After giving NYCFC everything they had with a squad missing five starters and six reserves, the Philadelphia Union’s Eastern Conference final and the ensuing MLS Cup final were always going to be a painful exercise in “what if.”
Seeing NYCFC lift the MLS Cup trophy in Portland yesterday after their goalkeeper saved the first two penalties he faced in the shootout to decide the champion, however, only added more salt to that still fresh wound.
The team the Union had played well enough to grab a 1-0 lead against in the 63rd minute in the conference final were the champions of the league and had earned a berth into the 2022 Concacaf Champions League. It feels a bit unsettling just writing that.
Going into the final Saturday afternoon it felt like the Timbers would take advantage of their massive home field advantage and end the season much the way they ended the MLS is Back tournament — with trophy in hand. But even a late rescue mission on the last play of the game from Felipe Mora to send the game to extra time wasn’t enough of a momentum boost for Portland to grab a winner and put pesky NYCFC away.
When Sean Johnson saved Portland’s first two penalties — just like Andre Blake had done to Nashville SC to lead the Union to their first conference final — it was hard not to picture Blake there in Johnson’s place leading the boys in blue to their second trophy in two seasons and second berth into the CCL.
Had it gone the other way and Portland had won, it would be easier on a Sunday morning to rationalize that the Union may have also lost. They weren’t exactly a buzzsaw on the road this season, after all.
But in a penalty shootout? With Andre Blake? In an alternate universe Philadelphia Union fans are still wringing out their clothes from an extended celebration in the rain.
We’ll never know if the Union would’ve won the Eastern Conference with a full squad. The teams played each other pretty evenly through the regular season and holding a lead for 27 minutes with their firepower off the bench would’ve been a challenge either way.
We’ll also never know if the Union had won the conference how they would’ve played with many of the same 11 players still potentially out for the final.
Regardless of that, many of the same Union fans who were rooting for NYCFC to knock off New England Revolution — call it a deal with the devil to get one more home game that backfired — have every reason to feel like NYC winning the cup was a kind of robbery.
Whether it was a robbery caused by the Union carelessly leaving all of their doors unlocked while away for the weekend, protocols in need of an update or the result of a sinister boss with a nepotism problem doesn’t really matter much now that the final nail has been nailed on the 2021 season.
All that matters now is the revenge tour in 2022.