The fairytale continues: Union defeat Red Bulls in US Open Cup Shootout

There’s something magical about Cup Soccer. No matter what the deficit, no matter how many odds are stacked against you, no matter how impossible it may seem, miracles do happen. The Union’s fairytale continued at the Red Bull Arena after they defeated the New York Red Bulls on penalties to advance to the Semi Finals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in a game that was as tense as an entire season of Game Of Thrones.

The drama started just seconds into the game, the Union had their first shot with a break from kick-off. It was the type of move that excited fans in the stadium and bought those at home to the edge of their seat, but the following half an hour would be a very different story. A huge chance in the third minute was denied by Manuel Neuer, sorry..I meant John McCarthy as the Red Bulls pushed the Union into some scrappy defending early on.

The deadly three for the first forty five minutes were easily Abang and the former Charlton players Bradley Wright-Phillips and Lloyd Sam. Abang had countless attempts including a deflected bicycle kick whilst all three were instrumental in creating this dominating presence that graced the Red Bull Arena. That and the Union just seemed to lack the fire needed at the beginning of the game.

Sebastien Le Toux was simply non existent in the opening half, neither was Conor Casey. Both players seemed like they were a small fish in a big pond. Slow to the ball, poor touches and positional play that would rival a High School team. At one stage, Casey ended up near the Union’s box, fighting for the ball on the right flank..exactly what you want from a striker..

In fact, what you want from a striker..is a striker..someone who’s on the pitch..to score goals. Conor Casey made a sloppy challenge on Lade in the 40th minute which earned him an extremely controversial red card and one that is still being disputed on social media as I write this report. A yellow? Certainly. Did it warrant a red? Absolutely not, there was no malicious intent there, it was just mistimed by a player who has not seen much game action at all. But excuses or not, the Union were down a man for the second U.S. Open Cup game in a row, but this time the stakes were much higher.

As the teams headed into the break it was evident who the dominant side was. Even with Casey still in the lineup, the Union were struggling. 45 minutes is a long period of time to play without a full squad on the pitch, let alone in a game that carries the weight of so much pressure and expectation. The one gleaming positive from the opening 45 minutes was that Philly’s own Petr Cech was having the game of his career at the net.

Something had to change in the second half and luckily for the Philadelphia Union, it did.

Everything changed in the 55th minute. Vincent Nogueira made a blistering run to kick start the counter attack, a run he simply did not get any credit for during the broadcast. The midfielder was able to find Le Toux who made up for his poor efforts thus far with a great visioned pass back to the roaming playmaker. Nogueira could have taken the shot on but instead played it back to rookie Eric Ayuk who put the Union ahead. They may have taken Casey, they may have taken possession and they may have taken the momentum..but they could not take the Union’s heart and character.

Although, instead of slaying the dragon..it appeared they had just angered it..New York threw everything at the travelling Union side as the second half began to wear on. Yet again, McCarthy was not only keeping his side in the contest, but pumping the men around him up. There was no doubt at this point as to who would pick up man of the match. There were a couple of small rushing errors but you can’t take that away from what was simply an exceptional performance.

The final ten minutes were a constant headache for the Union defenders. Fabinho also went down as an unsung hero, constantly pressuring players just inside the box to block out their crosses. An incredibly difficult task given the amount of diving we see in the modern game. Fabinho was absolutely crucial in the Philadelphia Union’s defensive efforts, cutting out passes and hoofing the ball clear when needed.

But all the Union’s exceedingly solid yet un co-ordinated defensive efforts all crumbled in the 90th minute. After substitute Fernando Aristeguieta found Fred completely unmarked, Fred found Carroll on the edge of the 18 yard box but it was an easy smother for Robles.

Just when you think it’s all over, when you think the Union have done enough..it all comes undone. With just added time left, Matt Miazga’s ball that somehow found its way to Grella eventually flicked it on with his head to find Lloyd Sam. Sam took one touch, spun around and volleyed it home to put a huge arrow in the heart of the Union. Extra time was a given, and it’s a scenario we have seen all too many times. The crumbling. Once one goal finds its way in, it often ends in 3 or 4 more finding their way through.

Extra Time provided much of the same however. For the most part, the Philadelphia Union backed their remaining men into the box to give rookie McCarthy as much help as they can. Not that he needed it, he had been carrying the teams hopes of a win single handedly for the most part. If McCarthy was off form, this game would have gone sour very quickly. The Union keeper fought off shot after shot after cross after pass, falling on each one to imperatively run down the clock.

Miazga made an uncharacteristic error as he attempted to pass back to Robles, but a charging Nando tried to tap the ball past the travelling keeper. The attempt was unsuccessful however, and it was a defining moment. The Union would get just one more attempt from a corner late on, the rest was all Red Bulls. The pressure began to build on young McCarthy but he held his nerve as did the rest of the Union, and they took the Red Bulls to a penalty shootout. The team have been here before, they’ve won here before, it’s happened in the cup before, they’ve beaten the Red Bulls once this season, was it destiny to happen again?

Englishman Bradley Wright-Phillips missed his opening penalty, handing the advantage to the Union off the bat.

Later in the shootout, McCarthy still had one act of defiance, to try and send his team through. He dived left and prevented a saved Lloyd Sam rocket, pushing the ball off of the goalline. All pressure then fell to Fred who then missed his attempt.  Kljestan chipped one past McCarthy in an act of arrogance and dismissal. It meant that the fate of the Philadelphia union rested on returning striker Fernando Aristeguieta. Nando had a very good game for the time he was present, showing everyone how strong he is by dispossessing defenders and leaping up to re-establish an aerial threat. He was a joy to watch as he contributed to all areas of play..but his most crucial was the swing of his right foot in the penalty shootout. The Venezuelan fired his shot into the side netting, beating Robles, beating New York and sending the Union into the semi finals of the U.S. Open Cup.

A win was always going to be an achievement for the Union. But this may just have tested their character more than any other game in franchise history. It may not be the biggest win, but it was certainly the most gruelling. Battered and bruised, the residents of PPL Park are indeed through to the final four for yet another successful year in domestic cup football, but the question is, can they reach the final two years running? If they do, can they go all the way this time? Anything is possible in the beautiful game and today really has proved that.

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