Jim Curtin said the victory was "The Union's biggest win in their history." Given what the team overcame to advance to the Semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup, he's right. The Union, who were down a man for most of the match, put in an epic effort and absorbed the Red Bulls unrelenting run to a 120 minute 1-1 draw. After a nearly two month absence, Fernando Aristeguieta drove home the winning penalty kick (4-3) to give the Union the victory. The 600-plus Union fans that came up to Red Bull arena were treated to a game they will never forget.
The Union overcame a number of moments that should have sent them home disappointed. The first came at the end of a difficult first half that went from bad to worse when Casey got flagged for a red card, leaving the team a man down. After the game Jim Curtin said "The red card was soft - it was a clunky tackle by Conor, but it's not a straight red card." The Union limped into the half wondering where the critical goal would come from or if they could continue to defend for 75 more minutes.
But the "perfect goal" came in the 56th minute following from a great string of passes between Vincent Nogueira and Sebastien Le Toux, and ended with a tap in goal for the enigmatic Eric Ayuk. Brian Carroll started the counter by intercepting a pass above the box. Maurice Edu then sent a pass that led Nogueira who sprinted up the field and left the ball on the sideline for Le Toux. Le Toux sent a curler just out of the reach of a Red Bull defender onto a still running Nogueira who found the space and an open Ayuk. Union 1-0. After the game, Noguiera that said in that moment the goal was perfect. Indeed for the Union fans it was exactly what they needed.
Could the Union hold on for 34 more minutes?
They almost didn't have to. The Union could have put the game away in the 90th minute. Carroll found himself one on one with the keeper and rather than slotting the ball to Fernando Aristeguieta in the box he took the shot himself. Luis Robles made a fine save to keep the game close.
And it was in the fourth minute of stoppage time that the Union's allowed the equalizer. A series of headed balls in the box ended with Lloyd Sam pulling down a Mike Grella header and slotting the close range shot home. Ethan White found himself between Sam and Bradley Wright-Phillips but came away with the wrong man. There was just one minute left in stoppage time. The Red Bulls fans were in hysterics. Game tied 1-1.
The Union would have to endure another 30 minutes of Red Bulls attacking, which was relentless. The Red Bulls held 68 percent of possession for the match and attempted 34 shots of which the Union blocked 13. Those numbers should give you a sense of how compact the defense was and how relentless the attack they absorbed. The Red Bulls also sent across a stunning 74 crosses, none of which ultimately connected.
There was no shortage of heroes for the Union. John McCarthy played his best game as a professional stopping 9 shots and an epic save on the goal line off the foot of Lloyd Sam in the penalty shootout. McCarthy was under pressure all night. He has been criticized in the past for being too aggressive in the box but his judgement was perfect on this day, coming out a number of times, especially in the first half, just enough to thwart a Red Bulls run.
The five key defenders all put in 120 minute shifts; Gaddis, Fabinho, White, Edu and Carroll all made too many plays to count. Carroll especially was resilient covering both side of the box and looking the most fresh as the game wound down.
And then of course there is Aristeguieta. A sub for the exhausted Ayuk in the 89th minute, he took the field for the first time since early June. He ran hard for his 35 minutes. After the much he said, "I ran as much as possible but I ran out of gas. The last ten minutes I was dead. I tried to keep the ball as long as possible to give the team a little break."
But Aristeguieta would find his legs one more time during the penalty kicks.
After Bradley Wright-Philips put the first kick off the crossbar, Sheanon Williams calmly sank the Union's first into the lower left corner of the net. Vincent Noguiera and Maurice Edu both made their penalties as the Union maintained their one goal advantage. Then McCarthy made the save of his life as he got his hand on a Lloyd Sam shot. The ball continued to bounce toward the goal and was on the line as McCarthy recovered to quickly pull it off. The Union were that close. The Red Bulls supporters erupted in defiance but replays failed to show the ball clearly across the whole line. Fred then had a chance to win the game but Robles guessed right and made a nice save.
After Sasha Klejstan tied the score at 3-3, Fernando stepped to the box and drilled a ball in the left corner of the goal. His teammates rushed both Aristeguieta and McCarthy who both went a long way in cementing their legacy with the Union. After the match Aristeguieta spoke about his indecision leading up to the kick. "Normally when you're about to take a PK you already have decided what to do, but this time I changed my mind like eight times. I'm going to the right, no I'm going to the left, no I'm going to the right, I'm going to the left. In the end I picked the left because its where I feel safer. And once the goal is in the first thing in my mind is to go to John. He's the real hero."
Jim Curtin summed it up best after the game, the effort, the resilience and what it means for the Philadelphia Union. "I thought the fan support was incredible. I thought our players showed a lot of heart. I thought they represented the badge very well. They represented our fans, the city. They left everything on the field...at a certain point it comes down to men on the field, wanting to win. I thought our guys brought a mentality that was incredible."
The Union will host the U.S. Open Cup semifinal at PPL Park against either Orlando City SC or the Chicago Fire in mid-August.