A game of cups

Photo: Earl Gardner

Now that we, People of the Internet, have all had a moment to process this weekend’s episode of Game of Thrones — I nearly fell out of my chair when [REDACTED] [REDACTED] [REDACTED] with a [REDACTED] sperm whale —  we can move back to more pressing matters, like the U.S. Open Cup.

Yes, the U.S. Open Cup! That thing! It’s starting! Well, I guess it already started, as the “Eliminate Teams With Interesting Names” rounds of the tournament are already done. (We’ll miss you, SW Florida Adrenaline.)

But the important part of the tournament starts tonight, as your Philadelphia Union host the Rochester Rhinos. And, conveniently, it’s been scheduled right up against the USWNT against Nigeria, so soccer fans in the Philadelphia area will have to pick one game or the other — how fun!

Jokes aside, it should be an exciting match. Rochester aren’t a bad side, the U are coming off a rare off week, and the two teams even have a history. One of the most fun Union games I ever attended was the 2012 Open Cup match with the Rhinos, which featured a massive rainstorm and goals by both Josue Martinez and Freddy Adu. I’ll be telling my grandchildren about that historic happenstance, I know.

With the start of a new cup run, though, it’s important to put this match in the proper context — something I’m worried the Union aren’t doing.

A seductive shortcut

As I suspect many of you also did, I got an email from the Union last week asking me to come to the game tonight. The first sentence described the Union as “the reigning U.S. Open Cup finalist.” I suppose this is technically true, in the sense that one might call Prince Oberyn “the reigning trial-by-combat finalist” or might call Germany “the reigning back-to-back World War finalists.”

Point is, both of them lost their battles, and in spectacularly back-breaking, head-crushing fashion. And that’s what happened to the Union last year, squandering a first-half lead and, after Vincent Nogueira came one pesky post away from smashing home the game-winner, surrendering two goals in extra-time to an overpowering Seattle side that, on balance, deserved the cup.

I get the impulse of the team’s marketing staff to declare the Union as the “reigning” anything — anything other than their current crown of “reigning worst transfer in MLS history,” that is. But it shouldn’t obscure the fact that the Union didn’t win anything last year. You get nothing for coming in second in the cup, save some medals that I imagine that Nogueira ritually threw in the trash at the end of the match.

In the cup, you win or you die. Pretty simple.

And in that choice of words, “reigning finalists,” you can learn a lot about how this franchise views the Cup. It’s a priority, something to expend resources on.

After all, the reigning finalists have to defend their crown. (And the club has to salvage a miserable start to the season.)

But the early rounds of the Cup are a rare opportunity to expand the squad, something the Union have been loath to do so far this season. If winning the cup is a franchise priority, though, then it becomes difficult for the manager to justify any squad rotation.

I am not exactly filled with confidence by Curtin’s comment on Monday that “there could be some younger guys that see minutes.” Curtin talks like this a lot — using just enough open-ended words to conceal his true intentions. He could mean anything from “I intend to give our younger guys starts and see how they do” to “I intend to play Jimmy McLaughlin for exactly two minutes during stoppage time.”

There are no shortcuts for the Union to take on the path toward competing for MLS Cups. Every time the Union have gone for the quick fix, the home run (think last summer’s Mbolhi and Valdes signings), it’s blown up in their face.

(To continue the Game of Thrones motif, and speaking in the vaguest possible terms, attempting to solve long-term problems via divine intervention rarely works out. Just ask [REDACTED].)

Building a competitive squad takes time, and plowing the Rochester Rhinos with your veteran guys accomplishes nothing for the long-term future of this franchise. The U.S. Open Cup shouldn’t be approached as a quick fix for a flailing franchise.

My gut tells me that Curtin will put a best XI on the field tonight against a third-division side named after obese unicorns, even with a game three thousand miles away against the reigning champions in just four days’ time.

That’s the best way to ensure that the Union play another U.S. Open Cup game.

It’s just not the best way to develop young players and build squad depth.

