Commentary / For Pete's Sake / Union

What might have been

Photo: Stephen Speer

Back in 2007, a group of fans without a team had a dream, a dream of a soccer club in their home city of Philadelphia, one that would compete for trophies and be the envy of all the country.

Sunday afternoon, by the banks of the Delaware River, that dream was as close to total fulfillment as it’s ever been.

A sold-out soccer-specific stadium, packed to the gills with 19,500 screaming fans, waving towels as their team — a team that just four days earlier had seemed like a team of destiny — took the pitch with a first-ever trip to MLS Cup on the line.

But that team looked suddenly unfamiliar. A coronavirus outbreak had sent eleven Philadelphia Union players into health and safety protocols before the match, unable to participate. What was left was a group of men far from the squad at full strength.

And, despite a valiant effort, those men came up just short.

At the end, it was the visitors who celebrated on the pitch, their jubilation bleeding into Union manager Jim Curtin’s post-game press conference.

“We’ll never know what we could have done tonight with a full group,” Curtin said, calling it a thought that would haunt him.

It’s a thought that will haunt Union fans, too.

An act of God

Briefly, before turning to the match, a few words about the blame game.

There’s been plenty of it in Unionland in the last few days. Because when people experience bad fortune, we look for someone to blame. It’s natural human behavior.

But there isn’t anyone to blame for the Union’s shorthandedness, at least in my view.

There’s no evidence that the players did anything wrong. Kevin Kinkead’s reporting yesterday makes clear that the COVID situation around the team was complicated, not something that can be attributed to any one player or activity. It reflects the simple, frustrating fact that the virus is becoming endemic, not eradicated — something that our world must manage as best we can.

So, then, the league must be at fault. I don’t buy that argument either. Maybe the league’s protocols should have been updated before the playoffs, and maybe those changes would have allowed some of the Union’s players to come back in time for the match. But that’s extremely speculative — and it’s not even clear to me that there’s anything wrong with the league’s rules, which are designed to mitigate the spread of a dangerous, contagious disease.

Some have suggested that the league should have postponed the game. That was always a non-starter. Even setting aside the economics involved (tickets sold and prime TV time), it’s almost unheard of to postpone a playoff game for what are essentially competitive reasons. The nature of sports is that you might not have your best players available for every game — imagine if these same eleven guys had picked up food poisoning, or had all injured each other in a particularly brutal training session. City fans would have howled at the change, just as if Union fans would if the league had rescinded Valentin Castellanos’ suspension in the name of a more competitive game.

It sucks. It absolutely sucks.

But it’s no one’s fault.

It’s just more rotten luck for a star-crossed franchise, one more act of God that could have you, like Jed Bartlet, cursing the heavens.

Once more into the valley of Death

For all the post-mortem teeth-gnashing, it should not be forgotten that the makeshift Union played a better match than anyone could reasonably have expected.

The first half could not have gone better to plan, with Jose Martinez and Jamiro Monteiro destroying everything in their path in the midfield. Philly mucked up the game, keeping City from creating any danger and picking chances to go forward. The cobbled-together defensive partnership of Stuart Findlay and Aurelien Collin had little to do, and looked comfortable when it did.

Things looked even better in the start of the second half. In minute 63, Daniel Gazdag showed his worth, getting the Union on the board with a probing pass that forced a helpless City defender to head the ball into his own net.

The stadium exploded. (Figuratively.) Belief seemed to swell through the team and into the crowd, or maybe it was the other way around. It looked, for the briefest of moments, like the Union could do it.

It is cruelty piled upon cruelty that they gave up the lead so quickly. Philly switched off for just a second after the goal, City found another gear, and Matt Freese was beaten just 90 seconds later.

And in the end it was a brutal error by one of the senior players — Olivier Mbaizo, so up and down all year — that proved the Union’s undoing. He did not feel the creeping Pigeon behind him as he was easily dispossessed at the edge of the box. The ball was in the net seconds later, and there was not enough time or energy for Philly to mount much of a response.

Jim Curtin had played a poor hand almost perfectly.

But it just wasn’t enough in the end.

A long, short offseason

So Subaru Park emptied for the last time in 2021. It will fill again in barely three months, when Minnesota United come to town at the end of February to start the 2022 season. I hope it will be snowing.

There is work to do in the offseason for Ernst Tanner. Remember, most observers expected this to be a transitional year for the Union, with one pair of Homegrowns aging out and a new core coming up behind them. Despite never quite clicking as an attacking threat, the Boys in Blue weathered a crowded fixture list and got key results all season long, making runs to the semifinals of both the Concacaf Champions League and the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Now, the question is whether Tanner can effectively augment what we now know is a championship-level roster. He will search, first and foremost, for a striker who can elevate the side, after the 2021 Union’s three-headed trio went colder than ice down the stretch. And there will surely be departures, Jamiro Monteiro likely atop the list. Other important players could leave.

