CHESTER, Pa. – At the start of the second period of extra time in Wednesday’s US Open Cup final, Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin turned to goalkeeper John McCarthy on the bench.
“Are you ready?” Curtin asked him.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” McCarthy responded.
What happened next stunned many observers at PPL Park as Curtin made the unconventional move of swapping in McCarthy, who had won two shootouts earlier in the tournament, for starter Andre Blake in the 120th minute.
The move could have led to a truly magical moment of a Philadelphia-native making a championship-winning save in front of his hometown fans. Instead, Sporting Kansas City spoiled the party by making seven of eight PK attempts, beating McCarthy with perfectly-placed shots even when the goalkeeper guessed the right direction.
“I went back and watched the PKs over like 50 times already and watching my facial expressions, I was just like, ‘Cut me a break,’” McCarthy said by phone a day after the crushing loss. “These PKs are all in the side netting or the top of the net. They were just really on point."
According to McCarthy, Curtin didn’t tell him he might come in for penalty kicks until their brief chat at the start of the second extra time session. But Curtin said it was a move he’d been pondering all week after making the decision to start Blake over McCarthy, who had manned the net for Philadelphia's previous four Open Cup contests.
“Andre was excellent in the game,” Curtin said. “It was just kind of a gut thing where [McCarthy] is special at PKs. He shows it in training every day. On another night, it works. Tonight it didn’t.”
When asked if taking out Blake right before PKs could hurt the former top overall draft pick’s confidence, Curtin denied any friction between the goalies, even saying that Blake told him, “We’re all in this together” when he came off the field.
McCarthy shared a similarly positive interaction with Blake when the swap was made.
“As we’re making the sub, I go, ‘Thank you man, you got us to this point,’” McCarthy recalled. “And he was like, ‘Come on, PKs are all yours, we want this trophy.’ And I said, ‘I got you,’ and ran onto the field. It was a good moment.”
McCarthy nearly made good on his promise to Blake, stopping Krisztian Nemeth on Kansas City’s third attempt to get the shootout level and whip the crowd into a frenzy. He then had three opportunities to make a save that would have won the Union their first-ever trophy and blown the roof off of PPL Park.
But it never happened.
“Getting into PKs, I was like, ‘This is how we’re going to lift that trophy,’” McCarthy said. “And I made that save and I was just thinking, ‘All right, one more save and we got this.’ And then it hit the top corner, it hit the five panel, it hit the top corner, and I was just like, ‘Come on, man, one more save.’
“And it just didn’t end up going my way. It was a tough one to swallow.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.