Commentary

Grief, loss, and the Philadelphia Union

Photo: Stephen Speer

The Union lost on Saturday.

Union fans suffered a loss on Saturday.

Something was taken from them, pulled from their grasp, and the void they feel is real. The void we feel is real – as objective as we are here at Philly Soccer Page, we’re fans too – and we’re grieving.

Stage 1 – Denial

Denial is the first stage of the grieving process, and if ever there were a match in which disbelief is a characteristic, it’s this one. Said two members of the PSP community (all quotes in italics):

Struggling to process this one. What a heartbreaker.

I am beside myself with what I just watched… this one wrecked me. Just absolutely brutal. I got nothing left.

Famed announced Arlo White once said his least favorite expression to describe a football match was that the happenings on the field were “unbelievable.” In a language so robust as English, suggesting an end to end match with an unlikely winner as something that couldn’t be believed was simply wrong – it’s believable, wild endings happen all the time.

And yet, large swaths of the Union-verse are in denial this morning because what they witness was hard to believe – across multiple dimensions of impossibility, from Jay Sugarcane to Jack Elliott, Gareth Bale to John McCarthy.

Unbelievable, indeed.

Stage 2 – Anger

I’d rather have the worst record in the league than to lose like THAT. This is a franchise-destroying moment… They choked against a 10-man LAFC. 3 f’n minutes to go and they gagged.

That anger follows denial makes sense – a loss means something we had is now something that is gone. Whether through theft or otherwise, that’s an empty space that used to be full and that gap is a painful one. Calling the loss a choke job or anything similar is part of this phase. It’s easier to move the emotion to someone else at this stage, to place the blame, because it means you make it someone else’s fault: you didn’t lose something, someone took something from you.

That would make anyone sour.

Don’t judge another on how they grieve though, particularly in the anger phase. If we’re not all in that phase yet, we will be. It’s part of the healing process.

Part of the anger comes from the powerlessness of it all, that nothing we could do as fans, writers, podcast hosts, or people could have any affect on the outcome. Part of the anger comes from the fact that we know by committing to someone, something, some cause, we may lose it all some day.

Anger is the feeling that comes from believing that today is that some day – that what we had is gone.

Stage 3 – Bargaining

Bargaining is the “if only” stage of grief.

  • If only Jose Martinez hadn’t conceded so many turnovers and that unforgivable foul at the top of the box, just like he did in Mexico City last year!
  • If only Jack McGlynn could’ve handled Kellen Acosta, but the latter ate the former’s lunch for nearly the whole match!
  • If only Olivier Mbaizo had just kicked that ball up the field instead of out of play, or actually won the ball before it was crossed, or…
  • If only we had chosen different penalty takers

In every moment of life, every relationship, every soccer match, there are forks in the road. In the beautiful game, we sometimes call them fifty-fifty balls or half-chances, xG or something else. They’re the moments that might have been, could have been, should have been if something else had happened differently.

They’re the moments we look back on in victory as pivotal ones, or those we look back in defeat as turning points.

We bargain with ourselves that somehow the universe will rewrite the story and our heroes will make the better choice, get the better chance, have the better luck.

We bargain with ourselves because we’re trying to mend.

Somewhere in the multiverse there are Union teams celebrating a righteous victory at home as these other MLSs dont have the stupid tiebreaker rule for seeding.

Stage 4 – Depression

As if COVID weren’t enough, the COVID game weren’t enough, as if being a fan of Philadelphia sports in general wasn’t enough, Union fans have to deal with the reality of having not won MLS Cup.

I’m just like brutally sad today… [and] I just realized why. Last year, we could feel a sense of injustice because eof the COVID stuff. This year, we still feel that injustice, but it’s unearned. The team just weren’t able to do it. And that sucks. Getting beat sucks.

If bargaining is the “if only” stage of this process, then depression is the “yeah, well they didn’t” stage… and they didn’t.

The league got their storybook ending – on the eve of the World Cup, no less. MLS got their super team winning via a superstar goal in extra, extra, extra time as well as their fairy tale goalkeeping story to ice the proverbial cake. North America got its soccer moment so impossibly right, so impossibly on brand (what is MLS if not parity and chaos – and usually the highest paid star scoring the game-winning goal?), and so impossibly perfect that only the losing team could be sad.

Except we’re the losing team.

Say it again – we’re the losing team.

It’s ok to be sad.

It would be wrong if you weren’t.

