CHESTER, Pa. – On May 26, the Philadelphia Union returned from Canada a team in disarray.
They had just lost to then-pointless Toronto FC to drop to 2-7-2 on the year. Even worse, their next league match was more than two weeks away.
But just three days after that bitter defeat north of the border, the Union were able to turn their attention to another matter, one that helped change the direction of a season spiraling out of control: the US Open Cup.
They won their first tournament game against the Rochester Rhinos on May 29, followed up with an overtime upset of D.C. United a week later and then trounced affiliate Harrisburg three weeks after that to storm into the USOC semifinals.
Sadly for the Union, their run ended in the semis Wednesday night at PPL Park, as they dropped a 2-0 decision to Sporting Kansas City. But even in the midst of the frustration felt by falling short of the tournament title, Philadelphia were able to reflect on what their 2012 Open Cup run meant to the franchise.
“It was great because it gave a team that didn’t have a lot to play for,” interim manager John Hackworth said, “something to play for.”
Indeed, since the Open Cup began for them, the Union have won three of their five league games, including their two most convincing wins of the season as well as a stunning road triumph over the defending champion Galaxy.
Of course, much of that turnaround can be credited to the popular Hackworth taking over for embattled ex-manager Peter Nowak, whose last MLS game in charge was that 1-0 loss to Toronto on May 26.
But some of it can also certainly be attributed to the club gaining confidence by scoring goals in bunches and finally stringing wins together.
“The Cup run was very important for us,” Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath said. “We are still on track despite the loss. We still have a great shot to make the playoffs in the Major League Soccer season.”
If the Union continue to play the way they have over the past month, they should indeed be able to continue their climb to get back into the playoff race.
Still, even with that goal now in the forefront of their minds, it might take a little bit of time until the pain of falling short of capturing the franchise’s first-ever trophy entirely subsides.
“Being in the final was a chance to make history with the Philadelphia Union,” captain Carlos Valdés said. “I feel so bad because we really wanted to play in the final of the US Open Cup.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.