1030 PHI sider

CHESTER, Pa. – When Maxi Moralez scored to give NYCFC a 1-0 lead in the 57th minute of Sunday's Eastern Conference Final, Subaru Park deflated for a moment.

The Philadelphia Union were in the midst of what they felt was their best-ever season with their best-ever team. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It couldn’t end this way.

“It’s human nature to have that sinking feeling. It’s natural,” head coach Jim Curtin told media after the match. “I can lie and say I knew we were going to come back, but that’s not the case. When you concede like that and the place goes quiet, it hurts. ... The crowd immediately got back behind us."

They didn’t give up.

Goalkeeper Andre Blake made a vital save on a close-range header from Alexander Callens to maintain the deficit at just one goal, then the tide completely changed. NYCFC had contained Philly’s attack for much of the game, but switched off on a 65th-minute free kick, as Julián Carranza slipped behind and slotted home a one-time finish. Two minutes later, Carranza assisted Dániel Gazdag, and all of a sudden the Union were up 2-1.

The defending champs couldn’t recover and the game ended 3-1 to the hosts, with the Union qualifying for their first-ever MLS Cup in a Nov. 5 showdown against LAFC (4 pm ET | FOX, Univision in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada).

“What a team,” Curtin gushed. “An incredible group of guys who have a belief and a fight that won’t be denied. It’s an amazing night, the biggest win in our club’s history. A real thank you to the fans who, even when we went down a goal, stayed loud, stayed with us, and never doubted us."

Brotherly Love

Under Curtin’s reign, the Union have checked off a lot of “firsts”, the peak of which was their first-ever trophy in 2020 by winning the Supporters’ Shield. This year was their best-ever season in terms of goal difference (+46), the second-best in league history.

“It’s a feeling I’ll never forget,” Curtin said. “It’s a special moment, man."

Curtin’s press conference was cut short by fan favorite José Martinez. The Venezuelan midfielder came into the room with ski goggles on and a bottle of champagne in hand, beckoning his head coach to join the celebrations.

The camaraderie in the group is something easily evident when watching Philly play. Based around an ethos where the team is the star and everybody works hard in a cohesive high-pressing system, the Union have punched above their weight for years and are recognized among the league’s very best teams over the last half-decade.

“I’m really proud of the guys,” Blake, a three-time Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award winner, said. “Philadelphia is all I know. I’m just so happy that we were able to celebrate in front of our fans."

Digging deep

To kick off the comeback, Defender of the Year Jakob Glesnes’ quick thinking on a free kick played Carranza in behind NYCFC’s defense, with Carranza’s recognition of the space and calm first-touch finish leveling the game to get the crowd back into it.

Just two minutes later, with fans still in full celebration from the previous goal, Carranza put Gazdag in for a tap-in with a deft header, sending the stadium into pandemonium. With all the momentum on their side, the Union didn’t give NYCFC a chance to get back into the game, with super-sub Cory Burke adding a third in the 76th minute.

“We have players who are willing to grind and fight,” Curtin said. “We’re not fun to play against. You can call it what you want: attractive, entertaining, you can hate it, you can call it too physical, whatever you want, we don’t really care. We know the opponent does not like playing against us and it wears them down. Full credit to our players.”

Union captain Alejandro Bedoya missed the Conference Semifinal with a hip injury, an ailment that had kept him out all but one game since September 10. He was able to start and lasted 45 minutes, but it wasn’t easy. After an attempted pass around the 30th minute in front of the Union bench, he was severely hampered by that injury. He was able to fight through it and last until halftime before being subbed.

Jack McGlynn replaced Bedoya. He got the secondary assist on that second goal.

“Ale gutted it out and gave as much as we could,” Curtin said. “The thinking was always to bring Jack on when the game slowed down a little bit. ... To bring him in when he can pass, he did a good job for us.”

On the bench in the second half, Bedoya cheered on his team and tried to galvanize the crowd. The Union captain was fit enough to climb up the stairs onto the podium to accept the trophy and lift it for his team, his club and his city.

“It’s unbelievable,” Carranza, acquired this season from Inter Miami CF, said. “I can’t explain it with words. I wasn’t playing in my past team, but in this team I found great players, great people. We’re super difficult to beat, we showed how good we can be.”

Now, the Union have one more game left.

Dream Final

This is the first time since 2003 that both No. 1 seeds have advanced to face each other in MLS Cup. The Union and LAFC finished 2022 level on points, with the Black & Gold clinching the Supporters’ Shield thanks to a tiebreaker: Most wins (21 versus 19).

Like the Union, Saturday will be LAFC’s first-ever MLS Cup.

“It feels amazing, you know?” defender Kai Wagner said. “This is my fourth season, we’ve had great seasons. To get to the end this season, to get to MLS Cup, it’s amazing."

LAFC and the Union have played out a few instant classics in previous years. They played the final regular-season game before the league shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the 2020 season, an incredible 3-3 draw. Earlier this year, they played out another draw, this time 2-2. Both of those games were in Los Angeles as well.

“Finals are hard to get to,” Curtin said. “It’s not easy in a 28-team league, the quality of this league. We’re going to go on the road and play an LAFC team who are as good as any in our league’s history. We have a chance, we can play with anybody.”