Second Place is for Losers? - With Time, the 2022 Phillies and Union Should Get the 2001 Sixers Treatment
I was listening to the radio Monday morning (bad idea, I know), and one of the discussions centered on how the 2022 Phillies and 2022 Union might not end up mattering because they didn’t win it all. That’s the CliffsNotes version of the argument, like it doesn’t matter how good they were because they fell short in their respective title games. It was a classic “you either win it all or win nothing” type of take. Second place is for losers and we don’t hand out participation trophies and all of that.
Emotions are understandably raw less than 48 hours after both teams crashed out of the World Series and MLS Cup, respectively, but we don’t need the benefit of time or hindsight to know that any version of the “all or nothing” argument has made little sense.
At the risk of crafting a strawman defense here, I’ll say this:
First of all, if we only honored and remembered Philly teams that won championships, there wouldn’t be much to talk about. We’d have the 2017 Eagles and 2008 Phillies since Y2K took place (or didn’t). You’d have a couple of Villanova titles that Temple fans don’t give a shit about. Go back further and you’ve got the 1983 Sixers, the 1980 Phillies, and the 1974 and 75 Flyers. There’s just such a dearth of title-winning in this region that we’d be showering praise on a grand total of fewer than 10 teams.
Imagine if we didn’t credit the 2001 Sixers, or 2010 Flyers, or the 1993 Phillies, who seemed for a time to be even more popular than other Philadelphia sports teams that actually did win titles. We talked about Dutch and John Kruk and all of those guys like they were the greatest thing ever, even though they lost to the Blue Jays in the end. We talk about the Allen Iverson stepover to this day, even though that squad was on the receiving end of a gentleman’s sweep from prime Kobe and Shaq. We talk about the orange and black erasing a 3-0 series deficit to take out the Bruins on their home ice and advance to the conference finals. And even in years where expectations failed to be met, we had fantastic individual performances from Brian Dawkins, Brian Westbrook, Ryan Howard, Randall Cunningham, Joel Embiid, and the like.
Are we going to look back at this Phillies team ten years from now and forget about the Bryce Harper home run that sent them to the World Series? What about the comeback in St. Louis? Knocking out the Braves in the NLDS? The Rhys Hoskins bat spike? People will laugh about that now and say “who gives a shit?“, and probably rightly so, but when the dust settles and emotions even out, you’ll think back to a wonderful postseason run that nobody saw coming. You’ll remember how an interim manager turned this team around, won the permanent gig, and took them all the way to pinnacle, before simply losing to a better squad.
The Union are a slightly different story than the Phillies, because unlike their baseball counterparts, they were a title contender going into the playoffs. They were a #1 seed with a battled-tested roster who had significant odds to win it all. Whereas the Phils were on a six-seed Cinderella run for the ages, the Union were largely operating under the weight of crushing expectations and asked to cap off the best era in team history with a second trophy. They were three minutes away from making that happen, then collapsed in epic fashion, but the truth of the matter is that they wouldn’t have been there in the first place if they hadn’t buckled down to erase two one-goal deficits and then take the lead in the second period of stoppage time, playing on the road as a betting underdog with a payroll and budget significantly smaller than LAFC.
Similar to the Phillies, you’ll be able to remember this Union team for scoring 72 goals and conceding just 26, for losing a grand total of zero games at home and taking home Coach of the Year, Goalkeeper of the Year, and Defender of the Year. They got revenge on NYC FC after last year’s COVID situation kept 11 players out of the Eastern Conference Finals. There will be plenty to go back and credit this team for in the future.
For now, it sucks ass, but that’s the way it goes. Championships don’t happen very often, but there’s always something worth honoring on all of these teams. We’ve had MVPs in non-title winning years. We’ve had scoring titles. We’ve had players and coaches win all sorts of individual awards and set league and team records. Both the 2022 Phillies and Union were special teams, and they’ll get their due credit when the rawness of this past weekend levels out. They should go into the same category as Iverson’s Sixers and the other teams that reached the top, only to fall short at the very end.