A View from Afar / Union

The best damn Union game we’ve ever seen

Photo: Rob Simmons

That was the best Philadelphia Union match I’ve ever seen.

I’ve watched a lot of Union matches over the years. I was at the Linc for their first home match (and missed their first goal thanks to Joe Biden). I saw their best goal celebration ever, courtesy of Jack McInerney. I remember Vincent Nogueira hitting the post in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup final when inches to the side would have won the cup. I’ve watched their games on various televised feeds on three continents. I’ve seen the fan base take more kidney punches than I thought possible.

Still, the Union’s 3-2 comeback win over the New York Red Bulls on Saturday was the best and most exciting Union game of them all.

It had everything.

A rivalry made bitterer because the Red Bulls care far less about the rivalry than Union fans.

An improbable comeback after being down two goals at halftime.

A game so aggressive and intense that both teams combined for 138 duels, one of the highest marks in MLS all season.

All five goals were things of beauty, scored not because of blatant individual mistakes but rather triumphant, clutch acts of athleticism and technique. (Brian White’s chip? Wow. Respect.) Both teams came to play, and despite missing key contributors on both sides, that match played out at a level impossible not to enjoy.

Then there was Ilsinho. Good God, he played out of his mind. Two goals, an assist, robbed of a third goal by a fantastic Luis Robles save. In one classic minute of play, he turned around the game by creating two goals. And what would it be without Ilsinho pulling off his typical, trademark, human highlight reel dribble-through-two-defenders move to score a goal?

Simply put, this was the type of game that makes you fall in love with a team, a sport, an experience. If you took a friend who didn’t like soccer to this game, that friend would walk away a soccer fan. The stadium was rocking. Moment to moment, you had no idea what would happen, but at some point you realized that whatever it was, it was going to be awesome. My cranky five-year-old boy started the game disinterested, but wow, did he wake the hell up and cheer those second half goals like you wouldn’t believe.

This is why we love the game.

This is the game Union fans have been waiting on for years.

This is the team they’ve begged for, given up hope on having, and now suddenly, amazingly have.

The Union are in first place in the Eastern Conference, second overall in MLS on points, goal differential, and goals scored. They’re doing it without their biggest off-season signing, Marco Fabian, and yet the talent they put out every match is clearly as good as their place in the standings.

Do they have flaws? Sure. Striker remains a concern if/once the league figures out Kacper Przybylko and if Sergio Santos doesn’t come good. Their center midfield depth is awfully questionable, as Warren Creavalle’s absence Saturday revealed, with the Union fielding not a single true center midfielder among the substitutes. (Let’s be honest: Ilsinho isn’t a center midfielder. He’s a right-sided dribbling wizard.) That’s a problem for a team starting two center midfielders aged north of 32.

But man, is this team fun to watch.

We don’t know what the rest of the season holds. Injuries could assault this team tomorrow, and they could crater. Their revolving door of strikers could run out of goals. Jim Curtin might stop being one of the top five coaches in the league, as he has been over the last year and a half. This is Philly, after all. The next kidney punch always awaits.

Nobody, however, can take away that Saturday experience, that game, and that comeback.

Every fan base has the games they remember for years and years. Maybe years from now, Union fans will be sitting around the bar saying, “Remember the Ilsinho comeback game against the Red Bulls?” And everyone there just nods, smiles, and raises their beers. “Best damn Union game I ever saw.”

17 Comments

  1. I wish they played at the Vet, Dan! I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since Saturday night. A historic victory and to think, we’re still not firing on all cylinders. Santos hittin’ posts/crossbars, Kacper missing open headers, and Fabian isn’t even consistently playing. This team has even more to give. Let’s go, boys!

  2. A few minutes after halftime, my 6-year-old daughter complained she was bored and wanted to Doop, when I throw her in the air as we all cheer. Then I explained about subbing players when Ilsinho came on for Aaronson. THEN we Dooped! She had a fantastic time!

  3. Ilson jr. jr. says:

    NGL I almost left after the 1st half for a bonfire. Thank god it got delayed. I watched with a friend of mine who plaued but doesnt watch. He was as invested as i was in the waning minutes. When ilsinho got the vall before the first goal I tell him that this is the magic man. Then he made magic again and again. He might not vecome a union fan but i think hell be nominating ilsinho for ballon d’or this year.

    Also, I was at both those aforementioned games. Nogueira was so close…

  4. Has there ever been a player like Ilsinho?? Someone so consistently mediocre when starting, yet so sensational as a substitute?? The only theory I can come up with is that he doesn’t commit the same energy as a starter, because he knows he has to go for at least 65 minutes, whereas when he comes on as a sub he knows he only has to play 40, so he just kicks it into high gear as soon as he steps on the pitch.

    But yeah, Dan, you’re right, that was the most exciting game in Union history.

    • Peanut Gallery says:

      Add to your theory that the opposing team has tired legs by the time he joins the fray.

      • Pretty sure this is the main factor. With the defenders just a step slower he can really just dance around them. Sort of noticed later in the game, as Ilsinho slowed down to everyone else’s level, how he wasn’t taking so many on by himself (still creating great chances and shots though).

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I don’t think it’s the main factor, but it’s undeniably a piece that makes this work. His skill is the main factor for me.

    • One of the things that has sucked as a Union fan over the years is that even when we have played late into a game at a tie or close lead, we always had to be afraid of the other team bringing on a real game changer to squash our hope. Closest we have ever had to a late impact sub is Conor Casey.
      It is great to now be in a position where we can bring on a player who can totally change a game. Man did he ever put that game on his back and carry it over the line!

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    Closest game I can think of to this level of excitement was the New England game postponed by the hurricane in 2011 and played midweek where the Union came back from a 4-1 halftime deficit and got the draw.
    .
    On a separate note, Curtin was named coach of the week while Trusty and some Cheat Code made the MLS team of the week. Cheat Code was player of the week. Pretty good for Curtin considering his line in the press conference saying people were going to call him the world’s dumbest coach for not starting Ilsinho.

    • I was going to say that same thing about the NE game. Still remember that game – lost my voice at that game and had to give a best man speech that weekend (9-10-11 wedding). Magically, the soccer gods restored my voice about 4 hours before the wedding

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        That game for me was amazing. We have our season tickets in 127 and still do. That game, a guy that used to have season tickets next to us, acquired field side seats and gave them to us to use for the 2nd half, since he lived far and was leaving. Watched the U come back and tie it from field level. So cool

  6. My buddies down in Chester said they saw Royer and Lade walking around on the waterfront – still looking for their jocks and their dignity….

  7. In Tanner We Trust says:

    I’ve been following the site for a while but haven’t commented. Felt the need to say I brought 4 people who didn’t really care about soccer/Union to the game. By the end of the night, 2 lost their voice, all 4 wanted Union gear asap, and all 4 were begging me to get tickets for the next home game

    There are still concerns, but man this year just feels different right now

  8. Steve Walton says:

    If you think Jack McInerney had the best celebration you need your head examined

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