For Pete's Sake / Union

A heartbreaking MLS Cup defeat summons ghosts of Union past

Photo: Stephen Speer

This one was supposed to be different.

For the better part of thirteen seasons in Major League Soccer, the Philadelphia Union have delighted in tormenting their fans.

Sometimes, it’s been seasons of mediocrity, of defeat snatched from victory, of a squad that couldn’t compete with MLS’s big boys.

Other times, it’s been spectacular losses in do-or-die games, including three U.S. Open Cup final defeats, a playoff washout as a No. 1 seed, and a COVID-induced shorthanded performance in a conference final.

The 2022 Philadelphia Union spent all season proving that this team was different, obliterating basically everyone they played — and the club’s record book — all on the way to their first-ever appearance in MLS Cup.

So it was a horrible, heartbreaking feeling — and a sense of deja vu, almost — when Ilie Sanchez buried the last penalty kick past Andre Blake, securing the MLS championship for Los Angeles Football Club while the Boys in Light Blue collapsed to the ground at the halfway line.

After an epic performance in an epic match, the ghosts of Union past had returned once more.

A clash for the ages

And, make no mistake — this was one epic match, probably the greatest MLS Cup in the league’s history. The Union and their Angeleno foes were the two best teams in MLS this year, and they contested a final worthy of their regular-season performances.

Los Angeles twice took the lead, both off of set pieces. Twice the Union pegged them back — first on a lovely turn and finish from Daniel Gazdag, next on a near-post header from Jack Elliott.

That the Union went down a goal in the 83rd minute and had leveled by the 85th minute says something about the fight they showed on the day, even without injured captain Alejandro Bedoya, relegated to decoy duty on the substitute’s bench.

Extra time was even wilder. When LAFC keeper Maxime Crepeau hauled down Cory Burke, shattering his leg in the process, it seemed only a matter of time before VAR would convert the initial call of a yellow card to a red. (It was the first time I’d ever seen a player get red carded on their way to a waiting ambulance.)

The Union supporters, filling the better part of three sections of Banc of California Stadium, were jubilant. And, when Elliott somehow scored his second of the match in the 124th minute, it seemed an absolute certainty that the Union would hoist MLS Cup.

“I felt like we had done it,” Jakob Glesnes told me later in a somber, silent postgame locker room. “We just had to shut it down now for the rest of the minutes there is a game.”

But it was not to be.

First was Gareth Bale. The European superstar had done little in his time so far in North America to suggest that he had anything to offer in MLS. But when Diego Palacios muscled the ball past Olivier Mbaizo down the wing and floated in a perfect cross, there was Bale’s bunned head rising over Elliott and heading past Blake.

Second was John McCarthy. The area native had been in net for the Union’s penalty shootout in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup Final as Kansas City won the cup. Now, coming in cold for Crepeau, he stoned mediocre penalty attempts from Jose Martinez and Kai Wagner after Gazdag hit his opener over the bar.

McCarthy, of all people, was named MLS Cup MVP just moments later.

“We didn’t have Johnny and Gareth Bale being the ones that did us in today,” Curtin said post-game. “Soccer is a funny sport that way.”

That’s so Union?

So what to make of those final few minutes, when the Union who’d been so impressive all season suddenly seemed to revert into the snakebitten squad of the past?

The goal is much more a credit to LAFC than a sin for the Union. Though Philly should have done better to break up the play — “disappointed that we didn’t get the ball away earlier so they couldn’t cross the ball,” Glesnes said — it’s a really nice play by Palacios, and a quality finish by a quality player in Bale.

As for the shootout… it’s tough to know what to make of what is, essentially, a series of coin flips. (Curtin after the match: “It’s the equivalent of playing a basketball game and settling it with a three-point contest. It’s dumb, it’s not the sport.”) The Union were unfortunate to have lost one of their takers when Burke came off with a late injury, while two other takers — Mikael Uhre and Jack McGlynn — had already been subbed out. Some guys just don’t have that skill in their locker. (Glesnes post-game: “I’ve never taken a PK in my whole life.”) And it’s just unlucky that Gazdag — the one player you’d have expected to bury his shot — slipped at the worst possible moment.

And yet… and yet, it was still an epic collapse.

Jack Elliott’s 124th minute goal was the latest goal ever scored in an MLS match.

That record stood for just four minutes.

The road ahead

Even in defeat, Saturday was a tremendous showing for the Union, both as an organization and as a fan base. The size and sound of Philly’s group — more than 3,000 miles way from home — impressed. Before and after the match, the supporters I spoke with were proud of their squad and how far they’d come.

