Commentary / Union

What does the Open Cup loss mean for Philadelphia Union?

Photo: Earl Gardner

In the Philly Soccer Page Post Game Show after Philadelphia Union’s loss to Montreal Impact, Mike Servedio asked me how many points Union fans should expect over the next two games against Seattle and Kansas City. I responded honestly that I would expect 0 points but that the Union could certainly win the U.S. Open Cup against a low-ranked Houston Dynamo and turn their backwards momentum around.


There is, in fact, no way I could have been more wrong. Philadelphia Union beat Seattle away and Kansas City at home, two of the best teams in the Western Conference, leaving Union fans feeling high before the club’s Open Cup final match on Wednesday.

The feeling didn’t last long. Philadelphia Union fell 3-0 to Houston Wednesday night, losing the club’s third Open Cup final in five years. The Houston Heartbreak was a tough one to take, and with the Union’s recent run of form, it’s difficult to say what it means for the club.

This season, looking back

The Union did not play well Wednesday night. They could not connect through the middle, could not finish any of their 17 shots, and got caught on a counter they knew was coming. So what does that mean for their season?

Looking back, before the Open Cup Final, Philadelphia had won seven out of their last nine matches across all competitions. They snapped Seattle Sounders’ MLS record winning streak in Seattle, and they beat Sporting Kansas City, then the leaders of the Western Conference. Keep in mind, these wins were no fluke. The Union won these matches deservedly, and they received national acclaim for doing so.

This Open Cup loss doesn’t change that. It doesn’t erase those wins. It doesn’t reframe the Union’s previous run of form as an accident or a string of good luck. Philadelphia Union brought their style to the pitch in every match, home or away, and they benefited from doing so.

This season, looking forward

Looking forward, however, is more troubling. Houston Dynamo could very well have just been a poor stylistic match up for a Union team that likes to keep possession. The Union’s principles of play will, in all likelihood, stand a better chance against teams moving forward, as they have for most of this season. But defeats like the one on Wednesday can demoralize a team.

It would not be surprising for the Union to fall in a crucial Eastern Conference match against Columbus Crew this weekend. Philadelphia has played a packed schedule recently, four matches in two weeks. They have traveled to Seattle and to Houston in that span. Even the fittest player would be worn out after such a run. Columbus, like Philadelphia, will be playing to earn a playoff match at home – perhaps their last. A tired Philadelphia squad, traveling to Columbus’s turf will find a difficult, though important challenge.

After that, the Union only have three matches left in their season: one very winnable home match against a struggling Minnesota United, one home match against New York Red Bulls competing for the MLS Supporters’ Shield, and an away match against a third place NYC FC. All this to say: The end of the Union’s season may not exactly mimic their prior results.

Still, this will go down as the Union’s best season. They have won some of their best matches in club history. They have made it to a cup final. They only need three more points to match their record. The latest SEBA projections have the Union’s playoff chances at 98.8 percent.

Momentum is a real factor in MLS. The Open Cup loss may halt that momentum moving forward. It may not. Regardless, at the end of the season, the Union will mark this down as their best.

After this season

All the same, the Union’s Open Cup defeat seems a lot bigger than just a tough loss in an otherwise good season. For one thing, discussion has arisen recently as to whether or not Jim Curtin will be with the Union next year. His contract expires after this season, and new Sporting Director Ernst Tanner may want to bring in his own person for the job. With the Union’s recent strong performance, many believed that a U.S. Open Cup victory would have cemented Curtin’s role with the club for the foreseeable future. That future is now more uncertain.

More to the heart of the fans, though, this defeat speaks to a larger sentiment. It marks the Union’s third Open Cup defeat in five years. It ties the record for most Open Cup final losses in the history of the tournament – and it’s a long history. The Union’s history, quite a young history in contrast with that of the Open Cup, has been filled with raised hopes and dropped results.

This result was familiar, but the hopes were perhaps higher than they’ve been before. In their first two Open Cup losses, the Union were clear underdogs against Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City. This time felt different. Having just beaten those two previous teams, it really felt like the Union would bring some silverware home. That made it all the more heartbreaking.

One look at the stands of Talen Energy Stadium this season will tell an observer all they need to know: Union fans are having difficulty buying into the team. This loss likely only made it more difficult for the Union to win back the fans they’ve lost.

The bigger picture

This hasn’t been an optimistic view, so far. Wednesday’s Open Cup defeat means means difficulty for the Union moving forward. Difficulty in winning games for the rest of the season. Difficulty in garnering support.

However – and Union fans may not want to hear this – it doesn’t have to be that way. The agony of defeat is still raw with a lot of fans, but if they take a step back from this down result, they’ll see an upward trend.

The Union did lose their third Open Cup Final in five years, but they also made it to their third Open Cup Final in five years. That is no easy feat. And again, this year felt different. It could just have easily been Chicago Fire or New York Red Bulls in those previous years in which the Union made it to the finals. This year, the Union deserved to be there.

