THE PATH to the biggest game in the Union's five-year existence began on a Tuesday in mid-June with a mildly attended game at PPL Park. An overtime win against the Union's minor league affiliate, it came exactly a week after Jim Curtin took the helm as interim manager of a struggling club.
Ninety-one days later, a vastly improved Union team took the same pitch against the class of MLS, the Seattle Sounders. After more than 90 minutes of scintillating play, a winner was still yet to be determined.
So last night's championship match of the historic Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup went to extra time. Twelve minutes in, Seattle star Clint Dempsey, the U.S. men's national team captain, buried a shot past Philadelphia goalkeeper Zac MacMath and the Union was denied its first trophy.
Obafemi Martins, who came off the bench and assisted on Dempsey's goal, added a goal in the 114th minute to ensure the Sounders left with a thrilling, 3-1 victory in front of a boisterous crowd.
"Clint's special,'' said Union manager Jim Curtin. "He's been through these games. He knows what he's doing . . . It's no secret he's a winner.''
For Seattle, it was the franchise's fourth U.S. Open Cup championship, tying it with the Chicago Fire for most titles claimed by an MLS club. The Sounders won the tournament 3 consecutive years from 2009 to 2011.
The Union, on the other hand, had never before made it this far. It had its share of chances to leave with the trophy, too. Before Dempsey and Martins executed a nifty give-and-go that led to the go-ahead strike, the Union misfired on two great opportunities in the minutes leading to extra time.
The first came in the 88th minute, when Pedro Ribeiro took control of a deflection but saw his shot on an open net stopped by a diving Stefan Frei. Then early in stoppage time, a blast from Vincent Nogueira caromed off the post.
"At the end of the day, Seattle, to their credit, pulled off more plays than us,'' Curtin said.
Philadelphia led Seattle in shots on goal (10-7) and corner kicks (12-7). MacMath, who started over Rais M'Bolhi, the World Cup veteran acquired in late July, recorded four saves. Frei tallied eight.
MacMath was crucial in the team's advancement to the tournament's championship match, making two crucial saves on penalty kicks to clinch last month's semifinal win at FC Dallas. After making three saves in regulation last night, he opened extra time with an impressive stop on a shot by Martins.
After the Union struck first, Seattle's Chad Barrett evened the score in the 47th minute, putting home a header amid traffic in front of the net. It was Barrett's fourth career Open Cup goal, the second of this year's tournament.
The Union broke a scoreless tie in the 38th minute after Cristian Maidana was awarded a free kick. The playmaking midfielder made a fantastic cross and Maurice Edu's header made for the game's first goal and the veteran midfielder's second of the tournament.
Before Edu's goal, each team had failed to convert a point-blank chance. The Union's best previous opportunity came in the 30th minute, when Sebastien Le Toux, whose 14 career Open Cup goals leads the modern era, received a pass from Andrew Wenger, but his shot from in front of the goal was stopped by Frei.
Wenger had a pair of scoring opportunities himself, the first on a header that sailed wide in the 18th minute and then on a wide blast from the left wing in the 34th. Dempsey couldn't capitalize on a chance for Seattle in the 11th minute, firing a shot high on a point-blank attempt from in front of the net. A Chad Marshall header in the 24th minute went wide.
The Union had its 10-game unbeaten streak at PPL Park snapped, dating to a May 17 loss to New England. This was the eighth meeting between Philadelphia and Seattle, but first in the Open Cup.
When it was over, the teams remained on the pitch for a brief award ceremony. The home fans still in attendance offered applause for a hard-fought battle and a memorable tournament run. Sounders captain Brad Evans hoisted the shiny silver cup.