US Open Cup Final Preview, part 1: Third time’s the charm

The Philadelphia Union are in the US Open Cup Final for the third time in franchise history. Philadelphia has looked very good in this tournament; over the four game stretch that made up this US Open Cup campaign, the Union have scored 11 goals and conceded just one. All four of those matches have been home games thanks to the luck of the draw. Now, Philadelphia travels to Houston for the chance to win their first ever trophy.

As you get ready for the game, Philly Sports Network has you covered with previews from our Union writers. Part 1 come’s from Tim Lovenguth, who takes a look at the past, and why the 2018 Union team will prove that the third time’s the charm!

Cory Burke celebrates his goal in the US Open Cup semifinals. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports.

The Philadelphia Union are trying to keep up with the rest of the major sports franchises of Philadelphia. The Eagles won the Super Bowl, the 76ers made a playoff run for the first time in seven years, the Flyers have been a consistent playoff team, and the Phillies have made strides to stay relevant in the Philly sports scene. The Union, who have been deemed irrelevant by traditional Philly four-for-four fans are making a case for this city to pay attention to them.

Since mid-May, the Union sport a record 16-7-2 (W-L-D), average two points per game, and have a goal differential of +16! They are playing attractive, possession based, soccer. That type of play has pushed them into a league playoff spot, and into the crucial US Open Cup final.

This is the Clubs third ever appearance in the US Open Cup Final. The previous two times were played at home, and were bitter losses. In 2014 the Union took on the one of the best team in the western conference that season, Seattle Sounders FC. The U came up short 3-1, but forced Seattle into extra time. The Union returned to the Cup final in 2015, and lost in even more horrific fashion losing to Sporting Kansas City in a penalty shootout.

This time around things are different, but let’s look back at the past to understand why the third time will be the charm for the Union

2014’s team had grit, but lacked depth:

Some of you may not remember, or didn’t know of the run the Union went on 2014, but they were in the thick of a playoff race, and played themselves into the US Open Cup final with a very limited squad.

Players 1-11 had grit, which led to some positive result. However, the players 12-30 were not game changers. This was what plagued the Union in the 2014 regular season as they missed the playoffs and in the 2014 US Open Cup Final.

In the 2014 final the Union went up 1-0 in the first half thanks to a Maurice Edu header! Philly’s shaky defense gave that lead up the lead two minutes into the second half. Philly’s lack of depth than reared its ugly head.

In the 60th minute Seattle brought on eventual MLS MVP runner-up Obafemi Martins. He forced the Union to sit deep and attack on the counter. At the end of regulation the Union almost found the winner. A nice run from Frenchman Vincent Nogueira created an attack for Philly. some combination play with attacking midfielder Cristian Maidana saw Nogueira in behind. He hit the ball past keeper Stefan Frei, but hit the post and the game went to extra time.

In extra time the quality of Martins cause problems for the Union. In the first half of extra time he drew defenders and play Clint Dempsey in behind. He slid the ball past an on rushing Zac MacMath and gave Seattle the lead. Then in the second half of extra time Martins ran past the entire Union team and scored the Cup-clinching goal.

The 2014 Union side showed the grit needed to win a championship, but when they played a team with better talent, the Union’s depth was not up to snuff. That changed a bit in 2015, but other problems arose.

2015’s team had better quality, but lacked the finishing touch:

In 2015 the Union were a better team than they were in 2014. However they had a great deal of trouble putting the ball in the back of the net. They scored 42 goals in 2015.

That was the lowest amount of goals scored in the Eastern conference; the fourth-lowest in all of MLS in 2015. The Union’s quality and grit pushed them to another final of the US Open Cup. This time a hot Sporting Kansas City team was the opponent.

As they did the year before, the Union took an early lead. Sébastien Le Toux found space behind the KC defense, and Vincent Nogueira picked the perfect pas to find him. Le Toux scored inside of the first 25 minutes to give Philadelphia the lead. This time the Union did a better job of holding off their opposition, but did eventually break.