The future seems bright, but it remains uncertain. Who knows if new signings will hit, if the Homegrowns keep developing, if balls will keep bouncing the Union’s way.

That’s why this loss, and the way it happened, hurts so much.

The Union were closer than they’ve ever been to a championship, one that would have been remembered forever among a fan base that has waited a long time for such a moment.

Who knows what might have been?

28 Comments

  1. soccerdad720 says:

    Well said my friend. Forward. Ever forward.

    I’ll also say..those guys on the field Sunday played their asses off in true Philly style, every last one of them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group on that field so motivated. It was palpable.

    I was proud to be a union supporter when that final whistle blew. They took what should been a foregone conclusion and said, ‘what if?’ and then almost did the impossible.

  2. I would only disagree with one thing, and that is the statement that no one is to blame. Without any transparency from players, Union, and MLS we have as little proof to say no one was at fault as we do saying that MLS was at fault. We just don’t know because the entire process is totally opaque. No one releases any details!
    Sure the Kevin Kinkead article seems to point to international callups to Africa but that is not confirmed either. Pure speculation.
    Until we get some factual details about what happened and when, we can neither blame anyone nor dismiss all blame.

    • Frank, you may not have noticed in the text above that there is a link to the article Peter Andrews references by Kevin Kinkead.
      .
      Roll your mouse over the words of the reference and the link will show itself, at least it did for me. Read the article. It seems solidly responsible in its reporting.
      .

      • Section 114 (Former) says:

        I think Frank’s criticism was about the pre-match lack of transparency and the resultant speculation. Which is a very valid criticism of a league that does not yet understand it has grown up.
        .
        I also wonder why they never updated their protocols about protective quarantining by vaccinated people who were potentially exposed. It also shows that they are immature.
        .
        In short, the league behaved imnmaturely. Not a shock.

    • Completely agree.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    Jim played “a poor hand almost perfectly”… gives him a bit too much credit. I was down on Jim for a lot of years and he won me over. It took awhile but it happened…
    .
    …I support the manager… I’d argue he is the best aspect of Philadelphia Union but what he needed to do Sunday with that hand he was dealt….was bluff.
    .
    He needed to be a swashbuckler at the opportune moment but chose not too. NYCFC made significant changes in a game they were already controlling. The starting 11 kept them in the match and he needed to inject some youth into the game. He needed to throw down the dare….NYCFC offered….Paxten and Fontana needed to come on and be given a chance to steal the hand… with a pair of 5’s.
    .
    Instead we got a defensive minded sub Bueno- then when it was painfuly obvious– a quick hail mary in the 88th minute which actually pissed me off the most
    .
    It still bothers me a bit but there is no teeth gnashing from me. I surrendered the outcome by dinner Sunday night. I would have liked to see them win- but the reality is- beating Portland at home after having to fly across country would have been nearly impossible– which brings me to the greater point of my rebuttal.
    .
    I get it… MLS needed asses in seats awhile back…so they gave the Title Game to the team with the highest point total to guaranteee a sell out for MLS Cup… but it is wrong.
    .
    It is wrong to ask NYCFC to fly across country and play the ultimate game of an entire season they won three playoff games to earn the right to play in… with one match winner take all –on the road. Either play a home and home for the final or go back to a neutral destination.
    .
    It is simply ridiculous.

    • I think focusing on the late-game substitution obscures what Jim did right. He got the first-half lineup and tactics absolutely correct – City had barely a sniff on goal and the game was played at the Union’s pace. And he had a bunch of reserves ready to play at a high level. Credit him for having Findlay, Collin, and Harriel all having decent games in such a high-pressure moment.
      .
      As for the subs… yeah, I think there’s something to be said for having gone for it a bit after the first City goal. Maybe Aaronson in for McGlynn instead of Bueno. It didn’t help that Kacper spent the whole playoffs in a horrible funk, but there was no real way to replace him.
      .
      I have been as frustrated by Curtin’s game management over the years as anyone, but I think if you look at the big picture, he did just about everything he could with the cards he was dealt.

      • John P. O'Donnell says:

        I think everyone is over looking that although Kacper didn’t score, he created the own goal by the defender trying to prevent him from getting the shot. Also it went off his left foot as Kacper got in front of him and he tried to prevent the pass.
        .
        Much like Andy Reed under valuing wide receivers, it feels like Tanner might have the same blind spot for a DP striker.