This season felt like a real coming-out party for Philly, even after a Supporters’ Shield season two years ago. “We’ve showed for everyone [this year] that we’re a strong team, and I think people will start to respect us for the team we are,” Glesnes said. “Because, we’re a hell of a team.”

With an offseason always comes change, and success brings its own set of challenges. There will be players on the move. Paxten Aaronson looks set to be the first domino to fall, but expect speculation to swirl around the likes of Jack McGlynn, Wagner, and Mbaizo too this offseason.

So there will be work to do for Ernst Tanner, as there always is. There is a strong foundation now, an expectation that there will be more opportunities like the one that slipped away yesterday.

But an expectation is not a certainty. The title was there for the taking, practically in the Union’s grasp.

And then, just like that… it was lost.


  1. Talk about ghosts. When LA called on Bale, I was reminded of our first Open Cup final with Seattle able to bring in Obafemi Martins for extra time. It’s so tough to play uphill like that, to face teams with an ebarasssment of riches on their bench.

    Honestly, I’m not bitter at all with the boys. I expected a tough match and was so surprised to be so close to winning. It hurts, but I wouldn’t trade last weekend’s amazing win against NY for anything. All finals necessarily involve a great team losing. That’s just the way it is. I just hope next season doesn’t bring with it the hangover that open cup loss against Seattle did. Gotta get up and go again.

    • PaulContinuum22 says:

      It all goes back to teams that are willing to spend to get those A-list superstars that are able to come off the bench vs. a Chris Donovan.

      • Whine, whine, whine. Get a grip on reality. The Union are not going to spend the kind of money you want. Don’t like it? Then go somewhere else and leave those of who do alone.

      • Omg we’re off and running again with more lack of spending comments from Paul. I’m so glad you didn’t waste your extra hour from daylights savings time.

        It won’t change, give it up. I think having the most points in the league the last four years shows we’re doing something right.

  2. Was at the match. Your article is a beautiful recap of how so many of us felt. Sad, but immensely proud! Back at it in a few months!

  3. Cynical, violent foul by Crepeau which injured both players, though he himself took the worst of it. Do you think he will be fined for it?

    • HAHA fine an LA player? MLS is excited that they can now show all the Hollywood elite who fund LAFC. Hate to be that whiner guy, but LA got every break. Elliot gets an early yellow and then 20 minutes later on a similar foul the announcers discuss how the ref doesn’t like to give an early yellow. Geez it took VAR to determine that CreepO deserverd a red? Every pundit called that as an obvious red right away. That just can’t be a yellow by any rule in the book.

      Rant over (and I didn’t mention how did LA get so many DPs? Check their salary list). I’ve never been so proud and gutted at the same time. Just a fantastic season by the Union. Looking forward to next year, hoping we don’t lose too many players from our core. Get well Ale, you are a special person!

    • I don’t know enough about MLS’s disciplinary history on plays like that to know whether there will be a fine. From where I was sitting, I thought the foul was desperate and a definite red, but not intentionally violent. Hope both he and Burke — who was limping a bit after the game — get well soon.

  4. HAHA fine an LA player? MLS is excited that they can now show all the Hollywood elite who fund LAFC. Hate to be that whiner guy, but LA got every break. Elliot gets an early yellow and then 20 minutes later on a similar foul the announcers discuss how the ref doesn’t like to give an early yellow. Geez it took VAR to determine that CreepO deserverd a red? Every pundit called that as an obvious red right away. That just can’t be a yellow by any rule in the book.

    Rant over (and I didn’t mention how did LA get so many DPs? Check their salary list). I’ve never been so proud and gutted at the same time. Just a fantastic season by the Union. Looking forward to next year, hoping we don’t lose too many players from our core. Get well Ale, you are a special person!

    Was lucky enough to have been in the stadium and it was a blast. Thanks to all who brought energy to that event. Thanks to the Union for listening to those who voted for the event!

  5. Great article, Pete. Was lucky to be able to travel to watch the match. Only sports can deliver the swings between the heights of ecstasy and depths of despair that Union fans felt in the span of 10 minutes. One day, some day, the Union will reach the mountaintop. I can only hope that I can be in the stadium surrounded by some of the best supporters MLS has to offer when it happens.
    The offseason is sure to be a tumultuous one. The question for the manager/ownership is how they keep/replace enough pieces to continue to build on this year. And on top of that, depth is still lacking in key positions. To me, the overwhelming need is in the box-to-box role on the sides of the midfield. We saw how badly we missed Ale when he was limited at the end of the year (despite McGlynn having a very good final). And while Flach has been solid, he might be needed at the base of the midfield if Martinez leaves this winter.
    Still processing the disappointment of the team coming up just short. In time, though, I hope we’ll all be able to look back at this as an incredible game that turned out to be a momentary roadblock on the path to an MLS Cup.

