Philadelphia Union's Danny Cruz enjoys special, emotional night in front of his US serviceman father

CHESTER, Pa. – Philadelphia Union midfielder Danny Cruz was in serious pain after getting laid out by Colorado’s Shane O’Neill early in Saturday’s 3-3 draw, later saying it was the kind of tackle that “gets people out for a year” and was the “definition of red card.”

But even though it looked like he might have sustained a serious injury, Cruz was eventually able to hobble off the field and then, just moments later, go back into the game. There was no way, after all, that he was coming out.

Not in this game.

Not when his father, Al – a sergeant in the Army who had been deployed in Afghanistan – was at PPL Park for the first time.

“At first I was like, ‘There’s no way I can keep going,’” Cruz said. “I’d be lying if I said he didn’t go through my head. He definitely did. He doesn’t ever get to see me play, and I tried to push through. I was definitely emotional after that. I got a little teary-eyed, more because I was frustrated and was in pain. But it definitely pushes you through it.”

Cruz did not even know he would have a special fan in the stands until Friday, when he tweeted out to his followers that his dad was set to come to the game after flying into town for work at Fort Dix, the US Army post in New Jersey.

The timing was actually perfect, as Saturday’s game was Military Appreciation Night at PPL Park. With the Sons of Ben holding up a giant American flag and a sign that read, “We thank those who defend us,” Al Cruz – a career soldier who has had numerous tours of duty overseas – was honored before kickoff, with his son by his side.

“I kind of got a little choked up early before the game,” Cruz said. “He has never been able to see me play here. He hasn’t seen me play in a really long time. I haven’t seen him in about six, seven months. I had no idea he was coming to town until [Friday], so it was even more of a surprise.”

While the elder Cruz's absence for much of Danny Cruz's childhood led to some distance between them, as described by The Washington Post's Steven Goff in a 2012 feature, there is no doubting the closeness and appreciation the two now have for each other.

Always one to wear his heart on his sleeve in any game, Cruz had even more emotional energy on Saturday, fighting off the early injury scare with a strong 69-minute shift. The 24-year-old Union midfielder would have scored in the 30th minute if not for a monster save by Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin – but the play set up a corner kick from which the Union scored to take a 2-1 lead.

Still, for Cruz, the most memorable part of the game came before it began.

“The national anthem was probably the most touching part for me,” he said. “I could see him from where I was standing, and it definitely gets you going and it adds a little bit to the game. The game meant a little bit more to me. And it’s emotional.

"I think the big thing for me is for him to see his name on the back of the jersey. He thinks I make him proud, but he has no idea the effect that he has on me.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.