It really is the hope that kills you, isn’t it? And I’m not talking about the “I hope they get a win!” type of hope, but the “I hate this team so much they suc…omg they scored maybe there’s a chance!” type of hope. And there was a LOT of that exact type of hope in Union’s opening match in the round of 32 of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup against Minnesota United on Tuesday night. But as the story seems to go for Philadelphia sports teams in the last 6 months, this one too ended with despair.
First Half snooze fest
When the lineups dropped for this game I actually find myself quite excited. The introduction of Seven new players into the starting lineup from Saturday night at Red Bulls meant an opportunity for the likes of Andres Perea, Damion Lowe, Joaquin Torres, Jesus Bueno, Matt Real, and Chris Donovan to earn some future minutes in this squad. And while I thought Damion Lowe and Jesus Bueno looked positive on the defensive side of things in the open frame, there wasn’t a whole lot to talk about in the attack.
The Union was out-possession by Minnesota in the first half and didn’t create many opportunities or shots on the net. Philly’s most promising look in the first 45 minutes came off the counter-attack which was started from a Damion Lowe interception on a through ball attempt.
Lowe played the ball to Joaquin Torres in the midfield who was able to spring away with some room in front of him. Torres rolled the ball to Uhre in the box, who collected the ball with little space and a tight angle, but got off a strong effort forcing Minnesota’s keeper Clint Irwin to push the ball over the crossbar to keep it level at 0-0. Other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot to write home about, and the teams went into the locker room deadlocked at 0-0.
Second Half Roller Coaster Ride
The second half was much different than the first. It was like riding a roller coaster through the full range of emotions, but then doing it again for entertainment, and once more for laughs. But remember that specific type of hope I referenced earlier? You can’t get that kind of hope without experiencing some sort of pain first, and Minnesota delivered just that when Bongokuhle Hlongwane came off the bench and headed home a cross to make it 1-0 in the 68th minute, and then danced his way through the penalty area and serviced the ball up on a platter for Joseph Rosales to slam home and extend the lead to 2-0 just 5 minutes later.
With that two-goal deficit, justified criticism of this team and coaching staff alike started rolling in. People were starting to ask questions and demand answers. How come THIS much rotation? Why those subbing patterns? What happened to the attack from last season? Heck, what happened to the defensive from last season? And just as fans were getting ready to pack it in, Chris Donovan reinstalled hope in the Union fans with his first goal on the senior team in the 78th minute.
A lot of fans decided to keep the game on with hopes of the Union being able to turn it around, and while they got themselves in some good positions and asked questions of Minnesota’s backline, it appeared Union’s US Open Cup run was going to end abruptly and in disappointing nature. But in the stoppage time of the second half, Joaquin Torres lifted the ball into the box finding an open Kai Wagner. Wagner one-time volleyed the ball toward netting, beating Irwin to the far corner and forcing overtime at the death to keep Union’s Open Cup hopes alive.
An Extra 30 Minutes of Play
Union and Minnesota would go to overtime to settle who advanced to the next round, which once again was affected by the play of Bongokuhle Hlongwane in the 103rd minute when his shot beat Andre Blake to give Minnesota another lead late in the game. Union crawled all the way back to force overtime, just to give up another goal and crash out of the completion. The frustration set in once again for Union fans, wondering what could have been if Union didn’t go down 2-0.
Union did their best to muster up opportunities to level the game, but couldn’t get a clear attempt of net. It seemed like Minnesota was just about to grind out a 3-2 victory when Union earned a very late free kick in stoppage time at the top of the penalty area with very little time left. Kai Wagner stepped up to take the free kick, bent the ball around the wall, and beat Irwin with the last kick of overtime to equalize for Union once again and send the game to be decided on penalty kicks. Kai Wagner, a player that hasn’t scored this season, just scored two different last-second equalizers in the span of 30 minutes.
Union Falls in Penalty Kicks Again
The game would be decided by penalty kicks, which is probably still a bit of a sore spot for Union and their fans given what happened in MLS Cup. But while Union had trouble finishing the net in the PKs in MLS Cup, things were exactly the opposite Tuesday night. Union and Minnesota both made their first two attempts. Andre Blake was able to make a save on the third attempt to give them the advantage to Union if the following player could put their kick away, but Clint Irwin matched Andre Blake with a diving stop on Matt Real, keeping it 2-2 after three rounds.
After that, both teams would trade blows, converting all of the next four attempts each. Minnesota’s 8th kicker, Tapias stepped up and beat Blake for the 5 straight time, continuing to put all the pressure on Union PK takers in a sudden death situation. And this time the pressure got too much even for Kai Wagner, who had already saved Union twice Tuesday night. Wagner’s attempt was smothered by Clint Irwin and the roller coaster ride of emotions ends in disappointment for Union.
Focus Shifts to MLS Play
Entertainment-wise, this was a great game. A game in which Union showed a lot of fight and willingness to keep going til the very last second. However, execution-wise, there’s a lot to be disappointed with once again, even with the rotation, and threats the reason Union’s US Open Cup run is ending before it really got started.
It’s missed a missed opportunity at a genuine chance for a trophy this season. But it’s not all bad, I suppose. Crashing out of both CCL and Open Cup in a week’s time means the team can focus on nothing but re-claiming their spot atop of the East in MLS play until Leagues Cup starts this summer.
I’ve always said, MLS is about getting hot at the right time and entering playoffs in stride, and hopefully, now Union can put their full attention towards that.
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union