    • Sorry but I disagree on the premise that flying to Portland is ridiculous.

      It makes sense on so many levels:
      1) In any other soccer league worldwide, we don’t have this playoff system. If you work hard all season and finish in first place then you are the champion. Working hard and finishing first isn’t just something, but it is everything.
      So here in the USA, finishing with a better record should mean a great deal. It is a small prize for the accomplishment of all the hard work the team did during the season.
      Yes of course it is a bit unfair because of the two conferences but it is not a perfect system by any means.
      2) If you make the game at a “neutral” site then someone will always have the longer trip. What if this year’s neutral site was Red Bull Arena? Would it be fair for Portland (the better team) to travel cross country? They would also be doing so on one day less rest. Now that is unfair!
      3) Why deprive the fans of the better team the opportunity to see their team play at home for MLS Cup? That brings up a whole other issue of how tickets are allocated. Do season ticket holders automatically get right of first refusal? I was wondering about that if the Union played MLS Cup here, and that was never made clear. Somehow I envisioned Union season ticket holders getting shafted.
      4) What happens to “small markets” if it is always a neutral venue? Would Subaru Park EVER get to host MLS Cup? The likely answer is no, and that is not at all fair.

      • el pachyderm says:

        Got it Frank. Appreciate.
        .
        Rebuttal, For one, Portland playing in Red Bull arena against Union is not at all the same as Portland playing in Chester….
        .
        …which is why my other contention is the game should be a home and home.
        .
        It’s fine MLS decided to have one off matches throughout the playoffs… I have no quarrel with that.
        .
        But the final should then be a home and home- which is how MLS managed almost the entirety of the playoffs not that long ago.
        .
        The league erred on the extrreme other side of home and home playoff games in the current model.

      • John P. O'Donnell says:

        All good points. Also since the most influential soccer in the US probably is Champions League, most Americans understand one and done for the final. Portland finished with four more wins in the regular season and neither team was a number one seed. I guess the regular season does matter in this case and I don’t understand why it should be easier for lower seeds to win.

    • Mighty Elephant, it is so good to debate with you again! I appreciate it.
      .
      AS I said in a comment on the other post-mortem piece of today, Jeremy Lane’s, to my eyes the first playoff game against Red Bull showed me that Paxten Aaronson’s engine is not built yet, especially for the “extra” that is a playoff game. He had flashes only, not a steady beam of high level energy.
      .
      Paxten 18.3 years old and the Red Bull playoff match was his sixth MLS start only. He is at the starting end of what for his brother was a two-year process. He is where Brenden was in 2019, and a little further behind than Brendan was because older brother got a lot more Bethlehem Steel minutes in 2018 than younger brother got with Union II in 2020.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Yup. Fair reply Time… and in rebut he started that game against a team we all knew was going to be a brutal affair.
        .
        It’s possible the Little Dynamo sat there for 70 minutes looking at time and space and thought to himself this is what I’ll do… if given a chance.
        .
        Maybe nothing comes of it. We’ll never know. What I do know is he brings a different rhythm. What I also know is Anthony Fontana has scored some clutch goals for the manger over the years.
        .
        I tend not get too worked up about the manager’s in game choices because it is just so hard to know what he knows or sees…and in a normal circumstance would not be doing it after this match either.
        .
        This match was extreme however and I think he needed to change tactics.
        .
        Either way. I’m proud of the team and am already calendar happy waiting for early 2022.

    • Another thought for home and home is the almighty dollar! 2 chances for sellout crowds. And the boost to 2 city’s economy.

    • I agree. I questioned the timeliness of the subs on the player ratings post and was told to stop the “Curtin Bashing.”
      .
      I spent a lot of time during the game watching Kasper. Yes he was involved in the goal but his movement otherwise – both offensively and defensively was sporadic and often not connected with the other 9 field players at all. At one point I started to wonder if he possibly has a meniscus tear and was only pushing himself when the best moments revealed themselves. Now again, I am not Kasper bashing, just sharing what I saw from the lone striker.
      .
      I too recall the timely, clutch goals Fontana scored last year, and the elder Aaronson’s constant pressure and energy on the pitch, that is also ingrained in the DNA of Paxten … it was with this in mind, that as each minute beyond 75 crept by, I kept thinking to myself, “What is Curtin waiting for?”
      .
      We’ll never know, and I will always wonder, “What if?”

    • Future MLS Finals.

      Need a neutral site . also need a week off before final to see best efforts (not two worn out teams). This would also allow the teams to get the jet lag and time zone adjustment worked out of their system.