In all likelihood, the Union will make the playoffs this year. If they do, they won’t be backing in as they have in past seasons. Even if they lose a good chunk of their remaining games, their performance has been strong enough to truly earn them a spot above the red line.

Jim Curtin has shown that his commitment to their system pays dividends while showing a new commitment to make changes over the season when necessary. The Union signed Borek Dockal, a true difference-maker for the squad. Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie, and now Derrick Jones, have developed quickly into promising prospects and immediate impact players. Even though Wednesday’s result echoes disappointments we’ve seen many times before, this organization is improving.

What does the Union’s Open Cup loss mean for the organization? It means a deserved, heartbreaking smudge on an exciting season and a progressive trend.



  1. Sorry.
    This is a Friday article.
    I just put the smelting iron on the laceration to stop the bleeding …this morning. Fresh wound, man.

    • Our Thursday column guy needed a breather after covering the match in Houston and catching a flight back to the east coast the next morning. You’ll see that piece Friday.

  2. “Jim Curtin has shown that his commitment to their system pays dividends while showing a new commitment to make changes over the season when necessary. “


    Could have used that new commitment to make a few changes down 2-0 last night.

  3. For me I guess Im already over it cause I have a lot of training in not caring thanks to being a PHilly fan my whole life.

    Overall yes this sucks and we will never truly get rid of this stench until we win a cup.

    At the same time, the only way I can feel worse right now is if we lose saturday.

    So beating Columbus is a great first foot forward. Continuing to win and entering the playoffs on a hot streak is another great foot forward. WINNING a playoff game is enough to continue our strides forward and relegate the open cup defeats back to the open cup competition only.

  4. Was surprised to see how many showed up yesterday at the Piazza. Was actually a great event had it not started to rain as Houston started scoring and had we not lost. As it started to rain harder and it became more obvious that it was not our night everyone disappeared into the bars and other places. Another lost opportunity for the Union to grow the fan base and increase the enthusiasm for the sport in the city.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    This team is making strides on a lot of fronts, but for me I look at it like Curtin has carried this as far as he can. We won’t make any more strides without someone better… along with an upgrade at a few spots on the field. We are a club that can enter the 2nd tier of MLS with these upgrades and 2nd tier clubs can win championships. If we don’t make these changes, we will always be 3rd tier, who occasionally punches above their weight, but will ultimately fall short. Teams have made changes to their managers for less. Now (after the season I mean) is the time.

    • Since mid may we have earned 2.00 ppg across all competitions. That’s elite. You know when Dockal got settled and Burke started playing. We are clearly in tier 2 this year and that’s as good as we will be with the money we spend unless our Academy starts going crazy.

    • And after 6 teams ditching their coaches this year there should be plenty of options in the off-season. What would it take to get Caleb Porter to come to the East Coast?

  6. What is with the media’s love affair with Curtin? Fans can see clear as day that his time is up. Lets move on and start thinking about getting a quality #10 for 2019 because…….union thats why.

    • Probably because we are 15th in salary and 9th in points and trending up fast?

    • A fair question from Con above, if you choose to accept his premise.
      It strikes me I should answer it because I experience the difference between being “media” and being an ordinary fan.
      Because I hold Union season tickets I do not cover the Union. That is a club rule. I try to respect it.
      At times the separation between the Union and Bethlehem is artificial, because the Union will determine Bethlehem’s starting lineup. Coach Burke will know his game roster sometime Friday evening because the Union were away Wednesday night in Houston. But I digress.
      Unlike Bethlehem fans, I get to see practices and I get to choose which ones, for th most part.
      And unlike Bethlehem fans I get to talk with coach Burke once a week on the phone and after the practice I visit.
      That means I see him doing his job, I watch him teaching in his classroom. I see how he treats people on his staff. I watch players ask him questions without hearing of course, and I watch him talking to them.
      I see his players body language and assess their morale.
      So I have some sense of who he is in his role as a coach.
      I do not have that same exposure to Jim Curtin. I imagine that the writers for whom The Union is their beat the way the Steel is mine, that they have the same sense of him in his role as a coach.
      They did not like Peter Nowak they seem to like Jim Curtin.
      I do not expect to change anyone’s mind. That is not my purpose. Con asked ‘why,’ and it occurred to me I could help with that.

      • Good answer, Tim. Thanks for sharing that. I met Jim Curtin and he is incredibly nice. Not a salesman type but someone you grab a beer with and watch sports. No idea what he is like as coach and I do wonder what limitations he has and what are put on him by higher ups. Formation? Benching Simpson or Keegan his choice? A friend who worked for mlb would tell me sometimes players were benched because of contract issues either incentives or upcoming negotiations. Does Curtin have same issues?
        The last six weeks prior to last night, Curtin has been more creative with rotation, formation and style of play than last two years.
        Anyway Tim, I’m curious if Steel suddenly collapse and look horrible, are you less likely to look at the coach as cause of area of change due to your proximity?I

    • I’ll dispute the premise, certainly here at PSP. There is no love affair with Curtin.


