Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Still climbing

Photo credit: Stephen Speer

Never have I been more glad than I am now to be writing a column instead of a match analysis. While I am sure that I could look deeply into the whys and wherefores of the Union’s scintillating and cathartic win over NYC in the MLS Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday night, I am so thankful to be here to speak as a fan, feeling my emotions in full.

Because what an emotional tumult that game provided—the narrative of it, the drama, the spectacle. Never before have the Union reached such a peak, and it felt truly special to experience it as we did. For so many of us, having lived through this franchise’s flawed history, an apotheosis like this feels impossible.

Leaving aside, of course, that there is still higher to climb—one game more. A final. And we all know what happens to the Union in finals.

Or do we?

Unpacking the narrative

The captain’s return

This was a game that, more than most, felt written. How else to explain the story of it? We begin with the triumphant return of the Union’s captain, Ale Bedoya, to the starting lineup. NYC had their own veteran leader, Maxi Moralez, back after an injury scare of his own, so having Bedoya felt important.

And it was. He led the team in touches in the first half, even if his body was waiting to betray him.

The goal that wasn’t

And then, the Union took the lead. A Gazdag goal, of course, from a Wagner delivery, of course. It was a free kick, but so like a corner. So much so that Gazdag, perhaps subconsciously, positioned himself as he would have on one and his tally was taken away for offsides.

It didn’t feel ominous at the time, but I couldn’t help thinking, if we don’t score, this is one of those dread moments—you know the kind—that we will all look back on as the missed opportunity, the what-could-have-been.

The goal that was

Bedoya, valiant as ever, but unable to continue, was replaced by Jack McGlynn at the half. The Union had been the better team in the first period, but unable to score. In the early stages of the second, NYC began to grow into the game, showing their class.

And just before an hour had ticked off the game clock, the pigeons put together a truly special team goal. After a passing movement that began at the feet of their goalkeeper, Sean Johnson, it was Moralez—because of course it was; who else could it be?—who put the ball into the only part of the goal that Andre Blake couldn’t reach.

Perhaps McGlynn, who, for all his talent, is not the defensive presence Bedoya is, could have done more to get in front of City’s dangerous playmaker, but sometimes good teams score good goals. And if that’s what it takes to score on the Union—balletic team goals, combined with an individual error—you take it.

From woe to joy

Which is all well and good, but it doesn’t win you a knockout soccer game. At the business end of the playoffs, the teams are good. They can score what during the regular season would be an acceptable, outlier goal. If the Union want to prove themselves worthy of a championship, they need to be able to do more than disrupt another team’s flow. They also need to find their own.

After the NYC goal, it wasn’t clear they would. That sinking feeling came into my gut. I began the work of accepting defeat, because what was happening felt so familiar. We’ve seen this story before. The Union get close, then stumble. Why expect anything else?

I’ll tell you why: this team is different.

A few minutes after the goal, with the Union scuffling, NYC nearly scored again, off an Alex Callens header from just yards out. But Blake said no. Blake said no, we are not done yet, pulling off an incredible, MVP-caliber save to erase the chance.

That moment seemed to change something for the Union, collectively. It was as if they saw Blake doing Blake things and remembered how good they all are. They remembered they have an MVP in goal, a second at the tip of the diamond, and they are just better than the other guys. They showed hunger and passion and desire, and NYC couldn’t possibly cope.

Or perhaps it was that, after the goal, the worst had already happened. Nobody died. A goal got scored—so what? Go score some of our own. Make NYC know what it feels like to get something taken away from them.

And they did. Where before it seemed Philly couldn’t execute, suddenly they couldn’t not execute. Jakob Glesnes’s pass to Julián Carranza was perfectly weighted, Carranza’s run was perfectly timed, his finish perfectly placed.

Two minutes later, a perfect pass from McGlynn led to a perfect header from Carranza, which found a perfect run from Gazdag, and Philly’s turnaround was complete. What was surprising about the final score wasn’t the power and confidence of Cory Burke’s third goal, but that even more Union goals weren’t scored.

The Union went from hearing the executioner’s footsteps to completely dominating their biggest rival in their biggest game ever, all in a matter of moments.

Throwing off the shackles of history

This team is different.

My first thought, upon witnessing this incredible story of setback and resurgence, is that the reason this Union team is different is because they don’t care about the Union’s history of mediocrity. That stuff happened to other players; it was another time.

But I actually think that’s wrong.

It isn’t that this team doesn’t care about the history. I think they know the history very well. But they aren’t bound by it. It isn’t a weight around their necks, pulling them down.

Instead, it’s rubble—rubble from an old monument that they have patiently torn down, brick-by-brick, until it’s a pile they can climb to reach a higher plane.

They’re almost at the top.


  1. THis team is different; that is why I want to be in LA for the Final. Hope to see you there!

  2. 13 times.
    The Union have scored twice within a 5 minute span 13 times this year!
    So deadly.

  3. Chris Gibbons says:

    Truly, the City fans next to me in 120 cheered like crazy after that goal. Then, like the army rolling down the hill toward Helm’s Deep, Union fans just crashed wave upon wave of sound on top of them until they all sat down, on their hands. It was the kind of turnabout that changes everything.

    • Was also in 120 about halfway down the section from that big crowd of City supporters. “Cheering” them down the steps and out was a lot of fun.

  4. This team has been different since last year. This would be our second MLS Cup appearance were it not for some really bad luck.

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