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“The game got away from us,” said coach Jim Curtin, who won the Open Cup twice as a player and always talks of the 100-plus-year-old competition with a reverence learned at the knee of his mentor and old coach Bob Bradley. “I want to thank all the fans who traveled from Philly and I want to apologize to them for the result. It seemed like one of those nights when it just wasn’t going to happen, and the blame for that has to fall with me.”
(After winning the Open Cup twice as a player, Jim Curtin has now lost three Finals as a coach)
Curtin is a thoughtful man. A thinker about the game. He’s gracious in victory and philosophical in defeat, always trying to take something good away from a bad day. In the build-up to the 2018 Open Cup Final, he quoted Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 speech Citizenship in a Republic, touting the theoretical Man in the Arena: “the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”
Coming up Short
The larger themes in Roosevelt’s speech, a few years older than the Open Cup itself, seemed prophetic, almost predicting what came to pass 24 hours later. The Union conceded three goals. The first a lightning counter-attack finished off in the fourth minute by Mauro Manotas. The same Colombian scored the second too, a dizzying dribble and sizzling finish off the inside of Andre Blake’s post. And the third, well that was just cruel for U.S. youth international Auston Trusty, who, facing his goal and in trouble, inadvertently tapped the ball into his own net. Lessons, lessons and more lessons.
“You learn a lot from the losses, I’m a firm believer in that,” Curtin said many times in the course of the Open Cup, where four straight home games in 2018 led to sensational August and a turnaround in the Union’s fortunes on all fronts. And, unfortunately for the boss, in his fifth year at the Chester, Pa.-based club, it’s another lesson on a big night when he’d rather have a trophy. The loss on Wednesday, Sept. 26th at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston is the Union’s third defeat in an Open Cup Final in the space of five years. The club, founded in 2010, is still searching for a first trophy to put in the cabinet at their Talen Energy Stadium on the busy banks of the Delaware River.
(It just wasn't the Union's day in their 0-3 loss to the Dynamo in Houston)
The sadness on the faces of Union men Ray Gaddis, the only player in the team left to have played in both losing Finals at home in 2014 and 2015, told the tale of so-close-so-far. Veterans Andre Blake, CJ Sapong and Fabinho stood as still as the goal posts after the final whistle. While Houston, in their vibrant orange, danced the night away, the Union were left only with their thoughts and regrets.
“I think we played the better soccer,” said captain and USA veteran midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. He was still in Europe, with Nantes, when the Union suffered their first two Open Cup Final losses. He was brought in to add that last little bit of experience and tactical nous needed to finally get the Union up to the mountaintop. “But they got that early goal and we were a little too tentative. It’s frustrating. It sucks. We really wanted this trophy.”
Another Missed Chance for Philly
It’s safe to say all the Union players wanted to lift the Open Cup trophy – to silence some of those old ghosts. Curtin, who knows what it means to win American soccer’s oldest trophy, is chief among them. “You don’t win trophies every day,” he said on the eve of his third Final as a coach. “Being in a Final is a big opportunity for a player, and I want to have that feeling of handing out the rings to my players. I’d give my own medal away,” he said in one of the last interviews before Wednesday’s ill-fated Final. “For me now it’s more about getting that feeling again, of winning, and passing it on. It’s not about the physical hardware for me anymore.”
(Coach Curtin stresses that the Union win together and lose together)
In the light of another day, Curtin is still in charge of a Union team loaded with potential, a young squad full of real talent. There’s speedy winger Fafa Picault, big striker Cory Burke and the outstanding Jamaica international goalkeeper Blake who, before the Final conceded just one goal in the 2018 U.S. Open Cup. They’ll all have to wait a little longer for that feeling of lifting a trophy up into the night sky. “We win as a team and we lose as a team,” Curtin said after the game, he and his team forgotten as media chased the buzzing winners, an orange blur against the rain-soaked night. Curtin wouldn’t be baited into blaming Burke or Trusty or anyone who may not have put in a career performance on the big night. It’s not his style. “We still had a good Cup run, but only one team gets to be happy at the end and it’s just not us. We stick together in the hard moments. Every player made mistakes. It just didn’t work out.”
This is Cup soccer. Someone wins; someone loses. This time, again, it’s the Union on the wrong side. But as a legend once said: Soccer’s a game of tomorrow. Curtin and his men board a plane, head for home and get back out onto the training pitch. They’ll rally around each other and, before they know it and with a little bit of luck in their last few MLS regular season games, they’ll be a post-season playoff to think about – and another Cup to hunt. “Winning a trophy is a validation for the work you do as a club,” said Curtin, already looking ahead, like the mythic Man in the Arena, taking the blame when it needs taking. “We came up short in the big match and that’s on me.”