Jim Curtin
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Sapong, Curtin: Philadelphia Union better suited to win US Open Cup in 2018

CHESTER, Pa. — Philadelphia Union striker CJ Sapong still has vivid memories of the 2015 U.S. Open Cup final, and all the emotions he felt going up against his former team in Sporting Kansas City.

He also remembers the context of the game – how the Union were struggling in league play and to find their identity before losing their second straight USOC final at home.

But as the Union prepare to play in their third Open Cup title game in five years, heading to Houston to take on the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium on Wednesday (8 pm ET | ESPN2), Sapong believes there’s a whole new vibe around the club.

“I remember that [2015] season might not have been going the way we would have liked it to,” Sapong said. “But this time around, everyone’s very confident. We know who we are and we have our identity. We pretty much feel like any team we go up against we have an opportunity to beat them. So we’re approaching this game the same way.”

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While the Union certainly didn’t have the best seasons in league play in 2014 and 2015, they did put together impressive Open Cup runs and played well in each final, before falling to a loaded Seattle team in extra time and battle-hardened SKC on penalty kicks.

Curtin, who first took over as head coach on an interim basis right before Philly’s first 2014 Open Cup game, has fond memories of the grittiness and hunger of those two teams. But like Sapong, he thinks the 2018 group is better equipped to handle the rigors of a title game.

“I think the mentality of the group is stronger,” Curtin said. “I think the team is deeper. Those two things jump right off.”

Depth and mentality could be key factors as the Union play their first Open Cup final on the road. In past seasons, that certainly would have made them an underdog. But this year the Union have put together an impressive 6-7-2 away record, with one of those wins coming in Houston in late July.

The Union are also entering the game in better form than the Dynamo, coming off monster wins over Seattle and SKC.

“To be on the road, to be in the rhythm that we’re in, it certainly is different than in past years where I can remember that there were a lot of events going on and different things around the game,” Curtin said. “This is kind of good, where we just played [Sunday] and then we get on a plane [Monday] and we’re out of here. It takes the pressure off the guys.”

Curtin understands that the team “can never escape” their past Open Cup heartbreak, even though most of the roster has turned over since their last appearance in a final. But as the franchises tries again to capture their first trophy, he doesn’t want to hide from it, and neither do the players.

“We fought hard in that [2015 final],” Sapong said. “Obviously we came up short. But I think on Wednesday, the third time’s the charm.”