The Union took sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference on Wednesday, beating the Chicago Fire, 2-1, in an ugly game, while second-place Toronto FC lost, 1-0, to New York City FC.
But a night that should have been celebrated was instead overshadowed by two major pieces of bad news.
A few hours before kickoff, star midfielder José Andrés Martínez was confirmed to have contracted COVID-19. And in the final minutes of the game, goalkeeper Andre Blake had to be substituted off after suffering what appeared to be a hand injury.
The news of Martínez’s positive test came from the agency that represents him. The Union were only allowed to state that an unnamed player tested positive twice in a row, which is Major League Soccer’s threshold for announcing a player’s case.
Both parties confirmed in their respective ways that Martínez is asymptomatic and quarantining at home. He will be tested daily, and will remain in isolation until consecutive tests come back negative.
The news came two weeks to the day after Martínez returned to Philadelphia from a stint with Venezuela’s national team. There is no evidence yet that Martínez contracted the virus while out of town, but the Union will likely be furious. They were afraid of this scenario when they fought to stop him from going, conceding only when FIFA threatened the Union with punishment if he wasn’t released.
Upon returning to Philadelphia, Martínez spent 10 days in quarantine before being able to play for the Union again. His first game back was Saturday, and he played a big role in the 5-0 rout of Toronto FC that is the team’s signature win of the year.
Martínez won’t be able to return to the field until testing negative twice in a row. That means he’s almost certain to miss Sunday’s big game at third-place Columbus (3:30 p.m., 6ABC), and will be a close call for the regular season finale on Nov. 8.
If the Union win Sunday, they’ll clinch the league’s best regular-season record and the Supporters' Shield, which would be the first trophy in team history.
Martínez is tentatively scheduled to fly to Venezuela the day after the regular season finale to play for the country in World Cup qualifying games at Brazil and home against Chile. He’s on a 33-player preliminary roster for those games, with final cuts still to come.
“Now is not the time to speculate,” the agency’s statement said. “It’s only to hope for a quick recovery so he can make it.”
This is the team’s second COVID-19 case since the pandemic began. Kacper Przybylko was the first, and the first player in all of MLS known to contract the virus, in late March.
As for the game, the Union looked bad early and often. But fortune arrived in the 26th minute when a Sergio Santos shot hit Francisco Calvo’s hand just off the goal line, giving the Union a penalty kick.
It was the Union’s first penalty kick of the year, believe it or not, and Przybylko ended his eight-game goal drought with an emphatic strike.
Chicago players took out their frustrations with a series of hard tackles, and in the 36th Calvo went too far. He stepped on Alejandro Bedoya’s left heel as Bedoya was dribbling the ball forward on the left wing, and was immediately sent off by referee Guido Gonzales Jr.
The Fire equalized on a break six minutes later. Ignacio Aliseda forced a save from Blake. Djordje Mihalovic leaped to keep the ball from going over the end line, and Robert Berić met Mihalovic’s pass with a well-placed header.
Ray Gaddis was inadvertently upended by Berić on the play, and was subbed out at halftime for Olivier Mbaizo. Jim Curtin made two more substitutions in the 60th minute, sending in Cory Burke for Santos, and Ilsinho for Anthony Fontana.
Mbaizo and Burke teamed up to give the Union the lead back in the 65th, as Mbaizo served a cross from the right flank, and Burke rose up to head it in.
From there, it was just about holding on. Andrew Wooten replaced Przybylko in the 87th minute, and Joe Bendik replaced Blake in the 89th after Blake tried to fight off the injury.
Chicago nearly tied the game in the second of eight minutes of stoppage time. A free kick was redirected out of a crowd toward the goal, and Wooten made a flying clearance just off the goal line.
“It was chaos. It looked like 1999 MLS,” Curtin said. “It was tough to identify the sport of soccer tonight. … At the end of the game there, we’re just hanging on in a game where we should be comfortable up a man."
But they did hang on. And as with so much this season, on and off the field, they will figure out the rest later.
“I can’t say enough just how proud I am of the players for their resiliency, their ability to adjust, adapt, and embrace any new challenge that comes their way,” Curtin said. “Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves, gut through it, and get out of here with three points.”
The Union were also affected tangentially by Philadelphia’s citywide curfew that started at 9 p.m. Wednesday, imposed after unrest in the wake of Philadelphia police fatally shooting Walter Wallace Jr. Though the Union play in Chester, the game’s 7:30 p.m. start meant that Philadelphia-based fans who attended wouldn’t have been able to get home before the curfew started. The Union have yet to say whether they’ll refund fans who did not attend the game as a result.