I’m not one to use throw the word epic around loosely, but looking back on my visit to Avaya Stadium to see the Philadelphia Union take on the San Jose Earthquakes last Wednesday, it’s hard to think of another word to capture what transpired.
Picking up three points after a long road trip flying commercial was always going to be a tough task for the Union, but coming into the match they were trying to do what a visiting team hadn’t done to the Earthquakes since March: hand them a loss.
The Union did just that to end an 11-game unbeaten streak for the Earthquakes but it wasn’t without some conflict along the way.
As they had a few days earlier in Harrison, N.J., the Union came out looking less than impressive. Passes weren’t being strung together, the unique man-marking style of the Earthquakes was rattling the visitors and the home team was on the front foot out of the gate.
In the seventh minute, the first of three VAR decisions came down when Kai Wagner was shown a yellow card for a tackle in a dangerous spot and the review was conducted to see if it had been deserving of a red card for a denial of a goal-scoring opportunity instead.
After seeing the replay, the referee stuck with the original decision and the Union kept playing with 11 men.
Seeing Aurelien Collin have to sprint a couple times in the open field didn’t exactly instill confidence in the away fans, which numbered only about 10 people in the away supporters section. When Danny Hoesen and Magnus Eriksson set Jackson Yueill up for a goal in the 35th minute, it wasn’t a big surprise.
The Earthquakes were deserving of the lead at the break and Union fans in the stadium and still awake back on the East Coast had reason to be concerned. Was this the collapse we’d all been waiting for? Were the Union going to lose back-to-back games for the first time since the first two games of the season and stumble into the playoffs once again?
A trip four years in the making
I flew out to California on Monday night, arriving on a direct flight just before midnight Pacific Time in San Francisco. The flight was filled with turbulence and by the time my brother picked me up at the airport I was already starting to dread having to get back on a plane to go home in a few days.
Unlike my brother, who flies a lot for work, I am not well traveled. Or at least I haven’t been since my wife and I started a family. Having two kids under 4 at home makes going to games at Talen Energy Stadium tricky enough.
My brother moved to San Jose four years ago to take a job at Apple but wasn’t able to attend the Union games at Avaya in September 2015 or August 2017 because Apple is even busier than usual preparing for product launches that time of year. The schedule finally aligned this year for me to visit with him and attend a Union game.
I’ve never been on a chartered flight, but imagining the Union taking a similar flight on Monday to play a game on Wednesday didn’t exactly fill me up with hope for a positive result in their game. Between the time change and the sickness in my stomach from so much turbulence I wasn’t feeling great about doing much more than laying down in his guest room and sleeping for half a day.
Tuesday’s agenda for us was intentionally light. We stopped by the new visitor center at Apple Park — the massive new circular structure my brother and 12,000 Apple employees report to for work every day — and then had a hearty lunch and draft root beer at Adamson’s French Dip in Sunnyvale before swinging by Avaya to watch the Union train. Like Talen Energy Stadium, Avaya has a nearby training field situated amongst the parking lots. Unlike Chester, the field is close to a MOD Pizza, an In-N-Out Burger and several other places to eat. It’s also a stone’s throw from the airport. So as we watched the team in training, we had the backdrop of the stadium, some mountains and planes taking off and landing every few minutes.
After training, we headed to downtown San Jose a couple miles away to meet up with Dave Knittel from the wonderful podcast Bros Talking Soccer. Dave is a local native who moved to San Jose around the same time my brother did. We met up at San Pedro Square, a kind of miniature Reading Terminal Market in the heart of downtown. While the podcast he does with his two younger brothers isn’t specific to the Union, Dave is a big fan of the team so hanging out with him was kind of like watching a lengthy pregame special.
A homecooked meal from my sister-in-law awaited us back at my brother’s house and some non-soccer related entertainment watching the movie Yesterday. Game day was a relaxing time without too many specific plans. We visited my sister-in-law at work — she’s an admin at a church in Sunnyvale — and I got a he/him pronoun button from the youth director. After that we stopped at the Rose Garden, saw some other local sites and went back to the house to play old school FIFA games on my brother’s various game consoles until it was time to head to Avaya.
A leg offsides
This season has been filled with some of the most memorable second half comebacks in the Union’s nine-year history. There was Alejandro Bedoya’s late winner to beat FC Dallas, the “Ilsinho game” against New York and the three-goal second half against Atlanta United. The second half to the San Jose game didn’t start that way. At all.
After meeting up with one of my brother’s co-workers by the food trucks in the open end of the stadium at halftime, I joined him for a different view from his seats behind the team benches. We were just settling in and I was meeting some of his fellow season ticket holders when Magnus Eriksson was putting the ball in the back of the net off a rebound from an Andre Blake save.
