Monday September 28th, 2015

They were so close to the first trophy in the club’s short but relatively tortured history.

The Philadelphia Union had multiple opportunities to end last year’s U.S. Open Cup final before overtime. The best chances came late, when Pedro Ribeiro somehow missed an almost-open net and Vincent Nogueira found the left post with his promising half volley. But the bounces didn’t go Philly’s way. It couldn’t traverse that final, vital inch. And given an extra 30 minutes, Seattle superstars Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey made the Union pay. The Sounders won, 3–1, and lifted the big silver trophy inside PPL Park.

Watching an opponent celebrate on your home turf is a non-starter for most athletes. On that Open Cup evening last September, however, Union coach Jim Curtin suddenly felt differently. He told his team to stay on the field as the triumphant visitors received their gold medals just a few yards away. The first-year manager wanted his players to take careful note of the short distance between victory and defeat—between immortality and insignificance.

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“The guys were frustrated,” Curtin told “I said to them, ‘As hard as it is to watch this, just remember this feeling because you don’t ever want to have it again.’ Every good team I’ve been on in my career had a difficult moment before they went on to win a trophy. To get through this difficult moments together, it gave us a belief in this competition.”

Maurice Edu scored the Union’s only goal that evening. Rangers FC won and lost cup finals while he was in Scotland, but that was a team accustomed to winning trophies and expecting to compete for more. Philadelphia, which the World Cup veteran joined in 2014, had only one MLS Cup playoff qualification to show for its first five seasons. The club and its fans were desperate for some success.

“In front of a home crowd, a packed house, everything was set, waiting for us to lift that trophy,” Edu recalled.

“To watch them parade around your field, in front of your fans, it definitely sucked. It left an image that’s kind of been in the back of our minds and fueled us to get back to that final,” he said. “Last year helped us to get here again. It was a learning curve. It built character in us.”

As Wednesday’s Open Cup final between the Union and Sporting Kansas City approaches, it appears that discipline and focus in the face of last year’s disappointment had the desired affect. While Philadelphia has faltered in MLS play this year—the Union are 9-15-7 and on the threshold of elimination—its Cup mojo is intact.

Knockout play feels fickle and unpredictable. It can seem that fate plays a role, to the point where successful runs traditionally have been explained by saying, “Their name was on the cup.” In 2015, the bounces have fallen Philadelphia’s way. In the round of 32, the Union were held to scoreless draw by the USL’s Rochester Rhinos before prevailing on penalty kicks. Goalkepeer John McCarthy, a former Rhino, made three saves in the tiebreaker. Philly then was down a goal and a man against D.C. United but recovered to win, 2–1, thanks to two second-half strikes.

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There was another first-half red card in July’s quarterfinal at Red Bull Arena. But the Union took the lead anyway, only to be forced to overtime by Lloyd Sam’s stoppage-time equalizer. McCarthy turned the tables on Sam in the ensuing shootout, making a save that helped put Philadelphia in the semis.

That night, Curtin called it, “The Union’s biggest win in their history.”

Philadelphia was on a 0-3-1 MLS slide when it met the visiting Chicago Fire in the final four. But league form didn’t carry over, and Sébastien Le Toux’s 74th-minute game winner punctuated one of the Union’s finest 90-minute displays this year.

“I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but there is definitely a belief in the group that we wanted to get back to the final. To think about it is easy, but to actually do it is a whole other thing,” Curtin said.

“We had a goal in mind and we did it. We found a way to do it,” said Edu, who missed out on a U.S. national team call-up this month because of a groin injury. “Last year definitely prepared us to be in this position again, and the journey to get to this point prepared us. Each game we were tried and tested in ways we couldn’t forget. That’s what cups are about and that’s what makes them special. To go through that whole journey, there will be no better way to cap it off … We’re really excited for this game to come.”

Wednesday’s game at PPL Park represents a second chance the Union cannot waste. A year ago, there was an air of celebration around the final. It was an opportunity to host an historic game and connect a new(ish) club with the city’s rich soccer heritage. Stories about Philadelphia’s past Open Cup champions, from Uhrik Truckers to the Ukrainian Nationals, were written and told. The Union wore black jerseys against Seattle that commemorated Bethlehem Steel, the Lehigh Valley club that won five Open Cup titles in the 1910s and 20s.

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This time, the Union will wear its own blue and gold. This final is about escaping the past, not celebrating it. On the verge of missing the MLS playoffs for a fourth consecutive season (the league’s second-longest active streak), Philadelphia is at a crossroads. The pressure is mounting—Union fans brought a coffin to a game in May—and serious questions have been asked about the club’s long-term future under majority owner Jay Sugarman and under-fire CEO Nick Sakiewicz. Absent a sale or comprehensive overhaul, nothing will alter the mood or culture more than winning the team’s first trophy. Rather than repeat the “one game at a time” mantra so common among coaches, Curtin has been talking about the Open Cup final every chance he gets.

“I want it on their mind all the time,” he said.

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“There’s a lot at stake for this club and for this city,” Edu said. “At some point, you have to grow. You have to learn from your errors, and I’m a firm believer that success breeds success. It’s about holding yourself to a higher standard … Once you have a trophy to show for your hard work, you can kind of shift the culture a little bit. Once you have a winning mentality, your standards are now higher. You’ve seen what it takes to accomplish that and you can challenge people to maintain those standards. If we can win this title, that hopefully can propel us to the standard we should all be at.”

The Union have a big off-season ahead. It will start early and it will be busy. An Open Cup win and CONCACAF Champions League qualification will boost the coffers, but Sakiewicz, Curtin and technical director Chris Albright have a bunch of decisions to make regardless. Several contracts are expiring while players like midfielder Fernando Aristeguieta and defender Steven Vitória are in Philadelphia on loan. The goalkeeper situation remains in flux, as always (McCarthy and Andre Blake are in contention to start Wednesday), and newcomer Tranquillo Barnetta has looked good but is still settling in. Signing U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, now at FC Nantes, remains a possibility. The Union need help at center back (Edu is more impactful as a defensive midfielder) and likely will look for reinforcements up front, where C.J. Sapong leads the way with nine MLS goals.

Next year’s Union will look different. The effort to improve results begins Wednesday. Finals have a way of leaving a lasting impact.

“The second time around there’s even more urgency, a little more pressure to come through,” Curtin said. “Our fans come out and support us and we know this season hasn’t gone the way they hoped. They’re frustrated for sure. But when the whistle blows on Wednesday for the final, they’re behind us. We need to reward them. That’s up to us, to build a little equity with our fans and reward them with a trophy, which is the hardest thing to do in our game. We know what’s at stake. We’re close.”

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