Just three weeks ago, after watching his 10-man team rally for a come-from-behind US Open Cup victory over rival D.C. United, Jim Curtin said he was the “most proud” he’s ever been as Philadelphia Union head coach.
Now, he’s even prouder.
Somehow, against all odds, the Union delivered even more Open Cup magic, once again beating a fierce rival while down a man, this time knocking the New York Red Bulls out of the tourney with a dramatic penalty shootout triumph Tuesday at Red Bull Arena.
“I would say, first and foremost, it’s the Union’s biggest win in their history,” Curtin told reporters after the game. “I thought the fan support was incredible. I thought that our players showed a ton of heart – the heart of a lion. I couldn’t be more proud.
“They represented the badge very well. They represented our fans, our city, and they left everything on the field.”
Showing heart in the Open Cup has been one of the franchise’s defining characteristics, especially over the last two years. During their 2014 run to the tournament final, the Union survived two extra-time games against lower-division teams and a semifinal shootout in Dallas.
And through three games in this year’s tourney, they’ve now won twice in shootouts and twice while down a man for the better part of the game.
“People can talk about tactics and principles of play and style and all of these things,” Curtin said. “But, at a certain point, it comes down to having men on the field and wanting to win and not lose at all costs.”
Most people at Red Bull Arena probably thought the Union didn’t stand a chance after Conor Casey was shown a straight red card in the 40th minute – an ejection that Curtin would later call “soft.”
But the Union survived the onslaught from the Red Bulls, who peppered the visitors with 34 shots, as backup goalkeeper John McCarthy made nine saves, including a couple of spectacular ones.
“There’s not a moment when you can relax,” said McCarthy, who’s started for Philly throughout their Open Cup run because league starter Brian Sylvestre is cup-tied to the Carolina Railhawks. “You’re always on your toes because you know the pressure’s coming nonstop.”
While McCarthy and the Philly defense tried to stay organized and composed, the 10-man Union broke the scoreless deadlock in the 56th minute when Cameroonian teenager Eric Ayuk scored his second goal in as many games in the tournament after a dazzling counterattack run from Vincent Nogueira set him up.
As everyone expected, the Union then parked the bus and nearly held on for the win in regulation before Lloyd Sam scored a last-gasp equalizer just before the final whistle.
“At that point,” Curtin said. “everyone in the building thinks that’s it for the Union.”
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The Union continued to fend off the swarming Red Bulls throughout the 30 minutes of extra time – with McCarthy making his best save of the day on Mike Grella – to get to PKs.
And McCarthy, who made three shootout saves in the Union’s fourth-round Open Cup win over the Rochester Rhinos, once again come up big, making a huge stop on Sam while Bradley Wright-Phillips struck the crossbar on the first PK attempt.
And after Sheanon Williams, Nogueira, Maurice Edu and Fernando Aristeguieta – seeing his first game action since June 3 – buried their PKs for Philly, the Union were once again celebrating yet another improbable victory in a tournament that always seems to bring out the best in them.
“They had 100 chances to bury us,” Curtin said. “But something inside of us kept going. It was wild. This tournament is about surviving and advancing. That’s all that matters and we’re on to the next game.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.