    • PaulContinuum22 says:

      Doubt if anyone will do this, but I just like to see how many games in their existence the Union led going into the last, say, 10 minutes and then the result was either a loss/ tie? The worst come-from-ahead loss in team history.

      • I’m guessing you’re new to this sport…

      • Well, let’s see, last night they were tied with 10 minutes to go and the game ended up tied, so that’s 0. They did blow the lead in the 82nd minute against LAFC in May, but if you include stoppage time, there was more than 10 minutes to go so that doesn’t really count. Then there was the game in June against NYCFC where they gave up the tying goal in the 89th but turned it around and won in stoppage time. So I haven’t gone back to check every season, but this season it was a grand total of 0.

  6. Was also at the match and was proud of everyone involved. Your article sums it up well. That last goal had as many successful odd bounces as some of ours did. The real issue in the match for the Union is that LAFC’s d did a good job bottling up Uhre, Gazdag and Carranza – all of whom did very little.

    On the other hand our back 4 was magnificent.

    It’s interesting that Paxten supplanted Sullivan and Real as the next midfielder off the bench.

    I have no issue with the Shield winner hosting but they should make it a more neutral presentation. I get like I was at a LA regular season home game.

    Also, shame on LAFC and MLS for such poor security for away fans. I was seriously concerned something bad would happen if we had won.

    • Final should be at a neutral location. Solves a lot of issues.

      • At this point, I’m not sure I agree. Given the realities of travel in the U.S., I’m not sure that it would be possible to replicate the kind of atmosphere we had yesterday on short notice at a neutral venue. And I think it makes sense to reward the higher seed (although it is a pretty big reward when two sides are as closely matched as the Union and LAFC).

      • I think the home reward is too big. This is single elimination so you’re giving the team in this case that was only better on a technicality 100% advantage. I can’t think of another sport that does the same. There should be an even crowd for a final. We need the US version of Wembley. Benefits include more tickets sold (imagine if the final was in Subaru Park, max attendence of 19,000ish. You can do better) No nonsense of getting your parking taken by a college football game. This can’t be that hard to figure out. On a non-winter you could have the final a little later to help.

      • Pete, this is MLS. Everything is hard to figure out. (Like figuring out scheduling is going to suck again next year with an odd number of teams, and the most losses is not the best tiebreaker, and that teams like LAFC should occasionally have to play in Chester rather than having the Union always go there, and will the Union ever play a game against Austin FC?)

      • I have to agree with Peter on this one. It’s hard to get the same atmosphere in a neutral ground in the U.S., where travel is inevitably going to be substantial for one or both teams. If this were England, where trains can take you the length of the country in a handful of hours for the game, I’d probably feel differently. Also, having the final at the home of one of the two teams playing is good for the supporters, at least some of whom get to see their club in the biggest game even if they couldn’t normally travel a long way to do so.
        Someday, I hope we all get to watch a cup final together at Subaru Park.

      • If the MLS goes big like the NFL then a neutral venue would work but not now. Plus winning league play gets that home advantage as a bonus incentive to winning the Shield.
        . . .
        A two-leg format for the final would arguably be more pragmatic although I’m fine with what exists.

      • I’m with Pete.
        Way too much of an advantage in a single match championship.
        Traveling supporters are the best, liveliest and loudest. Opposing teams’ fans converging in a neutral city would raise the profile of MLS.

      • John O'Donnell says:

        Didn’t do Portland much good last year.

      • I disagree. As much as I would’ve loved to host MLS Cup at the Soob, I was lucky enough to travel to LA and that was the most amazing sports experience of my life. No way you can replicate that at a neutral venue. Also – Banc of California was not a sellout.

  7. PaulContinuum22 says:

    Time for golden goal again. Eliminate the roulette of PKs forevermore.

  8. Other than loss…so disappointing that best Union jersey will always be associated with it…

  9. “But an expectation is not a certainty. The title was there for the taking, practically in the Union’s grasp. And then, just like that… it was lost.”
    . . .
    True but spilled milk. Plus past winners and losers are also quickly forgotten too except in home town dad stories. Next season started yesterday.
    . . .
    As noted, some current players will likely be gone, but a winning core still exists. So the focus needs to be on not litigating last season but the lessons for the upcoming one.
    . . .
    What do we need for next season, and what pressures should fans place on Sugarman and management to finally get us a winning dad story. What’s good for them needs to be good for us.

  10. OneManWolfpack says:

    Pleasure meeting you yesterday Peter… I was one of the three guys with the guy with Orozco-Fiscal original jersey (not him tho)… excellent article. I’m so proud of the club and how far they’ve come to be taken seriously. Which is why this stings so much. Just a brutal way to go out. I feel like as a Philly sports fan we have to go thru absolute hell in order to achieve glory. Here’s to next year. DOOP!

