Following United's loss to the New York Cosmos on Saturday, the team's players and coaches said all the right things about the NASL season - how it's not over, how the Cosmos could still drop points, how the seven-point gap that now separates New York from the rest of the league wasn't insurmountable.
Said head coach Manny Lagos, "We really have to regroup. We’re definitely not out of it, there’s no doubt about it."
Captain Aaron Pitchkolan echoed those words. "You never know what’s going to happen, they could drop points," he said. "We just have to keep fighting and take care of our business and get as many points as we can and hope they stumble."
From the looks on their faces, though, both players and coaches knew the truth: it will be virtually impossible to catch the Cosmos. New York has won four in a row and extended their unbeaten streak to seven games with Saturday's win; they do not show signs of suddenly collapsing, and all they need is six points from their final four matches to clinch the fall championship and a spot in the Soccer Bowl.
Even if the Cosmos do stumble, Minnesota is tied on 14 points with three other teams - Carolina, Fort Lauderdale, and Tampa Bay - and is one point ahead of Atlanta. United has games with all four remaining, and if they were to win all four, they'd at least guarantee themselves a spot in second place in the league, regardless of what the Cosmos do.
That said, given the team's inconsistency this year, a four-game winning streak seems unlikely.
Both players and coaches will talk a lot about focusing on what they can control, and ignoring what they can't control, and reminding themselves that they are not out of the running. But it's worth remembering that when they were in a similar situation in the spring season, they lost their final three games - and by increasingly embarrassing scorelines.
The numbers tell a good-but-not-great story this fall. A few examples:
- United has the league's best road record, with three wins in five matches - but the worst home record, with just one win and two draws in five matches.
- Minnesota's tied for the league lead, with just 10 goals allowed in the fall, and has given up more than one only once - but they've also kept only one clean sheet.
- Pablo Campos has five goals in the fall, near the league lead, but the rest of the team's attackers have combined for just three in ten games - one each for Simone Bracalello, Max Griffin, and Calum Mallace.
In other words: you can't call United a bad team. They're just not a particularly good one, either. And if New York beats Carolina on Saturday, and Minnesota loses at Atlanta, then United will be eliminated from contention for the fall championship.
The particularly cynical United fan might look at the standings and remember that Minnesota finished sixth in 2011, sixth in 2012, and sixth in the spring season, and think that perhaps sixth place is their destination yet again.
It certainly seems more likely than first place, at this point.