For anyone wondering before it started how seriously teams would take the MLS is Back Tournament, the contrast of emotions on display after Philadelphia Union’s 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers in the semifinal Wednesday night was their definitive answer.
On one side, the Timbers were exuberant celebrating their victory and shot to play for a Champions League berth next week. On the other, was a dejected Union team all too familiar with defeat in big games processing a loss for the first time since February.
Affable head coach Jim Curtin even let the emotion get to him with a rare terse answer to the first question during the post-game press conference about Sergio Santos taking the penalty he sailed over the bar at the end of the first half.
“I figured that would be literally the first thing you guys would come up with, just try to blame someone,” Curtin said. “But anyway, you know look we’re a team, we win as a team and we lose as a team.”
Curtin’s team fought through to the end and came agonizingly close to completing a comeback they didn’t necessarily deserve when Kacper Przybylko was ruled offside on a would-be equalizer. That the Union were so close to making something out of a game where they were outplayed says perhaps more about them than the four games they won in Florida.
“The group never quits, that is one thing you have to give credit to our guys, they step up and they played the full 90 minutes,” Curtin said. “They could easily have laid down there but made big plays to keep us in a game to give us a chance at the end there even down to the last shot. We ask our guys to punch well above their weight and they do it every time.”
A tournament being played in a “bubble” in Orlando in the midst of a global pandemic after four months of no soccer was always going to be an unpredictable exercise and like knockout competitions usually are, the tournament was full of unpredictability.
Given the circumstances, the Union performed admirably, generated a fair amount of hype for their team and European prospects and showed that while they still have a ways to go to snatch that illusive first trophy — the tally now is three cup finals and two semifinals lost — they are heading in the right direction.
“I won’t let it take away from the strides and the growth that the team has made during this competition,” Curtin said.
Andre Blake was one of the standouts of the tournament not only for the Union but across the league and made a couple huge stops when the Union were down to keep the comeback within reach.
“I think we continue to grow as a team,” Blake said in the post-game press conference. “This was a semifinal game, there was a lot on the line. For me, we just have to learn from it and keep growing.”
Though a “tough pill to swallow” for Blake and his teammates and another hard lesson for Curtin to apply to future knockout games (not to mention fodder for the Curtin haters), the Union won’t leave Orlando’s bubble empty-handed. They picked up seven points in the regular standings, are fourth in the Eastern Conference standings, and lost just once in six games played at ESPN Wide World of Sports.
“I think we can take a lot from the tournament and positives and there’s definitely things we need to work on and things we we can get better at and improve on for the rest of the season whatever that brings,” Jack Elliott said in the post-game press conference.
In the end, MLS is Back for the Union can be summarized as three positive results and a cup semifinal exit under the strangest of circumstances. While a Champions League berth and a trophy would have been ideal for the fanbase back home, the far more important mountain to climb — and the one most deserving of a socially distanced parade this December — is the one that leads to an MLS Cup.
The work toward that goal continues.