  11. Henry Scobie says:

    I would like to start on a positive note – being able to watch the MLS Cup final from somewhere River End-ward of midfield was truly a wonderful moment for me as a relatively new Union fan and season ticket holder since 2019, so I have to thank the Philadelphia Union for the opportunity. A balmy sun-drenched day for November also did much to elevate the ambiance.

    Heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, soul-crushing, all are appropriate vernacular for what was witnessed on Saturday in Los Angeles. But in the postmortem I cannot help but feel proud of the team’s performance, being down away from home on two separate occasions against a juggernaut in LAFC and playing them not as a “happy to be here” bantamweight punching above their weight but rather their equal and a worthy, undaunted, unphased competitor. I refuse to believe otherwise, I reject the notion that a team which matched their opponent in points and wholly outperformed them in goal differential was some swashbuckling, plucky underdog engaged in a tired though deservedly admired ‘Rocky’ cosplay. The 2022 Philadelphia Union were a talented club whose defensive, counterattacking, and (of course) goalkeeping prowess were elite in MLS.

    It is painful to be on the losing end of an “instant classic” MLS match, but I am hopeful that the system Tanner et al. have in place will lead to future opportunities and potential new milestones and trophies. I refuse to believe that this one outcome is an indictment on the Union’s philosophy. Call me delusional, call me punch-drunk, but I believe in next season because this season gave me so much to feel proud of and so much to believe in even when a result doesn’t go our way.

    (I apologize for the rant)

    • John O'Donnell says:

      Imagine there will be a day when academy players will be the quality of Blake and Elliott but won’t make the move over seas in the future. Raising the quality of the team beyond the starters is hopefully the next benefit of the philosophy this team is pursuing. For those who still think only spending is the answer just remember that Bale wasn’t big money but more to do with L.A. as a destination. I don’t think Philadelphia will ever have that advantage.

    • You’re delusional. You’re punch-drunk. There, are you happy? Because I pretty much agree with everything you said (except I’ve been a season ticket holder since day 1 and I was at the top of the penalty box at the river end on Saturday).

  12. el Pachyderm says:

    This team reminds me of my children. And maybe that is why I care so much & love it so deeply.
    I can be proud as hell of them and frustrated beyond belief. in the span of about 7 minutes– or roughly the time it took to win then lose MLS Cup.
    In truth I was fully prepared not to win the match on Saturday. What I was not prepared for was to lose it like that.
    B and large I am proud of the response on PSP regarding this. Most the people who I respect have been here for awhile an have genuine insight… some of the others are either children dressed up in adult bodies or just display the typical juvenile need of the modern 21st Century to have everything RIGHT NOW. You know who you are.

  13. I was lucky enough to go, and I can say without hesitation it was the most amazing sporting experience of my life. Sure it was a heartbreaking way to end, but what a game they played. Tactically, we were excellent. What was the difference? An unlucky deflection and a brilliant header from a very expensive superstar. As much as I would’ve loved to host MLS Cup at the Soob, I got exactly what I wanted – a shot at the other “best” team in MLS. That atmosphere was electric – no way we’re getting that in a neutral venue. 13 years of ecstasy and anguish were all wrapped up into that one game. Incredible. We go again.

    • +1 to everything except being there – couldn’t swing it.
      Prob best MLS playoff game I’ve seen in spite of the result. Remember too they were playing without their Captain.
      Is it too soon to start talking about the win/loss tiebreak rule vs goal diff? Been said before, but in every other major league in the world that would have been a U home game.
      Looking forward to what Herr Tanner has up his sleeve this off-season. Think he has $9+mil Aaronson dough between Paxton and Brendan Leeds re-sell. Tanner’s my MVP
      Go U!

      • Is there really a debate as to which makes more sense, goal differential or most losses?

      • It hurt the Union, but I actually think the wins tiebreaker is better. Anything that encourages teams to play for the win instead of draws is a good thing.

      • Dan, I’ll disagree. Most wins made complete sense before they made a win worth 3 points, but once it became worth 3 times as much as a draw, you’ve already disincentivized playing for the draw. It also makes a late game tying goal worth less than it otherwise would be. Essentially, a win is worth 3.01 points rather than 3 points.
        And given that it only involves two teams with the same number of points, the one with more wins also has twice as many more losses than the other team so essentially your rewarding losing.
        Of course they could always go back to the NASL rules where a win was worth 6 points and each team got 1 point for each goal up to 3 (to prevent draws they had a shoot out similar to penalty shots in the NHL where players started with the ball at the 35 yard line and dribbled in from there to take a shot).

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