During the 90 minutes of play in the Eastern Conference Final, the largest crowd in Subaru Park history was filled with belief and pride over the way the Philadelphia Union were showing in a game where five starters and 11 players total were sidelined because of Covid-19 health and safety protocols.
The Union weren’t just in the game against NYCFC; they were fully deserving of the lead they grabbed in the 63rd minute on a Daniel Gazdag curler into the box that Alexander Callens put into his own net trying to stop Kacper Przybylko from what would’ve been a sure goal.
When news surfaced that the Union had to cancel training on Thursday and that 11 players likely would not be available for the biggest game in club history — one with not only a trophy on the line but a chance to play in an MLS Cup final — the tired “That’s So Union” phrase seemed to have magically reared its ugly head again.
Fans quickly shifted expectations from being the favorites in a building the team has lost in only four times in the past two years to one of faith and belief. It didn’t even feel that corny to adopt the “Believe” banner from the wildly popular Apple TV comedy Ted Lasso as a mantra knowing that a win with 11 Men Out would be the stuff of Hollywood legend.
The upset bid under the most difficult of situations fell short on two preventable goals that put NYCFC into the MLS Cup final for the first time instead of the boys in blue.
On the field, the win was deserved. NYCFC capitalized on a huge mistake and made the Union pay just six minutes away from extra time. Off the field — commissioner Don Garber was in attendance — is a different story and ultimately the team that won a Supporters’ Shield in 2020 in part because of how well they managed playing through a global pandemic became the biggest unfortunate victim of health and safety policies put in place before the word Omicron started showing up on cable news Chyrons.
Philly-to-his-core Jim Curtin was understandably less than diplomatic about the situation post-game recounting how their season had ended, striking a chord of defiance not only toward the single-entity league that employs him but the larger response to Covid-19 in year two of this global public health nightmare. Curtin took aim at the league’s protocols, Fox News, CNN and even the “oil money” behind New York City’s $5 million difference in salaries during his remarks.
“I’d imagine if every person that walked in our stadium today got tested I just would say there’d be a decent percentage that unknowingly have it as well,” Curtin said in the post-game press conference. “It’s complicated. I’m not a scientist, I defer to scientists so don’t get me wrong I’m about as progressive and open minded as anyone but at the same time I think that as new things come in, I think we have to adapt and adjust, like we all have.”
“I don’t have the solution so please don’t let this run with some idiot piece on Fox News or some idiot piece on CNN,” he continued. “Keep me out of that please, but we’re all trying to do the best we can. And sometimes, it works out well and sometimes it doesn’t. We had 11 guys that are healthy to play a soccer game that aren’t here because they have a version of the sniffles.”
The mention of the word “healthy” is one that will stick with the Union fanbase well beyond the 82-day wait to the 2022 season opener on February 26.
The Union’s star goalkeeper, captain, three-fourths of their back line and two-thirds of their forwards couldn’t play in the biggest game in club history because why now?
Veteran sportswriter Kevin Kinkead tracked down half a dozen sources to get to the bottom of the situation for Crossing Broad and unsurprisingly it’s a complicated tale with multiple “moving parts and timelines.”
The gist from Kevin (read the story) is that there were players and staffers who tested positive, that one possible source was a player’s girlfriend and that Olivier Mbaizo reportedly contracted Covid-19 while back home in Cameroon on international duty. An important detail of note for the Twitter rumor mill is that the birthday party story didn’t hold up since there were players there who were cleared for Sunday.
Kinkead ultimately concludes that it was more a case of bad luck than players breaking rules, which will only increase the scrutiny on the league. For good reason.
Thanks to Portland beating Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Final the league didn’t have to deal with the blowback for having to host an MLS Cup final on a baseball diamond but as the focus shifts to Oregon for Saturday’s main event the scrutiny over 11 Men Out can’t simply be swept under the rug with fancy graphics and field-level videos of celebrations on the pitch in Chester.
Long after the details of the game fade, the shorthand we’ll all remember is that the Union got screwed.
Yes, Union fans have plenty to be proud of with their team and just about the entire roster deserves credit for the run they went on this year to the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League and MLS but the fact that it ended the way it did is something not even a treble-winning 2022 season could erase. Okay maybe that would make it all worth it.
The point is no one outside of NYCFC’s fanbase should feel good about what happened last night and conclude that one of the two teams on the league’s biggest stage this Saturday didn’t get a huge assist to make it.
Would a full strength Union team have won the game on Saturday? We’ll never know but it’s hard to watch what transpired and not think there would’ve been a different outcome if those tired legs late in the match from guys who were pushing their fitness levels well beyond anything they had been prepped for up until two days earlier hadn’t had to be there in the first place.
“To be missing 11 players is certainly not something someone usually sits up here at a press conference and has to say,” Curtin said. “I don’t know how to really respond. I can’t be proud when we lose but at the same time this is about as unique a set of circumstances as you can have in the game...It still hurts that we lost but I’m still proud of the group.”
That hurt is now part of the DNA of the club in a way none of the fans who have ridden this roller coaster since 2010 could’ve ever dreamt.
While the “no one likes us” phrase is hyperbolic for effect, that massive chip on the shoulder that has helped propel the Union from loveable doormat to feared contender is even stronger now than ever before. Much stronger.