Union Get Improbable “Biggest Win in Their History”

The Philadelphia Union advanced to the semifinals of the knockout U.S. Open Cup for the third time in four seasons in wild fashion.

Philadelphia Union forward Fernando Aristeguieta (left) and goalkeeper John McCarthy (right) celebrate Aristeguieta's game winning goal to end the penalty kicks against NY Red Bulls during a quarterfinal match of the US Open Cup at Red Bull Arena.

Philadelphia Union forward Fernando Aristeguieta (left) and goalkeeper John McCarthy (right) celebrate Aristeguieta’s game winning goal to end the penalty kicks against NY Red Bulls during a quarterfinal match of the US Open Cup at Red Bull Arena.

Fernando Aristeguieta buried it into the back of the net and ran toward the sideline. He embraced goalkeeper John McCarthy side-by-side, as the two waited for their teammates to join them.

The Union had just pulled off one of the more improbable victories in the team’s short history. And now Philadelphia was headed to the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup once again.

In a knockout cup competition yesterday, the Union defeated the New York Red Bulls, 4-3, in a shootout, after the teams ended regulation and extra time tied at 1.

The Union have generally disappointed in their six seasons in Philadelphia, qualifying for the playoffs only once. This year, they’re in seventh place in the Eastern Conference — just two points out of a playoff spot, but tied for next to last in the standings in points per game. As Richard Rys wrote in last month’s issue of Philadelphia magazine, Union fans actually carried a coffin for the team’s CEO — labeled “Serial Franchise Killer” — at a game this spring.

Yet the Union have generally done well in the U.S. Open Cup, the more-than-a-century-old soccer knockout competition. Yesterday’s win over the Red Bulls put them into the semifinals for the third time in four years.

For the soccer uninitiated: Soccer leagues around the world are generally decided by the regular season champion; there aren’t playoffs. But running concurrently with the league is a single-elimination, knockout cup competition. Many cup competitions, like the U.S. Open Cup, are theoretically open to any soccer team, from a group of five amateurs to the highest-financed team in the top league. (In reality, once MLS teams enter, they’re generally competing against each other or pro teams from lower divisions.)

MLS teams do not always take the cup competition seriously, fielding younger players and other reserves in these games to get them a bit of competition. There was some thought the New York Red Bulls would do this. Yesterday’s game was at 4 p.m. at Harrison, New Jersey’s Red Bull Arena because there was an exhibition match there that night between French club Paris Saint-Germain and Italian side Fiorentina. The Red Bulls have a game tonight against English powerhouse Chelsea. The teams could not decide on a game time for weeks, before settling on the afternoon matinee.

The Red Bulls did end up fielding their starters in the intense heat Tuesday, and it looked like the Union were in big trouble when Conor Casey picked up a straight red card in the 40th minute. The teams went into halftime scoreless, however.

The Union actually pulled ahead in the 56th minute. Vince Nogueira and Sebastien Le Toux played a little give-and-go before Nogueira found Eric Ayuk open in front of the net. He buried it.

For a while, it seemed like that would be it. The Union led 1-0 into stoppage time, putting nine men on defense for most of the game. This would have been the second straight game the Union advanced despite playing the entire second half down a man. On June 30th, the Union scored twice with 10 men to beat D.C. United.

But Lloyd Sam scored in the fourth minute of stoppage time, and so the Union had to hold the Red Bulls scoreless for another 30 minutes in order to reach penalty kicks.

The shootout opened with goalkeeper McCarthy — a Philly native and La Salle graduate — delaying the Red Bulls’ first shot by standing behind the goal line. Bradley Wright-Phillips, the Union’s leading scorer, knocked it off the crossbar. When McCarthy made a diving save on Sam’s penalty attempt, the Union were just one goal away from advancing — with two chances to make it.

Fred missed, but Aristeguieta buried it to give the Union what coach Jim Curtin called “the Union’s biggest win in their history.” The team will face the winner of the Chicago Fire-Orlando City FC match later today.

Last year, the Union missed out on winning the Cup when it failed to convert two great scoring chances late in regulation and lost, 3-1, in extra time.

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