Stage 5 – Acceptance

Maybe the sour grapes of so many posts above this post are healthy. False bravado perhaps. Maybe venting to give voice to despair. We understand even as we disagree. Betcha you”ll be back anyway. Where else can you have this much fun?

There isn’t room for silver lining here, because this cloud will never go away – at the very least, it’ll always have a home above the Cliff of Union Despair.

Sunlight has shone on those walls before and will shine through again, and come early 2023, it might just feel like springtime in Chester for Union fans – but a spring that could always break for showers at any time.

That’s ok too.

The preceding stages of this grieving process are all meant to lead here, to accepting what happened so we can move on. This is something Union fans – frankly, all sports fans – have done and have to do on almost a daily basis. When your team is good, this process might actually happen more than when your team is bad (if the games don’t matter because you’re bad, do you really need to feel sad about it? Nothing was at stake!).

More than anything, grief is a process.

That’s important in the context of the Union because theirs is a process too – a process that isn’t finished.

  • 2018: A playoff qualification, but an early exit
  • 2019: A quarterfinal, but a clear gap between where they wanted to be and where they were
  • 2020: A Supporter’s Shield in the toughest of circumstances
  • 2021: A CCL Semifinal and a Conference Final, only undone by a global pandemic
  • 2022: An MLS Cup Final, tied and lost on penalties

Can you see the excelsior line?

Maybe not – it’s hard to see the mountain with a microscope and Union fans are zeroed in on what happened to them on Saturday. Some even think the window for this team is closing.

What those who have that belief fail to see is that the Union have built a glass house made entirely of windows – bare to the world, clear in who they are, how they operate, and what they intend to do next. This has been the case at every step of their process, every step of this painful journey, including the one taken on Saturday. The window can’t close, that’s the whole point.

Or maybe the whole point, the exciting thing, is this:

The next step in that process is MLS Cup.

27 Comments

  1. I was watching with a group of about 20 family members, and we were beyond ecstatic (as everyone else was) when Elliot scored the go-ahead goal. That house was louder than I have ever heard it.
    And when we missed the 3rd PK, the house was eerily silent for a very long time. Just a rush of emotions and no one knew what to say or do.
    .
    I’ll take nothing away from LAFC. They won on PK’s and the trophy is theirs.
    But we all need to accept that PK’s are the single absolute worst way to decide a championship in professional sports, and it is the only major sport that doesn’t keep playing OT. It’s shameful to end games like that. It cheapens the game and cheats the fans.
    .
    But this team, man. This was an incredible ride. It doesn’t feel like it’s over, either, but it’s an unpredictable league. Enjoy what just happened throughout this season. For us long-suffering fans, this was a gift. And it ended with the greatest game in league history…we just happened to be on the wrong end of it when time ran out.
    .
    I can’t wait for next season! From Matt Doyle on MLSsoccer.com: “Because that’s been their thing, remember: linear progress. They somehow manage to take it one step further each year and, well, we all know what that means for 2023.”

    • It was pretty much the same thing as your first paragraph for me except it was about 2,000 family members at Subaru Park.

    • Richie_the _Limey says:

      “PK’s are the single absolute worst way to decide a championship in professional sports…”

      I disagree 100% – for the offense, penalties are the ultimate test of skill and technique under a uniquely pressurized situation. LA’s first penalty taker crumbled under that pressure. José Martínez’s technique was (unsurprisingly) found lacking, Wagner (probably technically the best striker of a dead ball at the club) lost his nerve and hit a timid, easily savable shot.

      If, as you suggest, you keep playing endless extra times a la NHL the game would descend into a defensive stalemate with neither team willing to attack for fear of being hit on a breakaway as most regulation ‘extra time’ periods are (watch it happen in the Wprld Cup knockout stages).

      Penalties are imperfect, and as an England supporter I have suffered their cruel fate more than most, however thay are genuinely the best way to finish a match.

      • I’m also sick of people complaining about PKs, and surprised Curtin compared them to 3-point shots. I can’t believe Martinez was allowed to take one (he also took two horrible shots during the game from miles away) but what were Caranza, Elliot doing letting Martinez go ahead of them! Not to mention the kids (Aaronson and Donovan) but my real complaint is …..why was bedoya on the bench if hes not going to come in for the last 4 minutes of stoppage time to provide leadership and organization??!!

      • It’s entertaining to see how entrenched people are on both sides of the PK argument. No one says, “eh, I don’t care either way.” People will die on the hill of their choosing!
        I think it’s a cheap way to end the game and I’d rather sit on the edge of my seat waiting for a counter-attack to end the game than watch 5 guys go through a training drill.

