You play to win the game: Why the Open Cup Trophy constitutes a successful season

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Question: If the Philadelphia Union wins the U.S. Open Cup, does it make the 2015 season a success?

Answer: Yes

Sometimes we need to take a step back and look at the big picture. What is the endgame of professional sports?

It varies from person to person. Some athletes have an unbridled will to win (Brian Dawkins). Some athletes are in it for the money (Andrew Bynum). Others just want to choke their teammates (Jonathan Papelbon).

Some fans want nothing but a Super Bowl (everyone). Some like to gamble. Others like to get together with friends and family and just watch the game, wins and losses be damned.

The Union is about to miss the playoffs for a fourth straight year. This has been another poor season for the club, buoyed only by a cup run that distracted us from the disappointment of the regular season. You get the sense that the novelty of the team has worn off. Maybe it wore off a while ago. Attendance at PPL Park is good, but that spark from 2011 has really been missing for the last few seasons.

How do you reignite that spark?

You win a trophy. You add a tangible, physical reward to your resume.

That’s the endgame of all competition. The common complaint among Eagles fans is that the team has never won the Super Bowl. It’s the trophy that we’re missing.

It’s the same for the Flyers and the Sixers, who haven’t won since 1975 and 1983, respectively. Even the best Phillies team of all-time managed to disappoint after the 2008 World Series.

As the great Herman Edwards once said, “…you play TO WIN THE GAME!”

At the start of each season, there are three domestic trophies you can win – the MLS Cup, the Supporter’s Shield, and the U.S. Open Cup. That’s three pieces of silverware that the Union can target each and every year. The MLS Cup is the top prize, the shield is less important with the introduction of the unbalanced schedule, and the USOC is the “easiest” to win.

It’s the perfect target for a burgeoning, six-year-old franchise.

There’s no relegation in MLS, so you aren’t getting board directives to “stay up” or finish in the top half of the table, or advance to a certain round of the FA Cup. This isn’t FIFA ’16. You play to win the game. You play to win trophies and build your legacy as a franchise.

A few arguments I hear from Union fans:

Argument 1: Winning the U.S. Open Cup shouldn’t overshadow another awful regular season

I agree.

I also believe that you can treat the USOC run and the regular season as two completely different things. You can be critical of the technical staff and the front office in MLS play while also giving them credit for performing admirably in the USOC. As disappointing as the team has been this season, they’ve been equally impressive in reaching the cup final for a second straight year.

Argument 2: I don’t care about the U.S. Open Cup

Why? A young franchise should do everything possible to win its first trophy, whatever it is.

Argument 3: They only had to play five games to win the USOC.

Well, that’s how it works. They reached the final with a whopping two wins. The other games finished in draws and the club advanced on penalties. That’s the name of the game, right? Survive and advance. They found a way to get through after two red cards and two sets of spot kicks. Along the way they allowed just two goals.

Argument 4: A playoff appearance does more to move the franchise forward

I don’t think it does, especially not in this playoff format. If you sneak into the postseason as the 6th seed in the East, then lose to DC in round one, does that achieve anything? You can market a playoff appearance to a non-Union fan, but the rest of us know that finishing 12th out of twenty MLS teams is nothing to be excited about.

Salvaging the Season

This playoff race has been incredibly boring because of Montreal’s games-in-hand situation. Since the Impact were so many matches behind, teams like Chicago and Philadelphia weren’t going to be officially eliminated from the postseason until late September or early October, once Didier Drogba and company started to catch up in the GP column. Truthfully, Philadelphia was probably out of it a few weeks ago. This is a 15-loss team. Can you convince me that a 15-loss team deserves a playoff spot?

Here’s the best case scenario for the next five weeks:

  1. Win the U.S. Open Cup
  2. Claim your $250,000 in prize money
  3. Tank the remaining regular season games for a higher draft pick
  4. Do final evaluations on Fernando Aristeguieta and Steven Vitoria
  5. Head into the offseason with extra cash and a spot in the CONCACAF Champion’s League

No, Curtin isn’t going to roll out a B-team for the rest of the season, but there’s no true benefit in playing every starter in a meaningless October game. Maybe Cristian Maidana finishes the season as the MLS assist leader. Maybe players can pad their stats. But it’s more important to get Aristeguieta, Vitoria, and Andre Blake on the field for the entirety of October.

And yes, lifting the USOC trophy does nothing to fix the front office. It does nothing to add a general manager to the staff. It shouldn’t overshadow another subpar regular season.

But what’s the alternative? Would you rather see a 6th seeded Union crash out in round one of the playoffs?

I don’t see the point.

So, if the team wins the first trophy in franchise history, this season is a success.

But if they lose…


  1. No argument from me. The Cup is everything and nothing else can be said about this team until that match is complete. I can’t wait till Wednesday.

  2. James Lockerbie says:

    Darn it! Kevin that’s twice you have written exactly what I wanted to say. It’s like we’re sharing the same brain. My friends would tell you to be scared, sharing a brain with me.

