Many know that while I am a huge soccer fan and a fan of my local Philadelphia Union, I am not a fan of MLS at all. While the quality of play leaves a lot to be desired, my main complaint with the league is the way it (for me) sucks the soul out of the game, with all of its complex rules for signing players, parity mechanisms such as player lotteries and drafts, as well as the fact that many games mean really nothing at all since over half the teams make the play-offs and there is no relegation. Finishing 10th gives you the same chance of winning the title as finishing third. Finishing last is no different than finishing 11th. In many ways it feels a bit contrived.
The U.S. Open Cup on the other hand is pure competition. Similar to the FA Cup in England, all professional teams compete in it and all semi-professional and amateur teams are eligible to qualify. It is a single elimination knockout tournament that has existed since 1914, making it the oldest club competition in the USA and actually one of the oldest in the world.
In a world of corporate power and big money, the recent popularity boost of the Cup is evidence of supporter power. Ignored by MLS and barely promoted by USSF, it was fairly under the radar until the Seattle Sounders took the tournament by storm, going deep in the bracket while still playing in a lower league, then winning it three straight times upon joining the MLS. Fan Interest increased and teams started taking it seriously, with Sporting KC finally knocking Seattle off their perch.
My home team, the Philadelphia Union, was formed by MLS five years ago and has been the epitome of mediocrity since its inception. Only one trip to the MLS Cup playoffs so far and only one decent run in the USOC meant that as fans we were starving for some success. This year, after a terrible start in the league, they began to carve out a cup run. An extra time win over Harrisburg City was followed by a very controversial extra time win over the legendary New York Cosmos. The Union found themselves in the quarterfinals, where they comfortably defeated the New England Revolution. In the semi-final they defeated FC Dallas on penalties, and the final was to be at home against the mighty Seattle Sounders.
So on the night of Tuesday, September 16, two of my friends and I made our way to our seats at PPL Park, about 15 minutes before kick-off. There was a nice tribute to Bethlehem Steel FC, who won the Cup five times early in its history, followed by all the pageantry typical of a cup final. Finally the teams took the field, the whistle blew and we were underway.
By then, the Sons of Ben (the Union’s lunatical fan club) were making quite the racket. A myriad of drums created such a frenetic and persistent rumbling one could have imagined Dave Lombardo and Mike Portnoy having a drum duel in the river end of the stadium (SoB’s: MAKE IT HAPPEN). The remainder of the sections roared through their catalogue of songs and chants, the rest of us joining in on occasion. The noise increased as the Union began to dominate late in the first half–and when Maurice Edu headed in a free kick, the stadium exploded into rapture. Here we were, with one hand on the trophy. Almost no one sat down until the halftime whistle, before which we almost got a second.
However, by the time everyone had retaken their seats for the second half the Sounders had equalised. The tension grew as we found the Union almost always on the attack but constantly giving it away cheaply in the final third. The crowd began to turn on the referee, who was poor thoughout. Incompetent striker Conor Casey began to receive some overdue abuse, as well as “lazy” playmaker Mike Magdana. Collective groans greeted two gilt-edged chances that were squandered late in regulation time – one that went off the post, and the other a mis-hit shot at an open goal that allowed the goalkeeper to scramble back and save it. Extra time should have been avoided and everyone knew it. Still the Union continued their sloppy attacks and still we hoped for the glory that had been the width of the post away.
Once extra time began, it felt we were doomed from the start. Hearts were in mouths as Zach MacMath palmed away shot after shot, and frustration grew at every useless cross and misplace pass around the box when the Union attacked. Then Clint Dempsey broke toward the Philadelphia box, played a neat one-two with Obafemi Martin, calmly knocked it past the scrambling MacMath, and it was all over.
We stuck around for 10 more minutes, hoping for a miracle equaliser, but when Seattle scored on a late breakaway, we joined the masses streaming to the exits, completely dejected. We had been the width of the post away from the first ever title in club history, only for it all to come crashing down. Our team made us believe. They went toe-to-toe with the tournament favourites, but ultimately couldn’t put it away.
But that’s football, isn’t it?