Midway through the second half, Krisztián Németh equalized for Sporting Kansas City off of a perfectly curled shot that made its way past Andre Blake. As the game went on, the Union looked the better team, peppering SKC’s goal. Unfortunately no goals made their way past Tim Melia. The game was headed to 30 minutes of extra time.

In the two 15 minute halves, both teams had their chances but couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net, the Union’s scoring woes was evident, and SKC sat back playing on the counter. In the end neither side found a winning goal, and the game headed to penalties. Right before penalties came, the Union subbed in keeper John McCarthy, who had won two shootouts for the Union on the road to the US Open Cup Final.

Both sides converted their first two penalties. Union captain Maurice Edu missed the Union’s third, but John McCarthy stopped KC’s third. Both teams went on to score their next three from the spot, then the stepped up Andrew Wenger. Wenger, showed little confidence, and put his shot right at the dive of Tim Melia. Jordi Quintillà then  stepped up for SKC, sent McCarthy the wrong way and won the US Open Cup final.

The Union lost its second gut wrenching championship on home soil. Now three years later Philadelphia is ready to right their past wrongs.

2018’s team has what’s needed to win the US Open Cup:

This Union squad has more players who were not on the past Open Cup teams, and this roster is far-and-away better than the Union sides that took the field in 2014 and 2015. That coupled with a Houston side that’s having an up-and-down season benefit Philadelphia greatly. Here’s a look at who the remaining players the Union have from past Open Cup Final’s:

(7) John McCarthy, Andre Blake; Richie Marquez, Fabinho, Ray Gaddis; Warren Creavalle; CJ Sapong.

The Union have what they lacked in previous USOC Final’s, and defeated some interesting omens recently!

Quality, depth, grit and finishing:

The Union teams in past Open Cup finals had grit, and some quality, but lacked depth and a finishing touch when it was needed. The 2018 Philadelphia check those boxes.

This team’s quality is not just in the first 11 players, but is throughout their roster. The depth has gotten better, to the point where head coach Jim Curtin has difficult decisions to make to round out his 18 man roster every game. The depth and quality have this team buzzing, but those characteristics mean nothing without grit and putting the ball in the back of the net.

The Union have grit. It’s something that Jim Curtin has instilled in this team the four years he’s been coach, the difference between the 2018 team’s grit and past team’s is that this Union side knows they can score. The fishing from Cory Burke, Fafa Picault and Borek Dockal have this team confident that they can beat teams by a lot, or grind out difficult 1-0, or 2-0 wins. This was evident over the past week.

Omens defeated:

Last Wednesday, the Union went to Seattle Sounders FC, who Philly lost to in the 2014 US Open Cup final, and took all three points thanks to a gritty team performance. The Union followed that up with a 2-0 thumping of Sporting Kansas City, who Philly fell to in the 2015 US Open Cup final; depth, finishing and quality were the difference in the match.

Over the last six days, the Union have beaten the last two teams they lost to in their previous US Open Cup Final appearances! The Omens of the past were defeated by this Union team, and now it’s time for them to go into Houston and prove that the third time’ the charm; it’s time for them to bring home their first championship!

Third time’s the charm!

The Union will head into Houston the better team as Houston has just one win in their last seven matches. Houston played most of their starters in a league game this past Saturday, while the Union rested their starters. Philly should be more rested, and ready to prove that they are the team that brings home the clubs first trophy. Here’s who I see making the 18 for Philly:

Starting 11: Blake; Gaddis, Trusty, Elliot, Rosenberry; Medunjanin, Bedoya; Picault, Dockal, Sapong; Burke.

Bench: McCarthy; McKenzie, Fabinho; Jones, Ilsinho, Accam; Simpson.

Now’s the time for the Union to win their first trophy!

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Tim Lovenguth

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Peace out Union fans!

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports