Commentary / Union

The Asterisks v. The What-ifs

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

What’s the story you tell yourself about your life?

How did you become the person you are today? What are your major triumphs? Your setbacks? When were you just plain lucky? Would you even admit that any of your success is based on luck? What would that mean for you, the hero?

Now turn it around.

What’s the story other people tell when they tell your story? How do they think you became the person you are? Do they see the hurdles you jumped and recognize the effort? Do they see the luck when you yourself can’t see it at all? What would that mean for who they think you are – if you’re just lucky, are you still the hero?

Saturday’s Union game was all about the stories fans, teams, and observers tell ourselves. More than that, it was about how every one holds the pen for writing the next chapter.

New York City FC, or The Asterisks

New York City FC are defending MLS Cup Champions.

Their story is one of triumph against all comers, in all manner of situations.

  • An early round win at home against league darlings Atlanta, featuring some leaping saves by their soon-to-be-famous goalkeeper and two goals off of deflections, but not against the run of play.
  • A second round road upset of record-holders New England, with the iron stomach to take hours of unending soccer and penalties, their grit and will the only thing sending them home to train instead of home for good.
  • A third round getaway and pummeling of arch rivals Philadelphia, a match in which they won on the scoreboard as well as in possession, passes attempted, completion percentage, shots, and shots on goal – a banner-worthy performance on a national stage.
  • And finally, in MLS Cup. A victory against the elements, the travel, the league’s most consistent and difficult atmosphere, a late goal against, extra time, and (again) penalties. An answer for every question asked of them, at every step of the way.

The Pigeons are the hero.

Now turn it around.

Atlanta made a nice run toward the end of 2020, but their season was marred by the inanity of Gabriel Heinze, the Champion’s League, and Josef Martinez just not quite having “it” – beating them wasn’t a feat of any measure. New England succumbed to the curse of the top seed and the bye week that comes with it, one year after celebrating being on the other end of that rope. The Union? Omicron and the nearly dozen players who missed the game on its account would like a word. By the time MLS Cup came around, Vegas thought the test was essentially a toss-up – winning was like getting heads with a flipped penny.

The Pigeons are… what, exactly?

What would it mean if New York won their franchise’s first silverware by catching a bunch of breaks and ultimately winning a game the experts considered coin toss? Would it be any less sweet? Would anyone up there admit to themselves that luck played a genuine part? Would the banner they raised be any bigger than a dude wipe at a cheap AirBnb if that were the case?

Would it be any different than the randomness of any other playoff format or the stories that get told based on those outcomes?

How slim is the margin between hero and beneficiary?

Philadelphia Union, or The What-ifs

The Philadelphia Union were knocked out of the MLS Cup Playoffs in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Their story is one of what might have been in a year that seemed to be lining up for history.

  • A Champion’s League run unrivaled by their league peers, only just undone by some poor finishing against the region’s largest club.
  • The latest playoff winner in league history off of the most celebrated long-range right foot in MLS.
  • A nerve-wracking result against the league’s best defensive team by way of their own defensive wall of a goalkeeper.
  • A chance at a conference title against the team’s arch rivals, weary after several early round marathons and missing their talisman striker.

And yet, the fairytale story was unraveled and undone by bad luck, a pandemic, and the gray area between public health guidance, league rules, and cautionary common sense. There is no decisive story to tell in the gray areas.

The Union will always wonder “what if?”

Now turn it around.

Club America dominated the Union in ways that showed up on the stat sheet and in ways that no piece of paper could ever show – they were better at every single position and toyed with the Union, knowing a crack in the minnow’s armor was an inevitability and that their “away” leg would be filled with a sea of yellow shirts. Red Bull and Nashville both put together winning game plans, with one team a golazo away from penalties and another simply unlucky when the spot kicks came – all relative toss-ups in the world of soccer. New York City might have been missing their striker, but they have been in the Union’s head for years, taking the bulk of the points no matter where the match was played and routinely running circles around the vaunted Philadelphia midfield.

In this reality, the Union are… what, exactly?

What would it mean if the Union just simply weren’t good enough in the Champion’s League and lucky to catch Saprissa without fans and Atlanta without a plan? What would it mean if the Union could barely create an ounce of offense and needed extra time or penalties to dispatch two of their lesser playoff foes at home? If New York wasn’t really much of an underdog in that final game, with or without the Union’s 11 missing players – that the story of the Covid What-If might have been one of the team simply losing at home with everything on the line?


Is that “so Union?”

The story of the past, the potential of the future


By Tim Urban, from

When we think about the past, we oftentimes think about everything that might have been had we made different choices.

We rarely also think about our present selves as having an equally infinite universe of choices yet to be made. Perhaps the visual above makes this statement obvious, but there’s good research into the phenomenon that “people of all ages sa[y] that they had changed a lot over the last ten years, but that they didn’t expect to change much moving forward.”

If someone is the hero of their own story, it’s hard for them to conceive of the idea that there are important chapters yet to be written. They’re already the hero, after all.

Being aware of this truth is a superpower. Being aware means coming to terms with the past and seeing a future unburdened by it – an infinite future, all about choices.

Speaking of choices, it’s clear that the Union have made theirs.

“NYCFC are deserved champions, no question,” Jim Curtin said ahead of the weekend’s match – and “they didn’t get us at our best.”

Two truths. No wistfulness, no remorse, not a shred of blame, anger, or sought out revenge (there was plenty of that from the skipper in the press room moments after the match). A clear sense of what transpired, but no dwelling on what might have been. The future is a choice.

Of all the available paths open to the Union, they have chosen the one where they quietly and deliberately do what they set out to do last year, just a few months later than planned. The job gets done, only with another chapter or two before the ending. The Union will tell the part about what might have been in 2021, but only on the way to what then came to be in 2022.

As hero stories go, that’s a much better tale.


  1. Jeremy Lane says:

    This is a good one, Chris. A+

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    I’ve often wondered how my life would have been different if I’d chosen one of the other colleges I was accepted at. How would my friends have been different? Would I still have gone to 150 Grateful Dead shows? What else might be different in my life?
    Your point about how big a factor luck plays into things brings me back to a question I raised last week. IMO the Supporters Shield should be regarded as a more important trophy than MLS Cup. As you point out, if the Union hadn’t had the bad luck with COVID and had beaten NYCFC and Portland, there still would have been some luck involved in their earlier wins. But there is no question that Supporters Shield winner New England was the best team last season. Yes, they had some luck with things such as when they happened to play the Union, but that kind of luck tends to even out over a 34 game season.
    I think baseball and soccer are the two major sports where this is true. In basketball and hockey, the best of 7 format in the playoffs takes out some of the luck (the playoffs are potentially over 1/3 the number of games of the regular season) while in football there aren’t enough games to make the regular season winner truly meaningful. In baseball, the post season is essentially a different game since teams are using fewer starting pitchers than they did in the regular season which means some of your most important players (4th and 5th starting pitcher) become completely irrelevant. And in soccer, MLS Cup is basically putting more import into a 3 or 4 game run than a regular season which is over 8 or 10 times as many games. That’s why if you told me the Union could win only one of the two, I’d take the Supporters Shield over the MLS Cup.

  3. Quick correction, that AirBnB is actually really expensive and getting pricier every year ;~)

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Well, the taxes are the taxes, but if you kids would clean up after yourself, they wouldn’t have to charge such a high cleaning fee.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    Love the article. Thank you.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    “Would the banner they raised be any bigger than a dude wipe at a cheap AirBnb if that were the case?” — Incredible piece and an even better line. Enjoyed it all.

  6. Atomic Spartan says:

    First, fantastic article, and a great read. Thanks,
    On the subject of Luck: Many years ago, I was told by what seemed to be a very wise person that believing in or relying on fate, luck, chance or magic was a delusion, akin to an illness. What we call “luck” is simply what happens when the proper execution of your plan is powerful enough to overcome all the variables that may oppose it. On D Day, Eisenhower wasn’t “lucky.” He had sufficient resources, sound logistics, an effective plan, and people who were trained to be imaginative and flexible enough to overcome all forces that opposed the execution of the plan.
    The Elephant has been right all along: Philosophy, Vision, Plan, and Just Play Well (execution). And the Union’s PVP/JPW approach to soccer is beginning to work. Presented for your consideration:
    PHILOSOPHY: Work (Look it up, it’s a philosophy). This is Chester/Philly. Perenially luckless since the shipbuilding industry left a resident population high and dry. Claw and scrape, nothing is going to come easy and sometimes it won’t come at all. This is no place for frills or leisure. You can’t have an off day or just let things happen. Work in “Practice” gets you into the starting lineup, even if it appears that your game production might not warrant it. Hard work works.
    VISION: Buy low/sell high, recruit smart. It’s one of the few options open to you when your owner doesn’t have deep pockets. This means few “name” players. Look for rough diamonds, not stars or European retirees. Steal a player from Miami on a parlay. Think Denmark, not Barcelona. It works only when you have a Tanner.
    (GAME) PLAN: Evolves naturally from all the above. Gegenpress. Let them try to solve you till they make a mistake. Be physically superior because a tired body makes a tired mind and Gegenpressing rewards discipline over creativity. It’s nerve wracking and it isn’t always going to be pretty. Want pretty? Watch the Brasileirao. This is MLS.
    Of course, all of this works only when you JUST. PLAY. WELL. It doesn’t always work, but so far, so good. So, as Bette Davis said, “Fasten your seat belts, its going to be a bumpy ride.” This is the Union – would you really have it any other way?

  7. Great article Chris. I really enjoyed the read and agreed with your points.

  8. Chris Gibbons says:

    Thank you everyone for the positive feedback. It goes a long way and I appreciate it.

  9. vagabond ben says:

    This was a great read. And “Tell You Straight” came up on my iPhone this afternoon so it was a full Chris Gibbons day.

  10. Great read Chris. Its human nature to look back at our past and forward into our futures. I can’t imagine many past choices that I would change. Not learning Italian, not joining the IBEW sooner. But Italian was for a Great Uncle,not truly a direction changer. Joining the union,if accomplished sooner may mean not meeting my beloved bride. As a skilled tradesman, we had a few sayings pertaining to luck. I’ll use the the 7 “P”s. Proper Prior Planning, Prevents Piss Poor Performance. This is the way to make your own luck. This is a team that has put forth a VPP. And their future is bright! Thankfully, I have sunglasses!!

  11. This is the best article ever on PSP. Someone was in a philosophical mood. Bravo.

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