Bedoya said afterwards what a lot of us were thinking at the time, that it felt like that was the game right there. Rather than an exhilarating second half comeback, we were going to get another RSL or Montreal 4-0 letdown type game.
But then a funny thing happened.
VAR took a look at the goal and took it off the board. In the stadium, there was a lot of confusion about what had happened. Everything about the goal looked fine. The initial shot, the rebound off Andre Blake’s save and the finish. To the San Jose fan it looked every bit like a robbery had taken place. Even watching the replay required multiple viewings to spot that Hoesen indeed was a leg offside in the buildup. That’s no consolation to an Earthquakes fan, already filled with angst from the previous week’s debacle in Atlanta that saw them fall in extra time and Chris Wondolowski demoted to supporter when he was shown his first career red card while no longer in the game in Atlanta.
While it may not have felt like it for those watching at home, you’d barely have known Wondolowski was in the supporters section losing his mind after the Earthquakes goal. From my vantage point it just looked like a bunch of dudes with their shirts off. Not an MLS legend going unpunished for removing his shirt in a sea of fans with their shirts off. Maybe if we had had more than 10 Union fans in the away supporters section Fabinho or one of the other players who made the trip but didn’t dress would have joined us.
Instead of a 2-0 deficit, the game was back on for the Union at only 1-0. Wisely, Jim Curtin went with Ilsinho and Fafa Picault off the bench to try and get the Union their first away goal not scored at Audi Field since the beginning of July.
The equalizer came thanks in part to a slip by a San Jose player — something that was more or less a constant feature of the game on a surprisingly awful pitch. I was back in the away supporters section by now, applauding Bedoya’s goal — which he dedicated to Lucy McCabe, the 3-year-old member of the Fearless 43 who lost her battle with cancer a week earlier — when some Earthquakes fans flipped the bird our way. Ray Gaddis picked up a rare assist on the play, just the ninth of his career in more than 17,000 minutes logged.
Six minutes later Jamiro Monteiro was on the ball from a tight angle and sent in a curling ball that found the head of Kacper Przybylko and in the blink of an eye the ball was in the back of the net again. The Union were up 2-1.
What is going on right now?
Class has completely left the building pic.twitter.com/zSkBR1FfJk— x - Brotherly Game (@BrotherlyGame) September 26, 2019
If the score line had held under normal circumstances, the result might not have been such a big deal. Even though it had been a long time since the Earthquakes had lost at home, it’s not like the Union haven’t won at Avaya before or that the Earthquakes were in the top tier of their conference even with Wondolowski, Cristian Espinoza and their head coach on the sideline.
What happened next was nowhere near normal circumstances. That dread many of us felt watching Collin sprinting back to cover in the first half felt like an omen when he clattered into Andy Rios near the end line. The call on the field was initially a penalty, which appeared to be the right call from where we were sitting but after a third video review of the night, referee Baldomero Toledo overruled himself and pointed for a goal kick. It took a minute for the crowd to understand what was going on but once they did it quickly led to a chaotic scene with water bottles coming down from the stands and the crowd throughout the stadium chanting “ref you suck.”
It wasn’t apparent from the home broadcast with the game being called by monitor, but the vibe in the stadium was escalating to the level of game abandonment. But play continued and after the final five minutes of regulation and an agonizingly long 7 minutes of stoppage time, the whistle finally blew on the game. The Union had done it.
The anger and disappointment from the fans in the stadium took much longer to subside. Even as Curtin was doing his post-game interview fans were crowded around the security barriers near the locker rooms voicing their displeasure with the referee. There was also a crowd of Marco Fabian fans there to greet the El Tri star, who obliged by giving away his jersey and his shorts.
Tanto amor.— CantinaMX Podcast (@CantinaMX_POD) September 26, 2019
Marco Fabian giving the shirt off his back and shorts off his bum to make his fans happy? pic.twitter.com/har3R5LbEA
It was just that kind of night, I guess.
San Jose ended up not granting any post-game interviews — a fine-worthy decision — so many of the local sportswriters were hanging around getting comments from the Union players who had emerged from the locker room. The feeling among the visiting team was very subdued considering the magnitude of the win. They had gotten three points despite not playing great thanks to a massive amount of help from VAR but were already looking ahead to another road trip to Columbus and the season finale at home against NYCFC. First place was still within reach. Third place was guaranteed.
The long midweek trip in a three game in eight day stretch in September — still a questionable scheduling move by MLS — had not gotten the best of this team, at least not yet.
My flight home on Thursday was way smoother than the one there. My second leg included a trip from Chicago where Green Bay fans were cheering an early lead on the Eagles for the Packers and ended with Eagles fans cheering a comeback win in the baggage claim in Philadelphia. I hear some mention was made about the Union’s comeback the night before in the broadcast. It was a comeback even fans in a city dominated by the Eagles can appreciate.