Through pure resiliency, passion and drive the Philadelphia Union fought from behind and completed an unforgettable comeback win against the New York Red Bulls in the U.S. Open Cup.
In all senses of the meaning, this was truly “a tale of two halves” as Union head coach Jim Curtin put it. The Philadelphia Union, riding a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Vancouver Whitecaps, looked to put Saturday’s disappointing loss behind them and continue their run towards the Lamar Hunt trophy against eastern conference rival New York Red Bulls. Both current MLS playoff contenders, the conference leading Union were 6-1-2 at home going into last night’s matchup. Yet from the opening whistle, you could tell there was something off with this squad.
The atmosphere within Talen Energy Stadium was that of nervousness and disbelief as the Union were seemingly unable to execute any attacking play and gave the ball away far too many times for comfort. It was extremely uncharacteristic from a side that has shown brilliance at times working through the middle of the field and down the wings. The determined Red Bulls got out to an early lead in the 17th minute by way of Mike Grella driving home a poorly cleared ball by the Union defense off another set piece which has proven to be the Achilles heel of this squad.
While fans did not give up hope, they certainly had little to cheer for as Philadelphia repeatedly gave possession away and absorbed an immense amount of pressure from the New York side looking to avenge last year’s defeat at the hands of the Union in the same tournament. It was one of the worst passing displays by Philadelphia as ball after ball sailed across the field with no intended target or purpose to be found. They were out-shot 14 to one in the first half and from an analytical standpoint, there was silence and sighs on the Union front.
Whatever was said or translated to the players in that locker room, it sure as hell paid off.
Ten minutes into the second half saw the Union style of play come to life that has powered this team to the top of the Eastern Conference and revived the heartbeat of a city longing for a competitive force in Major League Soccer. Crisp play through the midfield, constant pressure across the field and creativity from attacking catalysts Ilsinho and Roland Alberg opened the game up immensely and led to the eventual breakthrough in the 55th minute by Chris Pontius to tie the game at one a piece. Not five minutes later, he did it again and brought the Philadelphia Union faithful to their feet.
The momentum had already been shifting before Philly’s second goal, but Pontius set himself up perfectly in numerous situations to capitalize on Ilsinho’s cross into the box that sent Talen Energy Stadium into a frenzy. The Philadelphia Union were playing like a team on a mission and the energy within the squad was one that simply couldn’t be broken by the Red Bulls star-studded attack.
By the closing minutes, the game had gotten so chippy that New York head coach Jesse Marsch had to be thrown out of the game and responded by picking up and throwing two game balls in frustration. By that time the Philadelphia Union were able to close down any opportunity of developing an attacking move due to the fresh legs of midfielder Leo Fernandes and forward Walter Restrepo as well as veteran midfielder Brian Carroll stepping on for the most recent MLS Player of the Week Roland Alberg and closing down passing lanes left and right.
The Philadelphia Union held on for the dramatic victory and now find themselves in their third straight U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals and with no trophies yet to the club’s name, there’s no question that they are in this tournament for the long haul both physically and mentally. The last two years have seen the Union fall just short of raising hardware after losing in consecutive finals in front of their home fans that would break any organization’s spirit.
But this isn’t any organization. The new look Philadelphia Union are not the team of past seasons. They are fierce in their will to be better not just for each other but for the people of this great city.
The players are skilled and talented beyond anyone could’ve imagined in a team that has completely changed their culture and mentality in the span of a year under Earnie Stewart, Jim Curtin and the entire staff. Most importantly, they are resilient to the extent of being able to truly believe this one thing about the Union: no matter what the odds may be or what the score may be, this team will never give up a fight until the final whistle blows and the lights have turned off. The Union are here to stay and fight for the pride of Philadelphia.