A View from Afar / Union

The gutsiest performance in Union history

Philadelphia Union have played 289 games in Major League Soccer. On Saturday, they produced the gutsiest performance of them all.

Wronged by a referee, sent two men down after 20 minutes in the league’s most hostile stadium atmosphere, and facing the league’s most explosive team, the Union never backed down. Philadelphia maintained their shape, held an explosive team in check, and were never out of the game until an unfortunate penalty in the 83rd minute.

Forget the four-game unbeaten streak. This was the most impressive showing of the bunch.

It started with Union head coach Jim Curtin’s lineup. Keegan Rosenberry unexpectedly went to the bench, despite his excellent play this season, so that speedy defensive stalwart Ray Gaddis could slide over to contain Atlanta star Miguel Almiron. C.J. Sapong started despite his finishing struggles, putting perhaps the league’s best defensive forward at the point of a high press.

Because that’s what Curtin clearly planned to do coming into this game. He saw how the New York Red Bulls and Houston Dynamo beat Atlanta earlier this year with the high press, and he smartly sought to replicate it, at least to a degree.

For 17 minutes, the Union did. That opening stretch was wildly entertaining as two good teams slugged it out in a back-and-forth affair.

Then came referee Sorin Stoica’s penalty call.

Watch the close-up replay. Union defender Auston Trusty clearly kicked the ball away before Atlanta’s Josef Martinez went down from minimal subsequent contact. That’s a fair defensive play.

If that was Stoica’s worst call of the day, the Union might have been fine.

Stoica then sent off Union captain Alejandro Bedoya with a second yellow card after Bedoya adjusted his sock inside the arc to delay Martinez’s penalty kick. Bedoya was obviously trying to ice Martinez and/or give time for the officials to call for video review on the penalty. Maybe Bedoya should have directed someone else to do this, considering he was sitting on a first yellow card, but no one would expect it to earn him his marching orders.

But it did.

Philadelphia’s Alejandro Bedoya fixes his sock while Atlanta’s Josef Martinez sets for a penalty kick. Bedoya earned his second yellow card for this.

Haris Medunjanin, a sportsman so big on fair play that he literally talked a referee into rescinding a red card against D.C. United last year — lost it.

“He didn’t even know that our captain Bedoya had a yellow card and that is why he gave him a second yellow card,” Medunjanin said after the game.

When something is unfair,” he added later, “I cannot control myself. Because we [were] fighting for this game to win and then you know, I lost myself.”

Impossible odds

The ejections of Bedoya and Medunjanin set in motion what was nearly a miraculous performance by the Union.

Consider the circumstances. Just last September, Atlanta demolished a nine-man New England team 7-0. That sort of result shatters a team’s psyche and gets its coach fired. A young team like Philadelphia was facing a potentially soul-crushing, season-defining moment.

Down 1-0, down two men, the Union played like they believed they could leave Atlanta with a result.

Andre Blake played a smart, aggressive game in goal.

The back line did its job repeatedly, and the midfield kept its defensive shape.

Even a great halftime adjustment by Atlanta head coach Tata Martino, bolstered by substitute left back Mikey Ambrose’s rampant play, didn’t put away the Union, because when Atlanta scored, the Union scored right back.

And if you didn’t think Fafa Picault was for real before this match, now you know. Picault played angry and fearless and showed he has stones like a mason slinging bricks. His goal, on a perfectly lofted pass from Creavalle, answered Atlanta’s second goal and gave hope for an improbable Union comeback.

This was not the Union of old that would roll over and die. They had fight, and they refused to quit.

They lost the game in the end, but that’s what teams are supposed to do when they go down two men in the 20th minute.

What they’re not supposed to do is make a game of it.

Is this a good team? Is this a good coach? 

Curtin asked the question last month: What if the Union are a good team?

Let’s add another question: What if Curtin is a good coach?

From the opening kick to the end, he made every right decision. His lineup and strategic choices were sharp. His substitutions were spot on, particularly pulling Borek Dockal for Warren Creavalle after the ejections. And when Curtin said during the game, as any untrained lipreader could see, that the referee’s actions were a “f*****g embarrassment,” he was also completely correct.

“In a strange way, it is a positive,” Curtin said after the Atlanta game. “It is something I think our fans can look at and say, ‘That team fights, that team does not quit, that team will do anything for our fans and for the badge.'”