      • I think penalties are neither the best way or the worst way. They have intensity, drama, and — as stated— require technique and nerve. But let’s also admit that they are the equivalent of throwing up your hands saying “Whelp, no one’s ever going to win this thing, and we’re not paying anyone to store this trophy so it’s gotta go somewhere!” Imagine how ridiculous it would be if the Superbowl ended with a field goal shootout. No one would be entirely satisfied with the outcome, as we have here with penalties. It takes what is a team sport and devolves it into individuals, which is arguably against the fundamentals of the game.

  2. I’m already looking forward to next year. We find out our CCL RO16 opponent tonight!

    (I meant to post this here…)

  3. What a game! I am so glad I made the cross-country trip to see what is undoubtedly the best MLS Cup game ever. I would rank it right up there with even the World Cup games I was able to attend back in 1994. The result was not what I was hoping for, but still worth the trip.

    I can’t stand every time Alexi Lalas comments on penalties to settle a game. He goes out of his way to say it is NOT a coin toss but a test of skill and mental ability. Give me a break Lalas. As a player you should know better. Is it fair that such a hard fought and evenly matched contest should come down to a slip on the plant foot and two great/lucky saves by a substitute goalkeeper? No, I don’t think so.

    Yes there can be a lot of what-ifs but it seems that each year it comes down to one player on the field that just did not show up, or their worst version showed up. Last year it was Mbaizo who basically gave the game to NYCFC. This year it was Martinez. Last week I think he had a great game against NYCFC but Saturday I thought to myself pretty early on that he was not doing well. Too many errant passes and hopeful shots. When he is on his game he may indeed be the best 6 in MLS. When he is not on his game, he is honestly a liability. Sorry but I would trade him for someone who is more consistent.

    It was a game for the ages and the Union did an incredible job against the star power and home crowd that is LAFC. In one way it shows that it “may” be possible to win with the money ball approach of Sugarman and Company. However it shows equally well that big names and big dollars “can and do” win championships.

    It was a great season, an incredible final, and a team to be proud of.

    Go Union !!

    • I came to say more or less the same thing. I made the trip and I was proud to be there.

      I’m Welsh, so it was particularly brutal to have one of my heroes be the one to destroy the dream, but the experience is one that I’ll not forget.

      Also, a big shout out to the LAFC fans who we drank with outside the home stand before the game. A friendly bunch (and why can’t we get $5 beers and great food carts outside Subaru Park?)

  4. Chris, you can file this post under ‘Anger.’

    I’m late to the game, being a Union fan for only the past four years. But I am heartbroken that they had to lose, and lose in such an ignominious way. The more I thought about it, stewed in my own heartbreak, I realized that it was the only result that could have occurred. Because, to put it simply, the fix was in. MLS and Apple TV wanted either LAFC or NYCFC to win the MLS Cup, the year before Apple takes over the broadcast rights. Apple wanted a champion from one of the big cities to splash across their broadcasts next season. And MLS was more than willing to comply. And let’s make sure a marquee name scores the late tying goal to burnish the story. And the whole substitute goalie story smacks of Roy of the Rovers exploits.

    They say that MLS is 10-20 years behind the European leagues. But it feels like the match-fixing is right up to date. It’s going to take a long time to get the bad taste out of my mouth. And here the rant ends.

  5. I realize it’s not quite relevant to the grieving process but did anyone else think that Fox’s coverage of the game was horrid? I was at the stadium in Chester and it was hard to hear the audio so I’m not going to comment on that, but how much time did they need to cut away to the crowd or a coach or the subs bench or whatever while the game was in progress? And while I realize it was probably a fairly gruesome situation, but to show 0 replays of what could have essentially been the game turning moment when Burke got taken down for the red card was just complete incompetence.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Honestly, I was glad they didn’t show it. I’ve seen enough season or career ending injuries to last a lifetime. My kids were watching with me and I made them leave the room when it happened in case they showed the gore. Thankfully they didn’t, but there was a brief moment where they did show the chaos as the medical staff ran over to check the scene. You couldn’t see much other than the keeper gripping the shirt of the person who got there first out of panicked fear, pain, or whatever else. That frame of action will never leave my memory.

