Philadelphia Union vs. D.C. United rivalry DL image

The burgeoning Philadelphia Union vs. D.C. United rivalry: The history

It’s never been boring.

The rivalry between the Philadelphia Union and D.C. United is only entering its seventh year. But the two teams have already played plenty of memorable matches filled with dramatic goals, brilliant individual moments (and misses), and, yes, a whole lot of nastiness.

Leading up to this year’s Heineken Rivalry Week matchup between Philly and D.C. at Talen Energy Stadium on Friday, May 20 (7 pm ET, UniMás, MLS LIVE in Canada), we spoke to fans, players, and coaches on both sides to break down the history between the two clubs.

Is this really a rivalry? What does it mean to each club and its supporters? Let’s look at how it’s unfurled over the years.  

2010: The Early Days

The first-ever Philadelphia Union-D.C. United match, on April 10, 2010, was also the Union’s first-ever home game. And in front of 35,000 eager fans at Lincoln Financial Field—home of the Philadelphia Eagles—the Union rode a Sebastien Le Toux hat trick to a thrilling 3-2 victory.

For D.C.’s part, though, the match-up also featured this stunner from Jaime Moreno, one of the most memorable goals in series history.

The Union lost their only other matchup with D.C. during their expansion season, but that home opener remains permanently etched in Philly’s lore. (That hat trick also remains the only one in Union history.)

SEBASTIEN LE TOUX, Union midfielder/forward (2010-2011, 2013-present): “Hands down, that was my best moment against them. Being at the Linc and doing that, it was pretty sweet.”

MICK DUNGAN, Union season-ticket holder: “The very first game at the Linc against D.C. United made me feel like I was 10 years old again. The supporters’ groups from both sides were both loud and funny. The sound of 30,000-plus fans going crazy for that first goal was something I will never forget.”

BOBBY BOSWELL, D.C. United defender and captain: “When they win, they celebrate it. Nobody wants to see the other team that’s just down the street celebrate on their own field, so there’s definitely a bit of a rivalry.”

2011: Things Start to Get Testy

The rivalry took an interesting turn early in the 2011 season, when the Union and D.C. met in a US Open Cup play-in match in April. After Philly defender Carlos Valdes was ejected, Brian Carroll scored the tying goal in the 117th minute for the 10-man Union.

That, in turn, set the stage for then-manager Peter Nowak also getting ejected, and D.C. ultimately winning in a penalty-kick shootout.

KEVIN KINKEAD, Philly Voice beat writer: “The 2011 US Open Cup match was ridiculous. This was one of those games that was played at the Maryland SoccerPlex in front of something like 3,000 people.”

BRIAN CARROLL, Union midfielder (2011-present), D.C. United midfielder (2003-2007): “It always gets heated. Two emotional sides, playing each other in parts of the year where both teams really need points — it gets heated and things boil over. That’s natural. It happens.”

BILL HAMID, D.C. United goalkeeper: “There’s always been physical matches from what I can remember against Philadelphia. We don’t really like each other, but we always bring it when we play against each other.”

The Union got some measure of revenge in MLS play, picking up a road draw in July 2011 at RFK on a late Carlos Ruiz equalizer. They also topped D.C. in an important September home game behind a Le Toux brace and a Michael Farfan winner—a game that inched the Union closer to their only playoff appearance.

BOBBY BOSWELL: “Anytime there’s a team that’s close to you in proximity, you have bragging rights for the cities [at stake.] They’re a conference team and it always seems to be a close, hard-fought game. Any time you have tackles flying around and low scores, it’s usually one of those things where one team really wants to win.”

MICK DUNGAN: “My favorite moment was when the Union was playing DC at PPL [I think in 2011] and there was talk of relocation for the D.C. franchise over stadium issues. The Sons of Ben creating a giant moving truck with various destinations was hysterical. I also love the competing chants of ‘D.C. United!' followed by the Sons of Ben yelling ‘sucks!’ after each chant.”

2012: Emotions Boil Over

Just a year after the wild Open Cup match in Boyds, Maryland, the Union and D.C. United went toe-to-toe in a similar contest, with Carroll once again scoring, and Valdes once again getting ejected. This time, though, the Union advanced in the tourney, with rookie Antoine Hoppenot scoring the winner in the 93rd minute.

A few months later, things got even nastier between the two teams at RFKand more dramatic, too. In an August draw at RFK, Carroll netted another goal against his old team, and D.C. United’s Dwayne De Rosario missed an 89th-minute penalty kick after encroachment was called on his first attempt (which he made). D.C.’s Emiliano Dudar and Philly’s Sheanon Williams were both ejected, a scuffle broke out, and D.C. teammates Chris Korb and Brandon McDonald yelled at each other on their way to the locker room.

