the U.S. Open Cup final at Houston next Wednesday, there's no respite coming.
"We're still in a position that, if you said to me starting the season we'd go to an Open Cup final, have a chance for that, and you'll be in fifth place at this stage of the year, I would sign up for that," Curtin said Monday, before the team left for Seattle.
Sure. But there's no guarantee that the Union will still be in fifth place Monday. Montreal's win brought it within a point in the standings, and the Impact have a home game against New York City FC, winless in its last five, on Saturday.
Curtin said the East's playoff contenders will be "kind of cannibalizing points" as they play each other the rest of the way, and he's right. But he's scoreboard watching like everyone else. (And he had to be happy that seventh-place D.C. United gave up a late equalizer in a 3-3 tie against the New York Red Bulls.)
The Union's biggest concern is playmaker Borek Dockal, who aggravated his lingering ankle injury Saturday. He wasn't on the field Monday morning in the team's last practice before leaving town. Had the Union beaten Montreal, Dockal might have had a night off for the right reasons instead.
Curtin said the plan all along has been that "there is going to be one of these next two that he's not participating in." Beyond that, he was coy.
"The playoffs are obviously top priority, and then the Open Cup is probably top, top priority right now," Curtin said. "We'll be smart about how we manage his minutes. We want him kicking on all cylinders for Houston."
And what of backup Anthony Fontana, who also has been injured lately? Curtin said the Newark, Del., native was "healthy enough to get on the plane" to Seattle, but "fit enough is kind of the question."
Three races against time at once are more than enough.
Wednesday, 11 p.m. at CenturyLink Field, Seattle
Union's record: 12-12-4, 40 points (5th in the East); 5-7-2 on the road
Seattle's record: 13-9-5, 44 points (5th in the West); 7-4-2 at home
Series history: Union 4 wins, Seattle 5 wins, 2 ties
At Seattle: Union 1 win, Seattle 4 wins, 0 ties
F Raúl Ruidíaz: Here's another reminder of why it's good to have a big-time striker. Ruidíaz, who played for Peru at this year's World Cup, has five goals in nine games since debuting for the Sounders in July. He scored twice in Saturday's 2-1 win at Vancouver.
M Nicolás Lodeiro: He didn't make Uruguay's World Cup team, but he's having a fine season for the Sounders, with seven goals and nine assists. His average of 3.2 chances created per game is third best in MLS.