As I trod through a gravel parking lot, a gentle breeze blew off the Delaware River. I was surrounded by hundreds, nay, thousands of people donning blue and gold. There were tailgates as far as the eye could see. This, I thought to myself, is how it was meant to be. A line of fans wrapped around the Power Training Complex building sitting near the unmistakable Wharf building. Fans of every age, race, gender, and socioeconomic standing were represented. As kids waited with their parents and grandparents for their chance to tour the fitness room, video room, and the rest of the facility, it became apparent that this night would last a lifetime. To be honest, it brought back the feelings I had as a kid walking up to the Vet for the first time.
The hike to Talen Energy Stadium from the former Sons of Ben lot was full of everything you’d expect from a playoff football game: music blasting, the unmistakable smell of grilled meats, the merging of tailgates as games broke out in the parking lots. The diversity of the flags flying, music playing and food being grilled was something that was so unique to these lots. It doesn’t exist in any other tailgate of any other Philly team, at least not to this level. There was a distinct electricity powering the atmosphere around the stadium. There was a pride coursing through the veins of every single person who entered the stadium.
The Battle for First Place was about to unfold as the reigning, defending, undisputed MLS Champion Atlanta United entered a matchup with the often-mocked, nearly always overlooked, Philadelphia Union. Looking at the Tale of the Tape, it appeared to be as lopsided as you could imagine were it not for the standings that showed the teams even on points entering the game. Atlanta’s squad is backed by the incredible financial resources of Falcon’s owner Arthur Blank. Simply look up the Top 10 most expensive transfer fees in the history of the league and you’ll see Atlanta United listed four times. They set an MLS record ahead of their inaugural season, bringing in Miguel Almirón for $8.55m fee and later sold him off two years later for $27.36m to the EPL’s Newcastle United. The next year they broke that record with a $13.99m fee for Ezequiel Barco. The next year -you guessed it- they broke their own record again when they brought in Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez for another record-setting $15.05m. For the sake of comparison, the Union’s biggest off-season transfers were for midfielder Marco Fabián on a free transfer for $3.42m and forward Sergio Santos for $510k. They took a massive loss on their biggest acquisition from a year prior, David Accam, who cost a club-record $1.12m fee and was sold off for $509k. Their previous record-fee acquisition ($1.02m) and club captain Alejandro Bedoya, who earlier this season captured headlines for calling for gun control reform on a nationally televised game, was suspended for this match due to yellow card accumulation. The deck was stacked against the Union. Practically no one outside of the Greater Philadelphia area gave this team a shot.
But, you know what they say about underdogs.
The first half of the game was in line with what you might expect. With their captain missing, head coach Jim Curtin was forced shake up his Starting XI from a week prior. In fact, he admitted after the match that he had to juggle his lineup again due to two injuries that occurred the day before in training: