After nearly three years, Ray Gaddis has grown accustomed to playing in front of Philadelphia’s fanatics. But the opening weekend of the NFL season, when he was sitting among them at Lincoln Financial Field, offered a different perspective – especially as the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars opened up a 17-point first-half lead.
“I’ve been here a while now. You get used to what they expect. As an athlete, I didn’t partake in the booing when they went down because you’ve been there and there was still a lot of game left,” Gaddis said. “It’s pretty crazy, how the mood can swing so quickly. It went from ‘You guys suck!’ to ‘We love you guys! You’re the best!’ It was pretty funny for me.”
The Eagles fought through early adversity – some of which was of their own making – and ultimately triumphed. The Philadelphia Union, which will play for its first major title in five seasons when it meets the Seattle Sounders in Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup final, hope to follow a similar trajectory.
“They have high expectations in Philadelphia for you and their teams,” Gaddis told SI.com. “I’m from Indianapolis. It’s a lot calmer. The Colts lost in Week 1 and the fans are still optimistic. In Philadelphia, they’re die-hard.”
The Union’s coach, at least for now, is die-hard. Jim Curtin was born just outside Philadelphia, educated at Villanova and was three years old when Dr. J and the 76ers won the 1983 NBA crown.
“I can’t say I remember that,” Curtin said.
He does recall the Phillies title in ’08 – the city’s first major championship in 25 years – and the night he was confronted by angry fans at Dodger Stadium, where Philadelphia took command of the NLCS with a come-from-behind Game 4 victory.
“I was in my baby-blue Phillies jersey and was with my buddy and we got surrounded by about 15 guys after Matt Stairs hit that home run,” said Curtin, who won two Open Cups with the Chicago Fire and finished out his nine-year playing career with Chivas USA.
“I grew up in this area supporting these teams so passionately, and now to be in charge of one is special,” the interim manager said. “I don’t want to let the city down. That’s the feeling more than anything else. As a player when you win, you do think about the fans, but you’re a little more selfish. You play for each other. You talk internally about winning. This, now, is more of a responsibility to please a city instead of just a locker room. You do feel more weight, more responsibility, to give them a trophy.”
It’s been a long five years, and those fans who fill Chester’s PPL Park to 97 percent capacity are hungry for hardware. Asked to describe the Union’s MLS tenure in a word or two, CEO Nick Sakiewicz chose “fun” and “challenging.” And that’s fair. It was clear when the Sons of Ben, who once were supporters without a team, crashed the 2008 MLS draft that the Union would make its mark. The shield-and-snake logo, the ‘Doop’ song and the view from the stadium of the Commodore Barry Bridge already are an integral part of U.S. soccer culture. The Union made the playoffs in its second season and hosted the MLS All-Star Game in its third. The club opened its own high school and continues to invest in both its academy and a new training facility for its senior team.
But that’s only half the story. There was the acrimony surrounding the 2012 firing of coach Peter Nowak, which resulted in lawsuits and accusations that Union players were subjected to unhealthy training conditions and that the coach (and perhaps others) tried to profit from player transactions. Sporting director Diego Gutierrez was fired soon after Nowak. There was the frustrating flirtation with Freddy Adu and the DP bust that was Kléberson and, ultimately, the initial promise and subsequent failure of coach John Hackworth. He was dismissed in early June. The locker room was far from united and the Union won only three of its first 16 league games.
“I don’t think you can find any sports team out there that hasn’t had its hurdles and emotions and challenges, but really it comes down to how those organizations deal with them and that’s really the true measure of an organization,” Sakiewicz told SI.com. “We’ve had a pretty good year since I made the coaching change. Jim and the guys have done a phenomenal job. We’re in the playoff hunt and we’re playing for our first trophy in team history, which isn’t bad after five years … the trajectory is enormously exciting.”
Curtin deserves ample credit. The 35-year-old’s approach belies the ‘interim’ tag.
“I told Nick when I took over that I believe we can win with this group. We had a lot of very good players who had a poor first half of the season but they’re still good players,” Curtin said. “We simplified some things. We became a team that sat back a little more and organized a little more but when we counter, we counter quickly and with numbers.”
The Union found its footing and in newcomers like Cristian Maidana and Andrew Wenger, it had the dynamism to support marksmen Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey. While climbing the Eastern Conference standings, Philly launched its assault on the Open Cup. Wearing black alternate jerseys that pay tribute to Bethlehem Steel, the Pennsylvania club that won five Cup crowns in the 1910s and ‘20s, the Union eliminated the third-tier Harrisburg City Islanders, reigning NASL champ New York Cosmos, the New England Revolution and FC Dallas to reach Tuesday’s showpiece. The club now is 90 minutes from its first major trophy – a distance that doesn’t seem nearly as vast as the chasm between zero and one.
“Any club’s first trophy is the most important one,” Sakiewicz said. “It sets a tone. A great example in our league is Real Salt Lake. The snuck into the playoffs [in 2009] and ended up beating L.A. on penalty kicks [in the MLS Cup final]. That set the team on a course where they’ve enjoyed a lot of success. Our team, the players know how big this game is. There’s nothing I need to say.”
Said Curtin, whose future on the Union bench is far from secure despite a 9-2-5 record in all competitions, said, “Irrelevance – that’s the worst. We’ve been to the playoffs once, and that’s big, but the stage for us Tuesday is a huge opportunity. There’s been highs and lows in this club's history but it’s a very, very brief history. I like to think we’re moving in a positive direction.”
It’s doing so with an eye on the past. The Bethlehem Steel jerseys, which the Union will wear once again on Tuesday, are part of an effort to tie the club to Philly’s rich soccer past and bolster local regard for the Open Cup, which is being contested for the 101st consecutive year. Local teams have lifted the trophy 10 times, most recently in 1966, when the Philadelphia Ukrainians claimed their fourth.
Few will remember that game, a 3-0 win over Orange County (Calif.) FC at Cambria Field. American soccer is certainly has changed over the past five decades and for some Union fans, the past five years might feel just as long. This is a club that has a lot going for it but sometimes seems to have taken one step backward for every two forward. Tuesday offers an opportunity to rebrand.
“This whole run, it’s positive exposure for the club and a trophy would bring some real respect to our badge, which is important,” Curtin said.
The Union is hoping to drum up a genuine Philly home-field advantage, which it’ll need against the league-leading Sounders and which isn’t guaranteed for a weeknight game played on relatively short notice. The club has been parading the Open Cup trophy at area restaurants, landmarks and events (without the players, who naturally want nothing to do with the silverware before it’s won) and have stepped up local advertising. Over the weekend, Comcast Network anted up to broadcast Tuesday’s match locally – a first for the Open Cup final.
Gaddis, 24, has found the fans supportive. He followed the Fire growing up and remembers watching the likes of DaMarcus Beasley and C.J. Brown win Open Cups for Chicago. Philadelphia wants a taste, he said.
“People stop you. They stop you and say, ‘We want the Cup.’ And then they keep walking. They just give you a simple message and you know what that means. It’s happened a couple of times in the past week,” Gaddis said. “It makes you feel good that people are behind you, that people have interest.”
Gaddis has committed to Philadelphia. The defender signed a contract extension through 2016 last week. He understands the expectations the city has for its athletes. He’s experienced the pressure. As for the city’s commitment to the Union -- it’s been tested. A trophy on Tuesday may cement the relationship.
“I have the utmost confidence in the direction this organization is going,” Gaddis said. “[The final] is a priceless opportunity and we all know the magnitude of the opportunity that’s been given to us. The city would erupt and everybody would be proud of us. And that’s the plan.”