A team is a reflection of its coach.

Be glad that the usually sportsmanlike Medunjanin lost it.

Be glad that Picault got righteously pissed off.

Be glad the Union faced near-impossible odds and put in as fine a showing as one could ask.

Be glad Derrick Jones or Anthony Fontana will get a start next week due to red card suspensions, because there’s no way the Union go the whole season with Bedoya and Medunjanin, both on the wrong side of 30, going 90 minutes every week and not burning out. Another center midfielder needs to step up in that rotation, and this is a chance for one to prove he can.

Most of all, be glad you got to see that performance, because crucibles like these forge indefatigable fighters and teams worth cheering.

Over the last few years, Union fans have become used to their team being feckless punching bags.

That was not the Union team we saw Saturday night.

No, this was a team that can play with anyone in MLS, that backs down from nobody, that never folds, that is capable of anything.

Sorry to get your hopes up, folks, but if you’re not watching the Union regularly, now’s the time to start. That was the best damn game we’ve seen in a long time, and something tells me there’s more to come.

32 Comments

  1. i certainly would take anything away from the union for this game but i think it’s quite a stretch to credit both them and curtain with so much in the wake of it.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Why is it a stretch?

      • losing a game 3-1 doesn’t a good team nor a good coach make. had they dug out a result perhaps. was it an acceptable showing? sure. going down to 9 and not getting blown out is acceptable. but despite having watched the union since their inception however my standards haven’t fallen so low. there are positives to be gleaned but a loss is a loss and one of the vets still lost control earning a himself a red. i’ll give bedoya the benefit of the doubt on “earning” his though. now the team is coming off of a loss with short rest, down 2 of the best players for the next mls game in a very congested part of the schedule. And swapping dockal for creavalle is hardly something to earn praise for. what else would he do? he had no midfield to speak of and certainly nothing to provide any cover for the defense at that point. circumstances dictated that sub. the other two subs are like for like. the stretch is calling curtain good and talking up how good this game was for the union because they didn’t roll over and die. where i stand that’s the minimum we should expect from them and just because they have a history of less than stellar games and seasons doesn’t mean they get a pass for poor play or in this case extra credit for the least that we should see from them.

      • Atomic Spartan says:

        Nict.:
        So why not give Curtin credit for doing the obviously correct thing? Plenty of times prior to this, he hasn’t

      • you’ll note i wrote “extra credit”. he can have the doing the obvious credit. i’m not taking shots at curtain over this game i just think it’s a stretch to use this game as a justification for labeling him a good coach.

  2. I think that game ends a tie at worst if without the red card nonsense. My hope is that the club being wronged like this by the league/ref makes the team angry and brings them together as a group like nothing else can.

    • Will this be the game to give the Union the underdog mentality that the Eagles used so well?
      .
      It’s too early to know but I noticed all the same things as Dan: Bedoya playing his inspiring hard-nosed game, Medunjanin fired up enough to lose his mind, Fafa stepping up big, Trusty and McKenzie locking down the defense, even Crevalle showing well in a bad situation. Such a good game. Utterly destroyed by a bad officiating job.

  3. The most impressive part of the game, besides everything said, was how Trusty and McKenzie looked like leaders holding off the rest of the team when confronting the ref. Trusty in particular, has fire and a presence about him that I think is missing from US Players as a whole.

    He looks like a future leader, a future captain.

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    The whole thing was Scottso’s fault. This was his comment on the match preview on Friday:
    .
    “Yes. If they play well and lose on a Martinez golazo, then fine — a superstar beat us in front of a packed crowd at home and that’s OK. Or if they lose on a crappy call or some other such bad luck, whatever. It happens. But they need to show well to keep their confidence.”
    .
    Was that a crappy enough call for you?

    • Dammit Scottso, you had to send Stoica those negative waves didn’t you? Jeez… Ha! If only finding a scapegoat for every Union game was this easy…
      .
      Andy, nice catch. Scottso, bad negative waves, lol.
      Ahh the fun we have.

    • John Harris says:

      Gaolazo??? Hardly.
      .
      I get the humor.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        I was just giving the quote in full, not because of the gaolazo but because he suggested the crappy call (which Stoica probably would have read about if he was able to read).