      Several of us are on record as having said very publicly last year that he should not return, and the percentage of PSP respondents on that panel paralleled the percentage of fans who felt that way.

      Curtin has gotten credit for various things this year because he and his team EARNED it over the last four months. As a result, some of us may have changed our minds since then.

    • Dan’s right, there’s very few people who actually love Curtin, in the media or as fans and Curtin does deserve some credit for this year. But he’s also the one that started CJ way after it was clear this wasn’t his year and Burke was the better option. He’s also lost 3 Open Cup finals which at least two could be argued were because of decisions he made.
      Curtin has also improved through his tenure. He makes subs earlier (unless its a Cup final). He actually didn’t play CJ all season long at striker (Andrew Wenger still has nightmares). He will rotate players, though still not enough IMO. Probably his best quality is his man management. The players seem to love him, and somehow he gets guys to buy into sitting for half a year and then being ready to play when called upon. This is a truly amazing feat.
      For me, I really find it hard to keep someone who has lost 3 Cup finals. That’s not a wining tradition. If you do keep him, that’s perpetuating a losing tradition. At some point, in one of those finals, a good coach does something to win ONE. I fully admit Curtin is learning, and has grown a lot since the first year. It’ just not fast enough for me.

  7. It means party at the moon tower on the Cliff of Union Despair…….back for one night , huge party…….full kegs……everyone’s going to be there. I say you ditch the two geeks in the car and come with me……..but that’s not important right now……..

  8. Left unsaid thus far, much to my surprise: losing this Cup Final “means” that the U can’t put it all together WHEN IT MATTERS MOST.
    From defensive details to overall game plan … from hometown coaches to high-priced “difference-makers” … you simply cannot put in 3 minutes of effort and then spend the next 87 of them deflating as they did. (87, or 45, or … You may quibble with the exact time of death, but the point remains: commit to the full 90 or don’t even bother getting on the damn bus.)
    That’s what made the second half such sordid viewing for this STH founding member. By minute 50, it was clear only one team even wanted to be out there.
    Where was the so-called Philly toughness? the vaunted blue collar ethic?
    Barring an eleventh hour epiphany, we’re in for swift disappointment in the post-season.

  9. I watched, hoping for win, not expecting one–odds against too low. When they have 1000 to 1 against them winning, that’s when they win.
    In meantime I’m on record here as saying after the clintonesque argument in an earlier round over definition of a foreigner it just made me think of whole thing as a joke. Weeknight games, no marketing, and 98% of Americans never heard of it. On that positive side that is down from 99% ignorance of it 4 years ago.
    So shrug off the loss of a No-name trophy and bring on the weirdness of playoff schedule that MLS believes will keep fans on edge with 15 day breaks between games.

    • Houston gets why it’s of increasing value:

      Like the CCL tourny itself and a prize and easiest pathway by winning the USOC, the USOC also going to get more domestic attention as ESPN is exhibiting by hosting the final, more entrants at the semi and amateur level, and increasing cash prizes.

      It’s basically the US version of the FA Cup, and it’s also the only trophy we can realistically win for the foreseeable future. We’re not good enough to win the MLS Cup or Supporters’ Shield even with the new farm developed lads that have picked up the quality. If anything, we have the risk of seeing our best crop products picked up by other clubs.

      We need a Sugardaddy in replacement or in partnership with Sugerman. If this team doesn’t get the money funding it needs to bring in marquee talents, then it’s destined to be mediocre at best and more often craptacular.

      • This ^.

      • This is also the reason that the Union prioritize the tournament more than a lot of other teams. Lets not pretend that they don’t know the value. They talk about it more than anyone else. Which is a mindset that has served them well but unfortunately, has not gotten them over the top.

  10. They’ll never be a consistent team with Curtins system which is press forward and force the ball forward when in panic mode instead of playing the possession game. Another problem is players on this team aren’t equivalent with their touch. I think that’s a huge problem since when i watch other teams, the control with each players feet are almost the same or at least similar. Why wasn’t Harris taken out at like the 60th min!!! He was trash the whole second half. If someone isn’t an impact take them the fuck out of the game. And of course, when simspon
    Has 1 good Game as a player that is never even in the 18 all year, Curtin expects him to be the hero we’re looking for in every game now ?? Subbing in the 88 min is completely stupid but i guess he was saving Harris for league games idk. It was Curtin back to his old tricks. He’s never been able to manage his roster and how they play when the games mean everything. They should have focused on possession more but hey when you let 2 goals in right away it’s tough to get any momentum back.

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