  3. James Lockerbie says:

    I couldn’t agree more with is article and the one comparing the to keepers. Bravo, Bravo

  4. I respectfully disagree. Winning the cup would be nice, sure, but it does not excuse the poor season (and more importantly, the poor decision-making that leads to a poor season). You can treat the cup and playoffs as two seperate things, but I don’t see how you could say that the overall season is anywhere close to a sucess, even if they win the cup.


    The two positives from the cup are the champions league berth and the extra cash. It’s tough to be excited about the later, however, as there is still no GM that has been hired. So, yeah, we’ll have alot of cash, but Sak is the one that gets to spend it. I just see having 3 new M’Boli’s to have to deal with on the roster next year, instead of just one. 🙁

  5. James Lockerbie says:

    Prize money, something to put into the empty trophy Case, and ConcaCaf which brings you more of Mr. Allocation money from the league so, whom ever wins doesn’t shame the League.

    For those items listed above, I would consider this season a Success. We must remain positive and pray like the pope is in town for a Win on Wednesday night

  6. There’s no relegation in MLS, so you aren’t getting board directives to “stay up” or finish in the top half of the table, or advance to a certain round of the FA Cup. This isn’t FIFA ’16.

    MLS clubs can’t get relegated in FIFA 16 either.

  7. I am excited but also scared that the Union have a chance to win the US Open Cup. I was at PPL last year for the final, and it was the most exciting sporting event I’ve ever been to. Needless to say, I’ll be there again Wednesday.

    But I’m a little scared that we might win. Then we have to play in Champions League and we’ll be embarrassed. This FO won’t know what to do with the extra allocation money, it’s not that much $ really anyway. And Curtin will still play Fabinho every game at fullback so he can make boneheaded plays. And Albright’s next almost-DP signing will be slow just like Aristeguieta. We have no depth. And we’ll have additional games to play? Yikes.

    • MLS teams that make the CCL usually have no problem getting through the group phase. They get put in easier groups. Most of the MLS teams play their B squads in these group matches so I wouldn’t worry about being embarrassed.

  8. IF we win on Wednesday will call it a semi-successful season. But the odds are against us. KC has too much firepower that was rested over the weekend. Should be a great match and I can not wait for it! This is a match a true fan really gets excited for. Based on the slow ticket sales it looks as if we do not have enough true fans here in Philly. The place should be sold out, as it would be in KC; and KC has less than a 1/4 of Philly’s population!

    • Bingo. A Cup Final warrants a full stadium. Period. Tell all your friends.

      • Fans have been trying to get people out to this match for weeks. So far, I have two extra [aside from my buddy who is also a STH] on board. The remaining 5-6 I’ve asked have turned me down either 1. Because its a 7:30 match on a Wednesday in Chester. Difficult for some people to make it after work with traffic etc or 2. Not interested because of the terrible performances throughout the season. A few said they would rather watch it at home and turn it off if need be – and not feel like their night was wasted.

      • so sad that the team’s performance has come to this. I agree to a certain extend but with a one-of-game anything can happen and I do not want to sit at home should they win the Cup!

      • I agree which is why I am going. My point was that their performance this year has really turned off the – lets call them – slightly above casual fan.

      • Jim, I hear you. I’ve been turned down about taking free tickets off my hands many times this season. I do think that if people can make it down to Chester tomorrow, they should because it’s a final. However, would it be THAT difficult to schedule the Final on a Saturday in the future? I might be oversimplifying the Saturday thing, but, in reality, there are only a handful of teams that can sell out a weekday match, even a final. Tomorrow’s opponent is one of them. Last year’s opponent is another.

  9. Agreed. Winning the cup removes some of the stench from a pretty flat league season. Can’t change what’s happened up until now, but raising a trophy in a historic tournament, at home, against a strong side like KC certainly is our best shot at lifting the collective morale a bit. Throw in the money, Concacaf birth, and a few other key player developments (Edu/Marquez pairing, a solid looking midfield, a decent first season from Sapong, and that Blake may finally end the GK carousel)…and there’s a slightly better taste in your mouth heading into the offseason, right? Still need a GM badly to execute on everything else, but it’s a start.

  10. I agree with everything in this piece. The Union have had lots of negatives this season, and nobody should sugarcoat them. But you win a trophy, get $250K in allocation money, and get to play in the CONCACAF Champions League, that has to be considered a successful season, in some measure.

    • I believe the $250K prize money is split among the players. Not allocation money for the team but I could be mistaken. I think if you win MLS gives you about $150k in allocation money.

  11. The season is an abject failure. There is no success when you are last in a league of mostly shitty teams. Kevin. Come on.
    Just. Win. The. Trophy.
    A trophy is the proton pump inhibitor that calms the stomach from a 6 month wretched display of the beautiful game.
    In the meantime the benefit of unloading contracts, gleaning extra money for winning the tournament gives a fan base hope for the future… a a much needed bit of happiness.

  12. Couldn’t disagree more. Winning the Cup while nice does not make a successful season. Yes all your points are valid and they are nice things, but here is my problem with saying a Successful season. OTo start I do not want the FO thinking they did a good job cause that is far from the truth. Still have a ton of FO problems that have not left and will continue to hamper this team and its growth. No development of players throughout the year. The same skills they had are the same they are leaving with there is no progress on the team. Some player may have even gotten worse. There are still multiple roster problems with the team only getting older and a lack of skill to replace them. Money helps only if it is known how to use it and this team has no Vision, Philosophy or Plan as has been mentioned numerous times before. Success I don’t see it. I see struggle upon struggle with the players busting their necks to try to give this city and fans something worth caring about, because them and only the players want to be a good team they just have no one to show them how.

    • Ugghhhh….I can already hear the next interview from Sak where he pats himself on the back for the great season and cup win now…it makes me want to throw up a bit.

  13. My positive thoughts about the Open Cup:

    1) I think this Union squad is better than last year’s. With Barnetta in the starting XI and Marquez and Mo at CB, I think this team is better.

    2) KC is good but not as god as last year’s Sounders. Last year’s sounders were in the running for the Treble and took two of three. KC has talent but hasn’t always been consistent. They are scary though, and coming in here well rested.

    3) Just hoping there’s a little pope dust in the air for the city still on Wed. Helped the Eagles win. Maybe we can pull this one out. I

    To the larger point, yes. The cup is the season and winning it will be something about which to be very happy.

    • I say find that young man from the Philadelphia Boys Choir who sang a cappella and made me cry – get him to sing the national anthem with that supernatural voice and the Union will have mustered the needed Providence to win this most important game….there is your ‘Pope Dust’…as you call it.

  14. Actually, does a win guarantee a Champions League spot? If they are truly moving the CCL to a spring-fall schedule, won’t that mean that the next CCL will start in the spring of 2017 and next year’s Open Cup winner gets the spot rather than this year’s? (With probably the same for the other teams that “qualify” this year).

  15. I’m in total agreement as well. The season is “saved” if they get the Open Cup trophy. The playoffs this season aren’t going to move this club forward as much as entry into CCL, the extra cash, and a chance to work with the money being saved after unloading M’Bohli, Valdez, and Williams. Leo has been doing great on loan with the Cosmos and hopefully will be able to find a way into the Union IX for the 2016 season. I haven’t been following out-on-loan players as closely, but I think I saw Cruz was injured.
    Getting the trophy is huge and could provide a HUGE springboard, IF they make the necessary moves in the offseason. Considering the start-up of the USL team, it would seem they have A LOT of work to do in a short period of time.

    • Agreed with the they have a lot of work to do. You would think more info about the USL team would be coming out. Like who is the coach, who is on the roster, these are key things that should already be being decided.

  16. There have been a lot of disappointing moments over the years, but watching Seattle celebrating with that trophy in OUR house was one of the worst.
    I’ll be there wed night!

  17. your list of “arguments “, should include one other: enjoying a team work hard and perform well, regardless of win or lose.

  18. Old Soccer Coach says:

    I doubt anyone disagrees that winning Wednesday is better than losing. Beyond that, we exchange opinions.

  19. Trophy, schmophy. Has everyone forgotten already the “IMG Suncoast Pro Classic”? (And the best/only worthwhile performance in a Union shirt for M’Bohli?)

    Seriously, it’s not a zero sum game. The USOC is nice but doesn’t excuse a terrible season. We’re about on par PPG with our expansion year, when our roster was made up of other teams castoffs. Now the player talent level is significantly better, but the rising MLS tide is lifting all teams. We need better leadership (FO and technical staff) to get the most out of the roster. Playoffs should have been achievable.

  20. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I personally get nothing out of the Union’s success other than entertainment. Wins are entertaining. Winning a trophy in a knockout tournament is VERY entertaining. After this game, I will evaluate the success of this season on if it was worth my season ticket price. With an eye on the potential and some good aquisitions, the answer is probably.
    As for the game, I hope all this hype doesn’t get to the players heads. They’re playing well. They have some very good talent. They’re playing at home. Play with confidence and enjoy the game, and it will be a great night.

  21. It generally depends on how you view the franchise as a supporter. If you see the Union as a mid table club that will never be able to wheel and deal with the Sounders, Galaxy and the other big hitters in the MLS……than yeah, the USOC is huge grab and chance at some hardware that doesn’t come around often. If you see the Union as underachievers that should be much more successful than they are…whether because of FO, personnel, or coaching….and you feel there is no reason why the Union shouldn’t be up there with the big boys considering the market they are in…….than grabbing the OC is just window dressing on a franchise with some major structural deficiencies. I say, whether you fall into either camp…….just enjoy the match for what is…….a Cup final! For one night….don’t look to the past or the future….just revel in the now…….that for one night we get to play in a match that freaking means something. And that’s coming from someone who has been blasting this club since January!

  22. Oh man — all three hosts on Extra Time Radio picked the Union to win on Wednesday. We’re doomed.

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