— Danny Cruz (@Dannycruz5) August 13, 2014
The above tweet is not a typo. The Philadelphia Union are in the championship! “Already?” you might be asking. “It’s only August! Doesn’t the soccer season run into the fall?” Yes, it does. And the Union still sit in fifth place MLS’ Eastern Conference. But the team is also in the championship!
For the uninitiated, let’s explain: After the the game ended 1-1 in regulation and extra time, the Union defeated FC Dallas, 4-3, in a penalty shootout in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. C’mon! Even if you’re not that interested in soccer, as a Philadelphian you should always get excited for wins over teams from Dallas.
So, yeah, the U.S. Open Cup. Soccer is weird: Domestic soccer leagues run concurrently with a completely separate cup competition, which in the U.S. is a straight knockout competition. Yes, if you’re a soccer fan you get to look at brackets all year! It’s fun. Winning the U.S. Open Cup wouldn’t be as prestigious as qualifying for the playoffs and winning the MLS Cup, but it counts as an all-important “domestic trophy” nonetheless. (Yes, another cool thing about soccer is there are several chances to win championships in a season.)
What’s cool about the U.S. Open Cup is, essentially, every registered adult soccer team in the country is invited. This year’s field included not only the Union but teams known as the Brooklyn Italians, Jersey Express, FC Sonic Lehigh Valley (I assume this team is owned by Sega), Ocean City Nor’easters, Baltimore Bohemians and even the Union’s minor-league affiliates, Reading United A.C. and the Harrisburg City Islanders. The winner qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League, which includes the top club teams from North America.
The U.S. Open Cup, then known as the National Challenge Cup, was founded in 1913. (It got its current name in 1999; Lamar Hunt was an early U.S. soccer booster and also founded the Kansas City Chiefs.) Bethlehem Steel, the team who the Union’s far superior black jerseys are modeled after, won it five times. One year it was won by a team known as St. Louis Central Breweries. The Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals — now that’s a great team name, better than the Union — won it four times, all in the 1960s.
Making the Union’s run extra fun: The team was literally a few minutes away from being eliminated in its first game! In the fourth round — MLS teams enter later in the competition — the Union trailed the Harrisburg City Islanders 1-0. But Maurice Edu, the man with about 400 pairs of sneakers, saved the Union from the shame of losing to its minor-league affiliate with a goal in the 89th minute. The Union then won won 3-1 in extra time. They’ve won in the next three rounds, too, including last night’s penalty shootout win over Dallas.
Amobi Okugo, who has been with the Union since the team’s first season, scored an early second-half goal for the Union. Dallas tied it, but in the shootout Zach McMath saved two penalties and the Union were able to celebrate.
The Philadelphia Union have not been a good team in their history. They’ve only made the playoffs once, and went out with a 3-1 loss on aggregate in the semifinals. They were mired in a terrible season. And now they can win a championship!
The Union will host either the Seattle Sounders or the Chicago Fire in the Open Cup Final on September 16th.
Follow @dhm on Twitter.