The moment, as unlikely as it might have seemed, was there for the Philadelphia Union. The club, missing 11 players, including several starters due to MLS Health and Safety protocols, had just taken the lead in the second half of the Eastern Conference Final.

The sellout crowd at Subaru Park, who were loud and singing throughout, trying to will their shorthanded squad to a first-ever MLS Cup, roared. The Union, thanks to an NYCFC own goal, were less than 30 minutes from a first-ever MLS Cup Final appearance. 

It was a critical time, one Jim Curtin said they’ve handled well throughout the season. But that wasn’t the case in the biggest game in club history.

Maxi Moralez leveled less than two minutes later and Talles Magno came off the bench to win it two minutes from full time as NYCFC rallied to a 2-1 win that booked their spot in MLS Cup 2021.

“I think after we scored the goal, the first goal, I think we needed to get a period to get the crowd into it, to have a five-minute window where now it puts a little stress and pressure on New York City, maybe they start to throw numbers forward and we can hit them on the counter, but they scored right away,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after the match, adding “maybe it's the excitement, we got a little bit opened up and they made a play and scored so that kind of cancelled that goal out.”

Eleven Philly players missing was the storyline that dominated the lead-up to both teams' first-ever Eastern Conference Final appearance. But it was the performance by players who stepped into new or advanced roles that dominated the match’s tight 90 minutes.

“I can't get proud when we lose, but at the same time this is about as unique a set of circumstances as you can have in the game,” Curtin said. “However many starters you want to call it for us, you know, I'd say we had six, seven guys that have been consistently starting for us during the year that weren't even present. So for what we gave, for the intensity that the guys showed on the field, it still hurts that we lost. But I'm still proud of the group.”

Curtin, who was forced to add three players to his roster on Saturday, joked that the unprecedented situation was reflected in the locker room when he was writing the team messages before opening kick.

“There are a couple of names I didn't know how to spell quite yet,” he said. “So you know, I had to do some peeking at the backs of jerseys, which is a situation that was unique for sure.”

Curtin lauded the effort of those players, specifically citing veteran Aurélien Collin, who logged a stellar 90 minutes at center back after not playing a single regular-season minute over the last two years combined.

He also said he felt especially bad for club cornerstones who weren’t able to compete, including midfielder and captain Alejandro Bedoya, who was an integral part behind why the Union even hosted the Eastern Conference Final.

“You want to see, especially your older players, guys like Bedoya, who work so hard to get this home game here and he doesn't get the opportunity,” Curtin said. “You don't know how many more Conference Finals and then MLS Cups you're going to have an opportunity to look at in your career. … There can’t not be what might have been. So, again, that hurts.”

What could have been is a scenario Curtin said will haunt him. What if Bedoya, Andre Blake and others were on the field? What if the Union were at full strength?

“A night like tonight, we’ll never know right, if we're at full strength, so that's what's gonna haunt me,” Curtin said. “It’s gonna haunt the players in the locker room right, so we'll never know what we could have done tonight with a full group. This is life. This is something we have to deal with and we have to move on.”

One thing Curtin is sure of is the direction the Union are going. No team in MLS has more points over the last three seasons than Philadelphia, which won the 2020 Supporters’ Shield and made a run to the 2021 Concacaf Champions League semifinals.

“We've taken gradual steps each year, whether it be Champions League, now a Conference Final, some playoff wins, some real memories here for our fan base,” Curtin said. “I like the direction it's going.”