For Pete's Sake / Union

Resilient Union exorcise a decade of demons

Photo: Earl Gardner

The first person that I thought of as the halftime whistle blew was Chris Seitz.

Seitz, if you’ll recall, started the first-ever Philadelphia Union home game in net. With the Union up 2-1, the keeper went to the edge of his box, set to punt the ball downfield.

Instead of punting the ball away, though, Seitz got spooked by a sudden movement by D.C. United’s Jaime Moreno.

He dropped the ball at Moreno’s feet, gifting him the easiest goal he’d ever score.

Now, maybe Moreno should have been whistled for interference, and the Union did go on to win the game.

But I remember that moment as clear as day from my seat in the Linc’s section 122, and I think about it often as a symbol of what has bedeviled this franchise for its entire existence — a lingering sense that disaster is always a drop of the ball away.

This is, unbelievably, the start to a column about the first-ever playoff win in Union history.

All my friends are demons

The moments come to your mind without me even reminding you of them, I’m quite sure, like a nightmare that lingers with you even after you wake.

The 2011 home playoff game, starring sweeper Stefani Miglioranzi.

The detonation of the roster in the 2011-12 offseason.

Vincent Nogueira, hitting the post.

Andrew Wenger, missing a penalty.

Rais M’bolhi, generally.

Year after year of September swoons, no matter how hot the start to the season.

3-1 in Toronto. 3-1 in New York. 3-0 in Houston.

For a decade now, when the going gets tough, the Union have been happy to politely decline an invitation to get going.

And then, on the way out, slip on a banana peel and fall flat on their face.

The weight of those demons was for the 2019 Union, and their tortured fanbase, to bear as the club prepared to host its first home playoff game since 2011.

The signs weren’t promising. The club limped into the playoffs on a stretch where they earned just four points in five games. Kacper Przybylko, their seemingly unstoppable Striker Muffin, limped into Talen Energy Stadium, sidelined with a stress reaction in his foot. The skies, dark and gloomy, did their best to dampen the mood inside the park.

For 45 minutes, the Union played their part to perfection, seemingly overwhelmed by the moment. Andre Blake paid homage to Seitz, deciding to play the worst game of his professional career at the worst possible time. The backline looked terrified, the midfield out of sync, and the forwards listless.

When Tom Barlow made it 3-1 Red Bulls in the last minute of first-half stoppage time, I thought the game was over.

The demons had won.

True grit

All season, this iteration of the Union has been surprisingly resilient, unlike their weak-willed forbears. They shook off bad starts to come back in the second half. The scored stoppage-time winners rather than conceding them. They only lost two games in a row at the very beginning and very end of the season, a stretch of thirty matches in the middle unbroken by a pair of losses.

The regular-season Union hadn’t been a beautiful team or a particularly joyful one. But they were impossible to deal with for ninety minutes, possessed of a relentlessness that caused opponent after opponent to break down.

With the ghost of Chris Seitz lingering over the River End, the question in the second half was this: would the gritty Union we’d seen all season make an emergence? Or would they meekly accept their defeat?

We all know the answer. The Union came out, to a man, like a squad possessed. They won every loose ball, pinned the Red Bulls in, and began to bludgeon them into submission. As he has all season, Jim Curtin pushed the right buttons with his bench, with Fafa Picault accelerating to roadrunner speed from the minute he touched the pitch.

When extra time began, a familiar — but not too familiar — feeling settled over Talen. It was inevitability, but not the inevitability of defeat. Rather, it seemed only a matter of time before the Union got the goal they needed. Mark McKenzie, the team’s Homegrown centerback, urged the crowd to their feet. The sound from the stands nearly overpowered JP Dellacamera’s voice on the Fox Sports 1 broadcast.

How fitting it was, in the end, that the goal came from Marco Fabian? Emblematic in so many ways of how this franchise has failed over the years — a splashy signing that failed to pay off, an experienced player glued to the bench in favor of players with less talent — Fabian put in a titanic shift in extra time.

The goal itself was a fluke more than anything else, a cross (??) that took a wonky deflection, looped over a helpless Luis Robles, and nestled, improbably, into the far corner of the Union’s net.

It’s never pretty with this team, but it didn’t have to be.

The final whistle sounded, and after a decade of failure, a franchise and its supporters finally got the moment they’d always been dreaming of.

The ride isn’t over yet, of course, with a cataclysmic showdown with Atlanta looming on Thursday. All will be disappointed if the Union fall short.

But even if they do, things will be different.

I hope Chris Seitz’s ghost, and the other demons that have haunted the halls of Talen Energy Stadium, are at peace.

Because they can’t haunt the Union any more.

8 Comments

  1. This season just felt different all along.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    In homage to a team opening the World Series at home tonight after trading its best player to our city… in some strange twist of irony, this article is a Perfect Game. 27 up. 27 down.

  3. At least one road team is gonna win in the Conference Semifinals.

    Don’t see why we can’t be the one.

    • They — Atlanta — are down to their third choice center back, as far as has been reported. No miraculous recovery for Robinson with Parkhurst probably done for the season.
      .
      We have our own problems as well, but that relentlessness, dare I say Teutonicly ruthless focus, should make it interesting.
      .
      The guy at the top sets the tone. Tanner gets some credit for Sunday.

      • In Tanner We Trust says:

        Yes! I doubted my own username at times this year, but Tanner changed this team’s attitude. It’s no longer 10 guys going through the motions around Bedoya. His signings brought talent, but maybe more importantly they brought attitude. Santos ran all night and deserved a goal. Monteiro is an angry monster on the field. Wagner gives this team an edge at LB like we’ve never seen before. Outside of possibly Fabian and Wooten, the entire roster has shown they will fight to the death for a win. Hard work beats talent, which is why we can beat Atlanta for sure.

  4. Union 2010-2018: For a decade now, when the going gets tough, the Union have been happy to politely decline an invitation to get going. (hilariously succinct)
    Union 2019: But they were impossible to deal with for ninety minutes, possessed of a relentlessness that caused opponent after opponent to break down. (Yeah…who is this team? I don’t recognize them, but I like them.)

    Thanks peter – well written. and thank you for the correct usage of the word in the headline.

  5. Old Soccer Coach says:

    I do not like the phrase “stress reaction,” not one little bit,

  6. PhilinWilmington says:

    Full marks to the front offices (Stewart and Tanner) for allowing Curtin the time to develop into the coach he has become this season, arguably on the short list for coach of the year with Bradley and Torrent. Given the budget they have to work with versus what Philly can spend, I’d say Curtin really deserves the nod, but that’s another thread…

    I would argue that since the arrival of Ale and Haris and Elliot we’ve seen a steady march to where the team is now, though it was hard to take it on faith that this is where the team would get to based on past faceplants.

    This kind of team culture can’t be bought, it has to be built. A scrappy “better than the sum of their parts suggest” team that on any given night will find a way to win and will fight like hell for each other and their fans is something truly “Philly” and a joy to watch when things roll the right way.

    I hope this season is a sign of things to come and not an isolated mountaintop moment, ushering in the “next era” of Philly Union. Time will tell I guess.

    For now, I’m hopeful for the Atlanta game, and I’m glad for all the fans that have stuck through the darker times who now can enjoy this moment in the sun.

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