Jim Curtin’s lineup decisions tonight will tell us which of those two goals he considers a priority.


  1. The Chopper says:

    The Rhinos would give the Union best 11 a match. The Union would not plow them or any of the NASL or USL Pro sides in the tournament. We have seen many MLS teams fall to lower division clubs in this tournament.

    I expect to see the Union field pretty much their set 11 and play to win. This club has won nothing and may not make the playoffs. They don’t get to treat this like an exhibition.

    • Agreed. This team is undefeated. I don’t care what league you play in–that kind of confidence is dangerous. Union need to be sharp and go out on the front foot. If they bunker down, then we need to see our creative players all on the pitch – Maidana, Nogueira, Pfeffer…um…uh

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    I would argue somewhat the opposite. With the position the Union are in at this point (7th place and everyone close to them having games in hand), I think you go all out to win the 5 cup games and play those younger players next week against LA, Seattle, and Montreal…games that can really help the youth development.

  3. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

    Not sure how that plays into tonight’s match, but it sounded cool 🙂

  4. I agree with AM. Play the fist team tonight and play the youngsters on the weekend. But Curtin too dopey to do that. He’ll play the same 10 guys no matter what, barring injury. Mark my words. (He’d play the same guy in goal too, if he could.)

    I’m kind of pulling for Rochester to surprise the Union. An embarrassing loss might convince Sugarman to sack Sak. Plus, does anyone really think this team can win the US Open Cup? As soon as we run up against Seattle again, we’ll be eliminated.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I’m hoping Portland decided to go all out against Seattle and is able to beat them this round…

      • Dr. Union says:

        I agree with Ben, Curtin is too dopey to pick a different squad for either game. We are like going to see the same 10 in Sapong Le toux wenger chaco, nogs, Carroll, williams, edu, marquez and fabinho, with maybe Pfeffer ayuk gaddis or Nando coming off the bench. This lineup will be the same for all games, in what is it 4 games in 13 days or something like that. And when all is said and done: Chaco will be injured again, nogs will be injured again, Carroll will have an injury. And they will be back to square one in the middle of the park again. I have no confidence in Curtin’s ability to manage playing time.

  5. I think the Union have to put their best 11 out there they have no choice. They have to win to advance, their subs can’t beat the rhinos straight up, and what the hell else do they have to cling to this season?! Losing in this round would just be another notch on the embarrassment belt… may as well go for it. Plus, you don’t think the front office didn’t love counting all that extra cash last year?!?

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Technical point of detail, Rhinos are not unicorned but bi corned at least in some species as there is a second horn further back along the top of the snout.

    Glad curtin is so dopey that he had the balls to excise the worst transfer in MLS history so-called from the team with the single stroke of master samurai’s katana. Showing up an owner (the only way sugarman can fire Sachewicz is to buy up all his shares remember) is not the action of a dope.

    I hope Pfeffer starts over Wenger tonight. Otherwise to give Rochester a good game we have to start our regulars. Think about the PR problem if Rochester were to blow out the kids, to say nothing of the setback it would give the kids.

    • If the kids fail to win, so be it. Get knocked down, get back up. I’d rather give young players an opportunity to grow and to learn what it takes to win than to keep them pristine in glass boxes.

  7. One team will go through the U.S. Cup Moon Door tonight. Union, make the bad men fly!

  8. OSC – being smart and having balls are two different things. And Rais isn’t sold yet – some of us doubt he will ever be sold – and until he is his salary will continue to weigh the team down. Kind of more of a dull Swiss Army knife than a katana, I’d say.

    • I tend to agree with OSC here. Curtin’s move was even more decisive and kitana like because of the implications. Here was the prize acquisition, presumably brought here by Curtin’s boss, who played in that little tournament a year ago, and with a very real chance that the Union do get stuck paying the guy a large chunk of money to stay as far away from the team as possible (and reduce Union facebook page posts by 50%). And he still made that decision to exile him pretty early in the season. Nothing weak or dopey about that.

  9. 我就是随便看看

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