Fans' View

Fan’s View: A new high

Photo: Earl Gardner

What an incredible day at Talen Energy Stadium on Sunday! It’s not every day your team comes back from two 2-goal deficits to win a 7 goal game in overtime. And this comeback just happened result in the Union’s first ever playoff win. Even the most diehard among us had to have that sinking feeling after being denied a penalty kick on what looked like a handled Brenden Aaronson shot on one end of the field, followed quickly by an uncharacteristic mistake by Andre Blake to put NYRB back up 3-1 just before the first half whistle. Despite my 11 year old son Justin’s unwavering optimism, I know that’s about the time I texted my wife with a game update that included “man, this team breaks my heart”.

That sinking feeling in my gut at halftime was promptly soothed by an inspired Union team in the second half that just wouldn’t allow themselves to be eliminated. By the time Jack Elliott scored in the 55th minute, I, and I imagine most of the crowd in attendance now sensed there was no way we would fall short of completing the comeback. Red Bulls appeared to be out of ideas, the Union appeared to be in control, and all three subs made tangible impacts on the game. The energy in the stadium was palpable, and the noise level at the end of regulation was as loud as I’ve heard it in there. Turns out it was the opening act for a perfectly scripted finish, with our star offseason acquisition not featuring in the match until the 103rd minute, but leaving an unforgettable mark on this franchise’s history with an unlikely deflected goal that nestled just under the top corner of the goalpost.

Beyond the thrill of sharing this playoff winning experience with Justin (we’ve been season ticket holders since the team was founded), I had this really awesome, visceral, Herb Brooks type of experience after the game. One of the best moments from the movie “Miracle” is the celebration scene shortly after the U.S. hockey team hangs on to defeat the Soviets. The crowd and player reactions are timeless and moving, but pay attention to Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Coach Brooks near the 3:00 mark. This happened to me on Sunday.

We celebrated briefly at our seats among the thousands in attendance, had a quick family bonding moment like Herb Brooks and his wife, then separated. So it wasn’t a perfect replica – Brooks went up the ramp underneath the Olympic Center alone for a quiet, reflective, celebratory moment of elation, while I was rushed into the concourse underneath the seats at Talen because my son had toughed out 30 minutes of overtime while really needing to use the restroom. Whatever the driver, I ended up along the concourse wall in a mostly empty hallway, pumping my fist, looking upwards, and feeling unexpectedly choked up

The team I had invested so much time, money, and energy in over the last 10 years took the leap and won a playoff game in most dramatic fashion. We’ve had this shared experience over the years, with the Miglioranzi back five, M’Bolhi, Porfirio Lopez, the Nowak era, the goalie jokes, the U.S. Open Cup near-misses, and so much more. This year’s edition of the Union is special, and their most impressive accomplishment is making a believer out of me again, and likely many of us. It’s no stretch to say that expectations have heightened – and what an incredible experience the opening round playoff win over Red Bulls was on Sunday! First, a little reflection on how we got here and why I think the payoff is so sweet.

The Early Days (2010-2011)

In 2010, just having a professional team to support was enough to have you amped up for game day. The Commodore Barry Bridge view, the singing from the River End, the fanfare, and simply the newness of it all was exhilarating for that first year or two. Then came 2011, featuring a team exceeding any reasonable expectations the fan base had coming into the season. A team filled with talented, high character players and leaders like Califf, Mondragon, LeToux, and Carlos Valdes (before that all went off track the following season). A third place conference finish in the regular season, followed by a spot in the Eastern Conference semi-final capped off what seemed like a pretty magical ascent, despite ensuing seasons knocking us back down a few pegs.

Middle, Middling Years (2012-2015)

The Petr Nowak era came crashing down in flames, with no water breaks, questionable (and sketchy) international signings, and transition to a stretch of mediocrity and finishing below the playoff line. Questions of commitment and the Union clenching their GAM & TAM filled wallet tightly. I don’t think I’ll ever forget learning during this stretch how Union players pile into vans and get shuttled over to Chester Park to train. Can you picture the Eagles or 76ers shuttling over to the local township park or area playground for practice? The transition to John Hackworth, then to the first year or so of Jim Curtin couldn’t shake us out of 6th place finishes and no playoff appearances. Expectations flat lined, and seemed to coincide with fewer butts in seats.

Turning the Corner (2016-2018)

An increased level of talent, the expansion and maturation of Jim Curtin as a head coach, and significant improvements in infrastructure signaled a desired to elevate the club’s standing. The new training complex opened in 2016, following up on the new on-site training fields opened roughly a year earlier. Increased emphasis and investment in the Union Academy, including introduction of the Union Pre-Academy were also examples of a club starting to think more ambitiously. Two playoff appearances, albeit with early exits, suggested a team that might be ready to go toe-to-toe with the top tier of the Eastern Conference with the proper level of investment in new talent.

Higher Expectations (2019)

What a year it’s been. Shrewd acquisitions like Przybylko, Wagner, and Monteiro elevated the talent level and competition at much needed positions. Young players stepping into larger, steady roles (Elliott, McKenzie, Aaronson), and inspired play by veteran players like Bedoya and Medujanin (who saw him playing every single minute this year? Anyone?) have made the Union a team that can compete with anyone. Save for a few ugly hiccups on the road (Montreal anyone?), there’s a sense that this team is rarely ever out of a game.

Most notably, our expectations as fans have shifted to new ground. We expect this time to attack, to not back down from the very best opposition. While pleased to earn a point against LAFC, a team some believe to be the most talented in MLS history, we also rued opportunities lost and wondered if we really should have come away with all 3 points. What a refreshing feeling, just a few short years removed from “that’s so Union” and the snacking on cookies on the Cliff of Union Despair.  The Union also fought back from an ill-timed goal just before halftime against the defending champs from Atlanta to score three goals and earn a resounding victory in what was likely the biggest and most exciting regular season match in the Union’s 10-year history. After Sunday, that’s not even the biggest win of 2019.

Given everything this year’s team has shown us now, why can’t it be our turn to take this thing even higher?

3 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Personally… as a Lover and fierce Criticizer of the Criticizable, I am just thankful they responded to my ‘Call to Arms’ and won Sunday.
    .
    Not really like I had anything to do with it, but damn it, neither did Fee have anything to do with it…and you can’t play an entire season displaying a competency worthy of being at the top of a table to flame out down the stretch then —die legs up—- in the first home playoff match when so much psychologically as a fanbase and franchise was riding on it.
    .
    Win or lose tonight, I can retire to european footy for a winter and be rather comfortable. That said, I argued since May this was a conference Finalist, MLS Finalist or even possible Champion of a League and I still believe it…
    .
    ‘Floyd is dead.
    he’s nothing but a ripple
    cause Milly took that paper
    and sliced him on the nipple.’
    .
    Whoa oh o oh Fee…. Let’s fucking win tonight.

  2. I agree with everything you said, even the nipple slicing part. But I especially agree with your last sentence. Let’s go win the thing!

  3. Watching NYCFC defender commit a dumbass foul in the box reminded me that could have been a Corbin Bonesaw moment a few years ago. But those memories should be left at the bottom of the Cliff with the cookie crumbs! Yes…yes we can win this game. So let’s go men. Let’s go down there to win!! And if we dont…what a friggin great ride!

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