(Published by The Philly Soccer Page on Oct. 28, 2013)
Somehow, this seems how it was supposed to end this year for Philadelphia Union.
An exciting, fiercely contested home game against a good Kansas City team.
A valiant effort, falling just short.
And the players everyone wanted to see play together all year long.
If you had asked 10 fans to list their favorite Union players, nine of them would have listed the lineup that ended the game, save Fabinho.
Jack McInerney, Sebastien Le Toux, Michael Farfan, Amobi Okugo, Sheanon Williams, Ray Gaddis, Zac MacMath, Jeff Parke, Conor Casey, and Roger Torres. Yes, that Roger Torres, who received the loudest cheers (as usual) when he entered the game Saturday.
It was only the second time this year that those 10 players played at the same time in a regular season game. The first time was opening day.
The match spoke volumes about the Union — not just what was wrong about the club, but also what was right.
It started with an evenly contested first half against one of the league’s top teams. Amobi Okugo played center midfield, which on a different day might have had many adult, male Union fans squealing like little girls.
Then a young player’s mental lapse led to a goal against the run of play when Antoine Hoppenot was caught ball-watching, lost his mark, and let Graham Zusi ghost in behind him for a header.
But the Union persevered. Goalkeeper Zac MacMath made clutch saves and continued to show how much he has progressed this season.
Then came the comeback, as the Union seemingly willed their way back into the game when Jeff Parke’s all-or-nothing header in a scrum found McInerney for the 88th minute goal.
The Union needed one more goal to win and have a shot at the playoffs, and they chased it desperately. That opened up the counterattack killer from a savvier opponent. And that was it.
As devastating as the outcome was, many fans will probably tell you that was the most fun they had all season.
Tell me that all doesn’t somehow feel right to you.
Wait till next year
In the end, this isn’t the storybook season. The Union don’t get to wear Cinderella’s slipper.
But when Amobi Okugo and Sheanon Williams talk about this season feeling like a waste, they are absolutely wrong.
As a team, the Union took some key steps. The club’s course was stabilized after a historically destructive 2012 under Peter Nowak. The team was competitive despite clear financial disadvantages. The salary budget has been cleared for next season. Talented young players like McInerney, MacMath, Okugo, and Williams took clear, important steps in their development and cemented themselves as part of the Union’s long-term nucleus. (Yes, Michael Farfan struggled and probably regressed, but he is the notable exception among that young core.) Veterans Conor Casey, Jeff Parke and Sebastien Le Toux established themselves as key on-field cogs who fit the Union’s team-first ethos perfectly.
The problems with the Union are well known. They played ugly soccer this year, lack a central creative playmaker (Kleberson likely won’t be back in 2014), and showed a maddening tendency to deploy attacking midfielders (Keon Daniel, Danny Cruz) who don’t consistently add to the attack. (Cruz had just 25 touches and nine passes in 70 minutes Saturday.)
The foundation is laid, however, for a strong 2014. This is a young team with a good nucleus. They will have two top-six picks in the amateur draft, about one-third of their salary budget will be freed up, and they will have cleared their designated player from the books. Union manager John Hackworth should have the tools he needs to sign players who will help transform this team into one that plays attractive soccer that is as routinely fun to watch as teams like Portland, Salt Lake, and Colorado are. (More on this in a few days.) Meanwhile, Hackworth’s young players should be incredibly motivated after this season’s crushing end.
It’s all set up for a great 2014 that could set the franchise’s course for many years to come.
Next year, there are no excuses.