Commentary

Against odds, a good start for the Union

One hour before heading over to BC Place for Philadelphia Union’s season opener, I stood on a small embankment in Stanley Park, an overwhelmingly green tangle of trees and grass bordered on three sides by the bay surrounding Vancouver.

As a young person, I was there for one reason only: To make sure that I had the best possible Instagram photo to sum up a pretty good trip.

It had been a rainy, snowy day, but now the sun was out and I wanted to get a picture close to the water. I took one step down the embankment. Then two. Then, much faster, a third and a fourth.

Then I fell. And slid five feet down the muddy hill.

When I popped up again, a dazed moment later, I looked at my hands — covered in mud. I looked at my coat — covered in mud. I felt the back of my pants — covered in mud. With horror, I remembered the number of pairs of pants I had brought for a two-day trip — one.

Somehow, the Union got a result

I tell this story not solely so you can chuckle at my misfortune, but rather because, in that moment, it seemed like confirmation of the dead certainty that the Union were about to be pounded into the turf in their first game of the season.

Let’s review the state of affairs.

  • The Union stumbled in their final preseason game, the defense looking porous in a loss to D.C. United.
  • They then had to fly all the way across the country and play on turf against a team that just recorded a convincing win in the CONCACAF Champions League.
  • They were playing a Western Conference opponent, a disaster zone for the Union in 2016.
  • One of their most exciting players, Ilsinho, suffered an injury the evening before the match and wouldn’t play.
  • Worst of all, I had just gotten mud all over myself.

What happened next might not have been great soccer.

But — against all odds and the team’s history — the 0-0 draw was a great result.

Consider:

  • The Union notched a clean sheet on the road, despite iffy performances from both fullbacks. Against a team that tried to beat them with speed — the presumed weakness of the center backs — the tandem of Richie Marquez and Oguchi Onyewu wiped out almost every threat before it presented real danger.
  • In his first MLS appearance, homegrown product Derrick Jones balled out. What struck me from the press box was his assurance in the tackle — sizing up the options, making the play neatly, with exactly the right amount of physicality. Rarely, if at all, did he make a major misjudgment. Though far from a perfect performance, Jones showed that he deserves more playing time at this level.
  • Each of the other debutantes had a good game. Haris Medunjanin is going to be this team’s unquestioned quarterback very soon. You could see him calling out every pass, even when his teammates inexplicably ignored him to make worse choices with the ball. Fafa Picault brought tantalizing speed in his brief cameo. And Jay Simpson — who has come under a lot of criticism, unfairly in my book — did everything he could while bereft of service. He got into good spaces, fought for the ball under pressure, and showed a willingness to go for goal.

More than these specific small victories, though, matter. Think about the Union’s recent history: Baffling goals conceded after the 80th minute, terrible or ineffective tactical choices, or sometimes just being completely outclassed by the opposition’s talents.

None of those were on display in Vancouver on Sunday night. The Union were, for once, the good kind of boring, and they earned a good point for it.

As Jim Curtin put it after the game, “If [the Vancouver fans] are booing a back-pass on the road, then that’s good for the [visiting] team.”

Only one game, but good omens

After the game, the mood in the Union locker room was loose. Not overjoyed or hyper, but low-key and relaxed. The players milled about, putting in their appearances with the media (read: me and Jonathan Tannenwald) and getting ready to go home. Alejandro Bedoya cracked jokes about being the captain — “You get to decide the coin flip” — before taking one last glance at the bizarre roof that covers BC Place.

By this time, my pants had finally dried off. Yes, I’m sure you were all wondering what ended up happening to my dirty clothes. To make a long story short, I washed them off at my AirBNB, then wore them to the game very damp. I don’t think anyone noticed. The coat is now undergoing emergency surgery at my local dry cleaner’s — your thoughts and prayers are appreciated.

As I wiped dirt off the leather seat of my rental car at midnight on a freezing Vancouver street, I thought about omens. Sometimes, fans think about how the things they do seem to have an effect on your team, leading to strange phenomena like wearing the same socks every time your team plays.

Other times, though, you just try to walk too fast on mud, and that’s your own damn fault.

The Union didn’t try to walk too fast on Sunday. They just tried to get moving.

That’s a good sign for the season ahead.

11 Comments

  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    Character-building for all involved

  2. I found this very enjoyable. Thanks, Peter!

  3. 1. I agree with your assessment of the match. And while we often criticize Curtin for not using his subs appropriately — me included — in this match it was the right move to forgo the third sub. The team we had on the pitch was the team best suited to see out the match.

    2. On any trip — even for a single night — I always bring an extra pair of pants. And now you know why.

  4. And we all know Jim Curtin is sure to give time to a reporter who did the dirty running.

  5. I agree with the assessment. We played conservative, and while that may not win us a lot of games, I don’t expect us to play this conservative every game. As conservative as we were, we still have 5 shots on goal compared to Vancouver’s single SoG.
    .
    I honestly won’t be mad if we manage a draw on Saturday. We all want a convincing win that will show that we have the talent to do things, but there’s no reason that game has to come 3000 miles away from home or against the best team in the league in Toronto.
    .
    Hope the team continues to play solid and builds confidence so we can rip off some wins when we host 3 straight in April (or perhaps in Orlando since Kaka is out?).

  6. All signs pointed towards a tie and we got one.

  7. the good kind of boring
    agree 100%

  8. I assume I’ll see you in muddy pants at Talon this weekend, then? 🙂

  9. A- in econ but you didn’t think to take advantage of your strong USAmerican dollars and do some clothes shopping?

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