In between those two crazy games, D.C. United spoiled the start of the John Hackworth era with a 1-0 June win at Philadelphia on a goal from Chris Pontius—who’s now on the other side of the rivalry with the Union. And in late September, D.C. United won another 1-0 game over Philly on a goal from ex-Union striker Lionard Pajoy.

BRIAN CARROLL: “I had a knack for a little while just scoring against them. Just right place, right time. Luckily, they were simple goals.”

CHRIS PONTIUS, D.C. United midfielder (2009-15), Union winger (2016-present): “Overall, when you step back from that game and watch it, it’s an exciting game for fans to watch. There are some games you look back on and can say you were proud to be a part of.”

RYAN BRIGHT, CSNPhilly.com beat writer: “Rivalries are built on competition, but the intensity that fuels the rivalry is forged by bitter moments.”

2013: Bulletin Board Material

The two teams once again played four times in 2013. In April, Philly won for the first time at RFK when Jack McInerney scored twice in a 3-2 victory—after former manager John Hackworth read aloud a newspaper quote of D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid guaranteeing a victory before the game.

D.C. United bounced the Union from the US Open Cup a couple of months later. Then Philly rode a Conor Casey brace to a league win at home in August, and in October, McInerney struck again with a stoppage-time equalizer in a 1-1 draw.

Photo via USA Today Sports Images

MATTHEW DE GEORGE, Delaware County Daily Times beat writer: “Sometimes in MLS, there are games that pass uneventfully, where one team methodically puts away the other or neither can make much headway. For whatever reason, that never seems to happen between the Union and D.C.”

2014: Undertones of Solidarity

Before a Philly-D.C. game in May of 2014, members of the D.C. United supporters’ group, the Screaming Eagles, who that year mourned the tragic accident that claimed the lives of the family of D.C. supporter Kenneth Gemmell, joined Philly’s Sons of Ben for a pregame tailgate in memory of Eric Shertz, a huge Union fan who suddenly passed away a couple of weeks earlier. (On the field, the Union lost a pair of 1-0 games to D.C. that season.)


Photo via USA Today Sports Images

AMI RIVERA, Sons of Ben president: “The unique camaraderie our supporters’ groups have formed is all fun and games outside the stadium. Once our boys in blue take the pitch, it's time to go to work, and D.C. will be nothing but a drowned-out whisper in the away section.”

JIMI BUTLER, member of D.C. United’s Screaming Eagles supporters’ group: “Philly/D.C. will never have that loathing amongst the supporters that is ever-present with D.C./New York Red Bulls. The joint tailgates that brought the Sons of Ben and the Screaming Eagles together after both groups lost members will keep things between both clubs as a ‘friendly rivalry.”

2015: Return of the Dramatics

After somewhat of a lull in the rivalry in 2014, things picked up again last season, with Zach Pfeffer electrifying the Union’s home crowd with a dramatic stoppage-time winner to end D.C.’s unbeaten streak on May 17. The Union also won another huge home game vs. D.C. the following month when they rallied from a one-goal deficit to advance in the US Open Cup, even after going down a man in the 17th minute.

D.C. United, meanwhile, had some memorable wins over Philly on their home field. They erased a one-goal deficit for a 2-1 win in May, and then overturned a two-goal deficit in a 3-2 victory in July—after the Union scored twice within the first four minutes.

MATTHEW DE GEORGE: “The Open Cup game [in 2015] was a pretty fitting game in the rivalry—with the C.J. Sapong red in the first half, then the Union coming back and scoring two unanswered goals down a man in the second half to advance. It's one of those kinds of games that you come to expect in this rivalry. For all the talk from the fans and all the built-in animosity towards New York, the truth is that in the Union's brief history, the performances on the field have fostered a much greater rivalry with D.C.”

2016 and Beyond: What Lies Ahead?

With the Union looking vastly improved from the past two seasons, the two rivals could have more at stake, playoff-wise, when they clash on May 20 during Heineken Rivalry Week. The acquisition of Pontius by the Union will also add another exciting element to the rivalry—not that it’s ever needed much else.

CHRIS PONTIUS: “It’s a game you always get up for. It was always a chippy game. It was never a blowout. It was always a close game and exciting down to the end. That’s what made the rivalry special. And it still is special. It will be weird being on the other side of things now, but I’m looking forward to it.”

AMI RIVERA: “Rivalry Week is an exciting time. In prior years we saw our supporters’ groups come together for a larger purpose, but it's always business on the field. We've got a lot to prove this year, and D.C. is simply the next name we'll cross off our list of teams defeated.”

BILL HAMID: “It’s been an interesting few set of games the past few years, and this one is going to be an exciting one.”

BRIAN CARROLL: “It’s always for a little bit extra. It means a little bit more.”

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