      • And I’m fine with not seeing the medical team and the keeper, but I do think the foul itself was a key moment that should be shown, even if it’s done at a far enough distance that you can’t see the actual contact.
        .
        As far as I could tell without hearing the commentary, the LA defender who made the bad back pass completely escaped criticism for what was a horrible play.

    • We commented on that throughout the entire game. It was bad. I’m glad it’s going to Apple because Fox is terrible. So many replays when there was action happening, or cameras aimed at the wrong part of the field, etc.
      It was a less-than-professional experience.

    • I knew we were cooked as they lined up for the first LA goal when I heard that twerp Holden say something like “Blake has only given up 4 free kick goals this entire year.” So McGlynn’s Unfortunate Header didn’t surprise me in the least. (And BTW, how in the hell did he deflect it in if he was lined up facing the shooter? Why didn’t he take it in the chin, with the ball going straight towards at the shooter? Why?)

    • I knew we were cooked as they lined up for the first LA goal when I heard that twerp Holden say something like “Blake has only given up 4 free kick goals this entire year.” So McGlynn’s Unfortunate Header didn’t surprise me in the least. (And BTW, how in the hell did he deflect it in if he was lined up facing the shooter? Why didn’t he take it in the chin, with the ball going straight towards at the shooter? Why?)

    • I quite like John Strong’s play by play. I like his style. Stu Holden occasionally says something used but is otherwise filler and rather quiet. But I don’t think they have any magic at all on the desk. God Love Mo Edu, but there just isn’t enough personality or charisma with any of them. And Lalas is just too negative for me.

  6. Hopefully, if we make it thru the WC, we never have to hear from any of these again. I hope Apple TV doesn’t hire any of them, particularly Lalas.

  7. PaulContinuum22 says:

    CCL draw out (MLS only matchups)
    Austin FC-Violette AC (HAI)
    LAFC-LD Alajuelense (CRC)
    Orlando City-Tigres UANL (MEX)
    Union-Alianza FC (SLV)
    Vancouver-Real España (HON)

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    Great article. One of the best I’ve read on this site… and that’s saying something.
    .
    I’ll always be able to say I was there in person and made a lifetime core memory with my son, a friend, and all other Union fans who made the trip… which is good… because I can never bring myself to watch that game or any “highlight” of that game again.
    .
    I’ll look forward to next year soon, but I’m gonna sulk for a while… and I think that’s ok.

  9. I am fully prepared to believe that this team will be back as wrecking balls next season, ready to kick some *ss and win the Eastern Conference and make it to the Cup again.

    The thing that worries me most is… that we were really fortunate on the injury front this season. That’s part of what allowed us to be so successful. I don’t imagine we will be so fortunate 2 years in a row. And depth has never been this team’s strength.

    • I’d say we were pretty unfortunate this year with Bedoya being injured at the end. If he’d been able to play all the games at the end of the season, it’s not hard for me to imagine winning the shield and with him fit in the playoffs and home field advantage winning the cup.

      I agree though that injuries is a concern for next year and that the Union need to work on depth in the off season especially for the midfield.

  10. Not gonna reflect on the game as I think we all share the same emotions. Now that we are a few days removed, some thoughts looking forward:
    ….
    NEGATIVE: The season felt magical and we had so much focus, drive, cohesion, and momentum. Often in sports the window stays open for a short period of time then shuts. Will we be able to get back to these heights and stay there? Can we do it with player turnover? What happens if Curtin or Ernst gets an offer they can’t refuse? What if Ale retires? MLS has so much parody, it’s hard to create superclubs and stay at the top of the mountain.
    —-
    POSITIVE: This club is so battle tested, we should do very well in CCL, Leagues cup and MLS in 2023. Atlas is not Tigres/America/Monterrey, and we are in the same bracket as LA to dish out some revenge. In Leagues cup, I *think* we skip the group stage and advance to knockouts already. Our core players should be there in 2023, maybe some personnel changes even result in an upgraded force. Curtin is a great coach, Tanner will fill the spots. Maybe our budget expands with recent success, new Apple deal, ticket/merch sales, player transfers. Our academy is firing on all cylinders, let’s not discount who could make an impact next year and beyond. The new Union HQ is going to be awesome. We minted tons of fans this year. Let’s become a powerhouse in American soccer.

  11. So I think the trajectory idea is right- we are now, in MLS a super club. Also, uniquely we are a club that develops talent (we get to watch a kid from our club likely start in the WC for the US).

    But really, championships are a rarity even for strong clubs. To be so close, ack, alas. So the chance must be rued even if next year, we’ll be good again.

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