    • Wow… and I here I thought nobody pays attention to anything I say… and now y’all wanna blame me for the worst refereeing performance in MLS in the last 5 years… :oD

      • Hey sorry if there are redundant posts… the site is acting weird… I guess the PSP gremlins are mad at me too. ;oD

      • The gremlins aren’t just you. They don’t like me very much either.

  5. Nice work Dan, as always. I’ve been wanting something to grab me this year, and maybe this game was it.
    .
    Why is it I can agree with almost everything you wrote, except the part about Curtin possibly being a good coach? Oh well. I will say, Curtin did have a good game all around. That’s about all I can muster.

  6. Didn’t get watch due to family obligations. Also did not properly set the dvr.. so I’m hopping to catch a full game replay. Thanks Dan. It really seems like I missed a good one. Seeing the replays of Haris losing his mind speaks volumes.

  7. I watched this one in it’s entirety(PHL 17 with a digital antenna!!), it was some brutal mngt by the ref to send off Bedoya, and I thought the foul call itself was soft. Like your thoughts here Dan, and I thought Curtin managed the game well. It’ll be nice to see some youth with the Bedoya and Medunajin sitting, but it’s sad that it takes a suspension for Curtin to play the youth. He’s done more squad rotation than in the past, but if they hope to make a run we need to do a bit more.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I think he would have played more of the youth Tuesday night. Now he might as well play Bedoya and Medunjanin Tuesday since they didn’t play much Saturday and will have a couple of weeks rest afterwards.

  8. John Harris says:

    Good commentary.
    .
    I watched the ESPN+ stream. It had the ATL feed. Holy Moly! Anyone that complains about Tommy Smythe being a homer would blush hearing those guys. I half expected to hear a Cockneyed Irish accent to say that the south will rise again.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      You know, I thought the same thing, primarily about the color commentator. The interesting thing is that it’s former MLS player Dan Gargan, who’s from the Philly area and was a high school teammate of Atlanta midfielder Jeff Larentowicz.

  9. Interesting fact: Guess who the referee was that rescinded that United red card because of Medunjanin’s sportsmanship…yup, it was Sorin Stoica.

    Also, I find it interesting that when the kick was finally taken, you can see Dočkal was standing in the arc. Strangely he wasn’t even spoken to about it. Stoica should have allowed the kick to happen, and if it was missed/saved, called Bedoya for encroachment and ordered the kick be retaken.

  10. el Pachyderm says:

    I’ll have what he’s having.

  11. The Truth says:

    When we inevitably miss the playoffs it’ll just be another L on the calendar to blame. Gutsy, not gutsy, it’s 0 points and core midfielders are suspended. I think this piece needed to be written and I’m thankful for it, but I’m still over here kicking rocks and cursing.

  12. Curtin has mismanaged games so many times before. Hope he is finally listening to Adam Cann and getting it right from now on a consistent basis!

  13. Tom Corey says:

    Anyone who has followed MLS for more than a day knows that the single biggest problem with the credibility of the league is the extremely poor level of officiating. Perhaps we can do better growing officials rather than following whatever current selection process is in existence, much the same as our player development process.

    • Yup. The Union had a new ref this season, early on, who was really good and called the match the closet to the way I see PL games called. Predictably, we haven’t seen him since. One good ref makes the rest look too bad?

  14. Dan, I am totally with you on most of this piece — it was an incredibly gutsy performance by the U — except the part about Curtin being a good coach.

    First, I personally thought the Creavalle-for-Dockal switch was made way too soon. I would’ve waited until halftime. Already really hard to score when you’re down 2 men, but now you’ve taken out your creative engine too?? (Ironically, I will admit, Creavalle did assist on our goal.) Also, you made Creavalle run his ass off for 70+ minutes in the heat when he could’ve had fresh legs for the second half.

    Second, re-read what you wrote about Jones and Fontana. Yes, I agree that riding older guys all season in the midfield is crazy (Medunjanin especially). And who’s to blame for the fact that we are doing that?? Why didn’t Creavalle or Fontana get a start during this recent rough stretch?? So, we should be thankful for the red cards, to force our coach to do what he isn’t wise enough to know to do himself?? That’s… a tough sell. To put it mildly.

  15. John Harris says:

    I forgot to ask… didnt Martinez go backwards on his first PK?

    • Was thinking the same thing. Sapong does it too — start immediately behind the ball, and then back away and to the side. I’m surprised it’s allowed.

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