      Neutral site should be in the South. Orlando would be a great location for finals. Family friendly and affordable. Built in Soccer fan base. No Football team to compete with attendance more publicity Its a win win for MLS soccer. Come on Don its a no brainer!

      Any home and home game with a Northeast Coast or Midwest team probably tranlsates to likely poor playing conditions.

      Just imagine a mid December game in Philly 20 mph winds, rain and or snow. not a great idea. Chicago or Columbus weather would probably be worse.

  4. Love the absolutely perfect Jed Bartlett reference. Sums it up accurately.

  5. lefthalfback says:

    They played a good game, fougt hard. The offense was never really a staedy thgreat, but that cross in the 85th minute had a chance to be put in.

    And it is a team game but the Right fullback made two bad mistakes each of which cost a goal. The first goal was rebounded in from his side and he was nowhere to be seen.

    On the second goal, he made like a 9th grader mistake when he did not clear it first time. maybe the centerbacks did not give him the “Man on you” call?

    It was a great game. the stands were literally rocking for 2 minutes.

  6. Great read Pete! I tried to leave a positive comment on an earlier post and was called a sheep for not bashing on the team, league, or players.im hopeful that the anger has waited enough to make a positive comment now. Jimbo could have rolled the dice with the kids earlier but that has not been his style for his tenure here! He weathered the storm of his earily years and is,just like his team, much improved!

    They almost pulled it off! The “B” squad..so f-in close. But forward we go!

    Also love the home and home idea!

  7. Please forgive my ignorance, has the Union qualified for CONCACAF Champions league again or did they
    need to win on Sunday for that?

  8. First, I join in commending the West Wing clip; for what it is worth, I spent much of the game watching with “Brothers in Arms” playing in my head as if it was actually the soundtrack to the fight being played out on the field.

    Elsewhere, I commented that I thought that, if the protocols were either defective or unfairly applied, resulting in the Union’s personnel being decimated, it would devalue the result of this year’s playoffs. With Jim Curtin’s commentary, that seemed like a plausible issue; now, however, I see it for what it was, which is the understandable emotional response to watching kids playing out of their minds, and coming up just short. Reading Kevin Kinkead’s article, and giving the tincture of time to the whole thing, it was a confluence of bad circumstance, and tough to take. Nevertheless, the team should be proud of their progress over time, and the specific results of this season.

  9. Matt Custer says:

    Reposting this from previous:
    .
    To all those of us who joined together Sunday in sending out waves of support to the team, who celebrated the highs and lamented the lows; who exulted with every pass and reception and bemoaned every miss and misstep: Wasn’t that really something? History. The condensation of the very essence of Philly-on-Chester? One for the books, and the kind of gallant failure that legends and motivation are built upon. Impetuous. Homeric.
    .
    And to all who say they are ready to cut their emotional losses and walk away from the Boys, the coach, the team, the league: You knew what you were getting into. We know the coach’s flaws The team is far from perfect, and so is its ownership. The league lets a flock of Columbidae fowl the nest on a baseball field. The stadium’s in the wrong place – heck, it can’t even handle the concession throughput or the sanitation needs of a capacity crowd. And don’t get me started on the refs.
    .
    But we’re Philly and we’re Union. We’ve been through worse. A lot worse, and most of us are still here. Because we’re Philly and we’re Union. There are good days and bad days ahead. We can take it and I’m sure you can too. Because we’re Philly and WE ARE SO UNION! See you in February.

  10. Here is Tanner’s ‘out’ clause (had an interview today with the Inquirer); “We were spending on players like [Jamiro] Monteiro, we were spending on [Dániel] Gazdag,” Tanner said. “We are now going, certainly, out and [will] spend on a striker. That’s what we are doing. **But it needs to be reasonable and fit, due to our environment**.”
    /
    If only he stopped at “That’s what we’re doing.”

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      The striker doesn’t have to necessarily cost a ton of money, but he needs to be as top class as possible. Meaning, it can’t be another Davo, or project-type player, or guy that could pan out the following year. There are plenty of good players in MLS who don’t cost $5m – which the Union will never spend. They do need to drop $2-$3 million I think – which for them (I’m pretty sure) would be a record

  11. “Things looked even better in the start of the second half. In minute 63, Daniel Gazdag showed his worth, getting the Union on the board with a probing pass that forced a helpless City defender to head the ball into his own net.” Hopefully you were mobbed celebrating in the crowd cuz this was not a headed own goal. came off the defenders toe- saving kacper the embarrassment of shanking it

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