CHESTER, Pa. -- There are still two games left in the Union's season, and even though the team's playoff hopes have ended, they still may have a chance to play the role of spoiler.
More importantly, though, is the opportunity certain players have in front of them to prove their case that they deserve a spot on the roster for the 2016 season.
And that's something that head coach Jim Curtin hopes they take seriously as the Union aim to finish a disappointing 2015 season on a high note, starting with Sunday's game against the rival New York Red Bulls (3 p.m., TCN).
"Every training session, we're evaluating guys," Curtin said. "Every game, we're evaluating guys and learning a lot about 2016 and the guys who will be back with the Philadelphia Union."
Perhaps at the top of the list of question marks heading into '16 are Fernando Aristeguieta and Steven Vitoria, the team's two biggest acquisitions last offseason. Both will have their loans expire at the end of the season, and both have had very uneven debut campaigns in MLS as they battled injuries and, at times, fell down the striker and center back depth chart, respectively.
"They've had some really high highs and some difficult times too with injuries and different things," Curtin said. "They're two guys that I still like a lot. Again, these games are important to everybody. It's not just the certain two guys that we're looking at, but yeah there will be decisions that need to be made on any player that's here on a loan, and those discussions will happen after the year."
Even if they have both have standout performances over these final two games, it might be asking a lot for the Union to bring either Aristeguieta or Vitoria back at what will be a considerable cost.
Vitoria, on loan from Portugal's Benfica, has come on strong at the end of the season after missing most of the summer with a hamstring injury but the Union are well-stocked at center back thanks to the emergence of rising star Richie Marquez this season and the reliability of captain Maurice Edu, who will miss the final two games after undergoing successful sports hernia surgery this week.
And Aristeguieta, on loan from France's FC Nantes, is well liked and talented but has only five goals heading into the final two contests and never really gained much momentum while dealing with multiple injuries.
"It was tough," Aristeguieta said. "It was like a roller coaster. But I'm happy. I'm enjoying it here a lot. I'm coming here in the morning every day with a lot of motivation. We have an amazing group and those are the things you appreciate."
While Curtin and the Union's technical staff have to figure out what to do with their current players whose loans are ending, they also have to consider the statuses of four players they sent away on loan before the season: Leo Fernandes, Danny Cruz, Austin Berry and Zac MacMath.
It seems unlikely either MacMath or Berry will return but Curtin had a lot of praise for Fernandes, who's scored eight goals with the NASL's New York Cosmos this year. And Danny Cruz, on loan with FC Bodo/Glimt in Norway, has also been around Union training a lot over the past month and remains close with the current players.
"People forget about Leo Fernandes, who's one of the top scorers in the NASL," Curtin said. "He's done a very good job. We thought it was important for him to get 34 games where he is just playing every night, and he's stepped up. The feedback we got from the Cosmos and the games that we watch, they're very high on Leo. He's done very well scoring goals. … He certainly would not have gotten as many minutes with us. We made that choice and it's a big step in his development.
"Danny Cruz has done well. He has had some injuries though and his team has had some success. Again, we monitor all these games and see how they're doing. And they're still as much a part of the team as anybody."
If nothing else, throwing Fernandes and Cruz back into the midfield mix for next season would bolster the team's depth. Even more important would be bringing back top midfield playmakers Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira, both of whom are about to wrap up their second seasons in MLS.
"They have club options so we'll make a smart decision obviously on those," Curtin said. "I'm not going to reveal anything in terms of moving forward until after the Orlando game [on Oct. 25] but they're two guys that are an important part of the team and to the core of the group. And they're two guys that are gutted, just like I am. We have played in a big game, in a [U.S. Open Cup] final, two years in a row and came up a little bit short. We didn't make the playoffs either. They're hungry. They want to do more and they want to be with the Union, so that's also an important piece."
Of course, given the team's failures this season, the Union will look to bring in some new impact players to go along with the marquee signing of Tranquillo Barnetta in the summer transfer window. And there are other players that should feel secure about their place on the team with Barnetta, Edu and Sapong among the veteran building blocks and Marquez, Andre Blake and Eric Ayuk among the promising young core.
But there are still others that will be fighting for their future in Philly - and, from that standpoint, the final two games of the season matter more than the standings might indicate.
"When we talk about piecing together a roster, every spot is very, very valuable," Curtin said. "It's so important. I think we've learned that this year with different injuries and things that you have to have a very deep roster and it's something we'll have to address in the offseason. We do still feel that we have a lot of key pieces, a lot of solid parts to be a playoff team, but we just have to strengthen little areas.
"It's not just these two games that we're looking at, but they are still the conclusion of the season. When it isn't as easy to get motivated, who are the guys that are still sticking with it and still fighting?"