The Philadelphia Union won a playoff game. It took ten years, but they finally won a playoff game.
Gotta be honest; I thought it would never happen. We’re talking about a team that was 0-4 all-time in the postseason and 0-3 in U.S. Open Cup finals, compiling a whopping 0-7 record in games that really truly would have brought this franchise to the next level and maybe, perhaps, resulted in people giving a shit about soccer. Every single time this team previously got close to doing something relevant, they’d fall flat on their face and kill off the goodwill and momentum they had built with their own fans and “four for four” types alike.
They were on track to do that again Sunday, when they went down 2-0 and then 3-1 at home in front of a sold out, 18,500 capacity crowd. Goalkeeper Andre Blake put in the worst 45 minutes I’ve ever seen from him, first blowing a save I’ve seen him make 100 times previously and then flapping at a cross before colliding with a teammate on a poor parry.
“That’s so Union,” I thought to myself, as they looked destined for another disappointing finish, this time in their first home playoff game since October of 2011.
But the second half defined what we’ve said about this team 50 times previously on the “It’s Always Soccer in Philadelphia” podcast –
This 2019 squad wins games that they would have lost from 2012 to 2018. You and I had seen so many iterations of this team just choking away leads or blowing big games at home, but not this season. They accomplished the following:
- 4-3 comeback playoff win
- scoring two late goals to beat Dallas after conceding first
- finding a second-half winner in Toronto
- late winner in Minnesota
- three goals in 12 minutes to beat NYRB in June
- comeback win in Orlando
- beating Atlanta to reclaim first place in the east
- comeback win in San Jose
It’s just different. The DNA of this team feels different. I don’t know what changed, but you get the sense that there’s this belief that simply did not exist in years past, a collective mentality that says “we’re not going to fucking lose this game.”
That was exemplified by captain Alejandro Bedoya, who scored a banger on Sunday and then hobbled around the field in the second half, dragging a crampy leg with him. Sergio Santos worked his ass off. Haris Medunjanin calmed things down a bit while Jack Elliott atoned for an early mistake. Ray Gaddis, Mark McKenzie, and Kai Wagner were solid. Marco Fabian and Fafa Picault made a difference off the bench.
And they did it without leading goal scorer Kacper Pryzbylko, so go figure. Add that to the list of adverse conditions they overcame on Sunday, weather included.
.@MarcoFabian_10 IN EXTRATIME!!!
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 20, 2019
Think about the nonsense that Union fans have put up with over the years.
Just off the top of my head:
- Peter Nowak hazing players and then getting fired
- Peter Nowak playing Stefani Miglioranzi as a sweeper in the 2011 playoffs
- trading players like Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Califf for no real reason
- iStar Financial stock plummeting during the recession, right when the team was founded
- Rais M’Bolhi and other ridiculous signings
- Jay Sugarman never spending any money on any big name players
- team didn’t even have practice fields or a training facility until a couple of years ago
- team also didn’t even have a bona fide player-personnel executive until 2016
- Rene Meulensteen being paid as a “consultant,” or whatever he did
- back-sliding into the playoffs in 2016 and 2018
So on and so forth. This team really did operate like a minor league club at times, run by an absentee owner from New York who said straight-up that the Union weren’t gonna out-talent other teams and needed to find value in the margins to exploit. They leaned on the academy and shrewd moneyball signings to put together a cohesive and relatively deep group of players.
On a personal level, I’m happy for head coach Jim Curtin, who was in charge of five of those losses from the 0-7 statistic I shared in paragraph two. Here’s a guy who was promoted to manager in his mid-thirties, never had anything to work with, and then was given a quality sporting director and competent players and successfully guided that group to a franchise record 16 wins and 55 points, spending most of the season at the very top of the Eastern Conference.
Fans became frustrated with Jim at various points during past seasons, but one of the nice things about the lack of promotion and relegation in MLS is that you can commit to young coaches and allow them to grow into their roles. Maybe it’s ‘on the job’ training, sure, but if this was England Curtin would have been fired four years ago and replaced by a specialist like Big Sam Allardyce, who exists only to keep teams up, but never truly move them forward.
So congratulations to the Union franchise and a long-suffering fan base. The stadium looked and sounded great on television. Maybe casuals were paying attention, or at least appreciative of a big win for a local team.
Philly has played relatively well in Atlanta and I need to see how the injury situation shakes out for both teams this week, but I would definitely not write off the Union on the road against the defending champions. This squad has more heart than the Eagles, who lost by 27 points on national television in a primetime road game against a division rival.
This is not your grandmother’s Philadelphia Union.