As Union manager Jim Curtin sat at the postgame news conference podium beneath the River End stands Sunday night, he yearned to break free of the constraints upon him.

Even from upstairs in the press box, where for the last time this season Curtin’s face was shrunk into a tiny rectangle on a Zoom call, his frustrated expression was clear. And not just because, as he lamented, “still doing stupid Zooms” has been a constant for 20 months.

In the wake of the Union’s valiant 2-1 loss to New York City FC in the Eastern Conference final, there were things that Curtin knew and wanted to express even as he toed the line between his trademark honesty and the discretion the moment required.

Curtin sounded ready to tell more details about why 11 of his players were sidelined by Major League Soccer’s health and safety protocols. On multiple occasions, he prowled toward offering more information before backing away, knowing MLS rules dictate that players must say what happened to them before teams can.

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“You have 11 players who I feel awful for, that had to sit at home completely healthy and watching this game,” he said at one point, and he used the word “healthy” again a few minutes later.

“The protocols are the protocols, but could they be updated, adjusted for common sense? I don’t know,” he said at another point.

“If you give us back those 11 players, I think we can beat anybody,” he said at a third.

In addition to what Curtin knew, a Union spokesperson confirmed to The Inquirer on Monday that there’s no vaccination mandate for team employees who aren’t covered by MLS rules. The league’s protocols apply to players, coaches, and anyone else who’s with the team on a daily basis such as public relations and social media staff. Everyone else, such as business-side staff, is under rules applied by the team.

The spokesperson said the Union’s remaining staff is just short of 95% vaccinated, and is tested regularly – weekly, sometimes daily, with more stringent rules the closer they are to players. There are also mask-wearing mandates in the team’s offices.

But however the outbreak happened, and whatever its effects, those matters weren’t all Curtin knew about. He also knew about the other factors that decided Sunday’s game.

When hope became real

Of course he knew that his back line was built with hope as much as heart, missing four of its five starters in Jack Elliott, Kai Wagner, Jakob Glesnes, and Andre Blake. And to be clear, that’s in descending order of importance. Yes, Blake is a superstar, but put the first three of those four on the field with Matt Freese and Olivier Mbaizo and the Union’s defense would have been fine.

Curtin also knew that for all the grandiose Philly underdog rhetoric — including a Bingo-winning blast of the “Rocky” theme at kickoff, with Union mascot Phang dressed as the boxer — his cobbled-together lineup was better than how some outsiders portrayed it.

The six players in front of the back four included five regular starters: José Andrés Martinez, Leon Flach, Jamiro Monteiro, Dániel Gazdag, and Kacper Przybylko. The other starter, rookie midfielder Jack McGlynn, was coming off an ice-in-his-veins game in the conference semifinal.

Curtin knew that the trust and understanding between him and his players was so strong that he could play every intangible card in the deck to rally his men to give the effort of their lives. They did so and then some.

“For moments, I thought we were better than them,” Curtin said.

» READ MORE: Jack McGlynn was the Union's 18-year-old penalty shootout sensation in the win over Nashville

One of those moments came when the Union took the lead. After a pretty passing sequence, Gazdag fired in a cross from the left side that was so dangerous it caused New York’s Alex Callens to lunge and kick the ball into his own net.

The ensuing bedlam shook the stands of Subaru Park, and reminded everyone of something else Curtin knew: that Gazdag is a terrific player. The last two months have silenced all questions about the Hungarian’s potential here.

(And really, the questions about Curtin’s coaching acumen should be silenced, too. But we’ll save that discussion for another day.)

Magno bears fruit

What else did Curtin know? That five minutes before his team’s goal, New York manager Ronny Deila made a triple substitution that would soon turn the game in the visitors’ favor for good.

Gudmundur Thorarinsson brought new dynamism at left back. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi brought veteran savvy to the right wing. Talles Magno brought an $8 million transfer fee’s worth of potential to the striker’s spot up top.

All three players were involved in City’s goals. Tajouri-Shradi assisted Maxi Moralez in the scramble that led to the first, and Thorarinsson set up Magno for a tap-in that paid back every cent of the big check City’s owners wrote to fallen Brazilian giant Vasco da Gama this past May.

Before Sunday, the 19-year-old Magno had played just 450 minutes over 16 games for the Pigeons. But in August of 2020, he’d been scouted by teams as big as Liverpool and Juventus. In fact, Liverpool reportedly was on his tail so closely that manager Jürgen Klopp was involved.

When that deal didn’t happen, NYCFC’s owners made their move. And if you’re new to MLS fandom, it may be time to learn that the “City” in the club’s name isn’t for the five boroughs. It’s for City Football Group, the United Arab Emirates-owned global conglomerate that has turned the English Premier League’s Manchester City into a superpower.

The intent is for Magno’s ultimate destination to be the Etihad Stadium, making Yankee Stadium merely a temporary stop. That’s what led to Curtin’s postgame shot about “the New York City oil money locker room” celebrating down the hall from the interview room.

» READ MORE: Shorthanded Union’s playoff fight ends in heartbreak with a 2-1 loss to New York City FC

What could have been

Note the phrasing: “shot about,” not “shot at.” A few observers who know Curtin well wondered if he was aiming more toward his own team than its opponent.

Why? Because of something else Curtin knew as he stood on the sideline dressed in those blue lightning bolt-emblazoned custom Nike sneakers, listening to the largest crowd in Subaru Park history roar from start to finish.

The forced absences of Cory Burke and Sergio Santos weren’t the only reason Curtin was short of attacking options on the bench. Matheus Davó not being on the game-day squad was a choice, and the final proof of the Brazilian being a bust. Had the Union’s owners opened the checkbook wider this summer for a better option, that could have made a difference.

But that’s also a discussion for later. For now, let’s conclude with the last things Curtin knew on Sunday.

He knew how stacked the odds were against the Union winning.

He knew it will live for a long time in everyone’s memory that his team came so close to pulling it off.

And as he said, if his team was at full strength against a New York squad that wasn’t (due to the red-card absence of its best striker, Valentín Castellanos), the Union would likely have won.

Like so much of what Curtin has done as Union manager, he got that right.

» READ MORE: The Union's playoff run proved that Philadelphia is a soccer city | Kerith Gabriel