Commentary / Union

Forget about a cup title (for now)

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

We’re in the middle of a bye week and Philadelphia Union supporters have had some time to let last week’s U.S. Open Cup ousting sink in. It was a cruel result on a couple fronts — one being that a lead in extra time barley lasted five minutes and D.C. United went on to win. The other that the Union have grown accustomed to winning matches in that stage of the tournament. It has become normal for it to end much, much later.

Last season’s loss to Houston was the third Open Cup final appearance in Jim Curtin’s tenure in just five seasons. As all Union fans know very well, his team lost all three of those matches, two of which were at home. A true shame to go 0-for-3, but the Open Cup is still a big part of Curtin’s resume. It’s a competition he has taken very seriously and one he’s had some success in. Everything but the trophy.

Now, all of the sudden, out of the tournament in the round of 32. Without context, it’s extremely disappointing. The Union are off to arguably the best start to a campaign in club history, are experienced in the competition and put a relatively hight priority on it. How could they go out so early?

Alas, context is everything.

First of all, it was a very difficult draw. D.C. United is a thoroughly strong side with a legend in Wayne Rooney. To go on the road there is about as tough as a matchup as you’ll get in the round of 32. Second of all, you know who is ahead of United in the Eastern Conference standings? The Union. It is the third week in June, almost exactly halfway through the season, and Philadelphia is in first place with the second-best goal differential in all of Major League Soccer — with a game in hand on second-place Montreal. One defeat in the league since April 13th.

When you start talking about those facts, the cup doesn’t seem nearly as relevant. Imagine how much harder that loss would have been to take if the Union were 9th in East with a negative differential? It would look terrible.

The reality is, the U.S. Open Cup is a secondary competition to just about every club in the league. It is not the ultimate goal and it is not why the players suit up every week. Sure, it’s a historic tournament and worthy of serious lineups, but right now, for the 2019 Union and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not the primary target. In fact, this season’s early exit may prove to be a true blessing in disguise.

If you follow the biggest leagues in European soccer, you know roster management, cup matches, midweek ties, and outside tournaments are always a topic of discussion. This is especially true in England. For the headlining clubs that play far more matches in a season than the bottom-feeders, there’s always another side to the coin when it comes to getting knocked out of a competition early. “Chelsea is lacking in depth, so fewer matches will actually benefit them” or “Liverpool can now set its sights on the league.”

It’s really no different in MLS. More matches can be good or bad. Beneficial or detrimental. In the Union’s case, though, they haven’t really tried it without a cup. At what expense have all of these cup runs come at? As an unfortunate as it may be, all of those deep runs, all of the players rested during league play, and all of the schedule balancing hasn’t resulted in a trophy. All the Union have been doing is paying for a chance. The chance may be worthy and it may be one that most clubs don’t see, but it hasn’t turned into anything more than that.

What will a half season without cup matches look like? Well, maybe it will be more rested. Compared to 2018, the Union will now play four fewer matches on the schedule. It doesn’t sound like much, especially when you think of it as 38 vs. 34, but anyone that knows soccer knows that four matches is a lot to stuff into a schedule. Most of those are mid-week fixtures and most of them mean drastic lineup changes. You simply can’t ask all of your starters to play 90 minutes on Wednesday and 90 minutes again on Saturday.

Think about a guy like Ilsinho, for instance. He’s got four goals and five assists in 14 appearances this season, and most of that damage has come off the bench. He’s potentially the most lethal sub in the entire league, but is also a guy that won’t normally go a full 90 minutes. If he starts a cup match on Wednesday so Fafa Picault or another forward can rest , he may not be available at all for a league match on Saturday. We’ve talked about the virtues of the Union’s depth this season, but that only works if guys are rested.

Now, almost without choice, they will be.

Curtin can concentrate on putting the best possible lineup out weekly without having to look ahead. He’ll have full depth at his disposal for all the important league matches and you can’t really put a price on that. It’s not about making the playoffs anymore. It’s about earning his first home playoff match and winning it. It’s about making a real push for MLS. It’s time to defend a lead on the table, not make up ground. Only three clubs since 1996 have won both the league title and the U.S. Open cup. Making a deep run isn’t some sort of prerequisite for conquering the league.

The Union now have a singular goal. It’s the one that matters most and the one that will make or break Curtin’s reign. The cup can wait.


  1. what’s missing is the 90′ + 30′ + PKs oh, and the lightning/massive storm delays, that almost always haunt the Union US Open Cup campaigns. loved (not really) those City Islander or other USL opponents sucking the life out of league matches.

    depth could’ve helped but we don’t currently have much of that. i truly am not upset. disappointed? surely. but there’s a bigger prize and a mound of potential ahead. let’s do this.

  2. Only thing I’ll miss about Open Cup is the U’s uncanny ability to knock out Red Bull along the way.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    I think the Union have already lost the main positive that could have come out of a cup win in DC last week. IF Fabian would have been healthy enough to play last night, it would have been an opportunity to get some quality minutes and start to get back in shape. Other than that, I think they likely benefitted with the week off, but we’ll know after we see how they do in Foxboro, the Bronx, and Orlando in the next couple of weeks.

  4. Timothy Herring says:

    Nah, that tourney is a tertiary competition at best, i.e. in the int’l. context that we should be thinking about.

    With the loss to NY FC, so now begins the slide into the abyss of either not “making the playoffs” or “making the playoffs” then losing in the first round.

    The Union are not even in first place — a real table, i.e. one that combines the East & West, shows that, and then when considering the @ of matches played, the writing is once again on the wall for this Team and its incompetent ownership and management.

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