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The night COVID-19 beat the Union | Mike Jensen

With 11 players out due to league COVID-19 protocols, the Union lost the MLS Eastern Conference final, 2-1, on a late goal.

Matt Freese (left) consoles Oliver Mbaizo (right) after the Union's loss.
Matt Freese (left) consoles Oliver Mbaizo (right) after the Union's loss.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The soccer gods took the night off, or at least lost interest, maybe turned the channel from this too-good-to-be-true storyline unfolding under the Commodore Barry Bridge. Well, it turned out to be.

Too good to be true.

Eagles fans, Sixers fans, Flyers fans, Phillies fans -- you’ve now officially got nothing on Union fans for brutal endings to a sports season. This has to be right up there with Ryan Howard tearing his Achilles to end the 2011 Phillies season.

Official score of the MLS Eastern Conference title game: New York City FC 2, Union 1.

Actual knockout winner: COVID-19. Congrats to the pandemic. You finished off a soccer season, and a special one at that.

» READ MORE: Union lose, 2-1.

“COVID [stinks],” Union coach Jim Curtin pointed out in his postgame presser.

You saw the headline: 11 Union players in MLS health and safety protocols. More than half the starters, including the team captain, out. The backline, backbone of this squad, decimated. Star goalkeeper out.

Filling out his lineup card, a couple of emergency hardship call-ins in place, Curtin said, “There were a couple of names I didn’t know how to spell quite yet,” saying he took a peek at the backs of their jerseys.

Had any professional sports team anywhere in the world been taken out by COVID-19 quite like this? At a time like this?

And yet …

It sure looked like those gods had something interesting in mind Sunday inside Subaru Park, a place in the MLS finals at stake, the highest stakes in Union franchise history.

Though it was scoreless into the 63rd minute, the Union had been getting the better of the game’s chances, its midfield working like crazy.

Then, a Union goal, set up beautifully, beginning with a 50-50 head ball won that was more like a 32-68, with Union hustle on full display … Could this be? With a 35-year-old defender who hadn’t played a minute all season? With a backup keeper, a local kid, from Wayne?

The euphoria that had the stadium shaking lasted from that 63rd minute all the way into the 65th minute. New York City FC evened things right back up. Tension returned on a dime.

Then ... heartbreak on the riverfront.

A NYCFC 88th-minute goal that was set up to perfection, a beautiful move, cross, finish. The Union backline not up to stopping a highlight goal that left the keeper helpless, with the visitors moving on to next weekend’s MLS Cup in Portland.

Now, this will stand forever as the all-time what if in the history of a franchise that has had its share of them.

What could have been with a full squad?

“That’s what’s going to haunt me,” Curtin said.

He’d also said, “It was the hard reality of the times we live in today.”

How did all this even happen, hitting so many? There are never answers with COVID.

“The protocols are the protocols,” Curtin said. “Could they be adjusted for common sense? I don’t know.”

Instead of a celebration for the ages, there was a Union defender, Olivier Mbaizo, dropped to the ground, to hands and knees, his agony on full display. A teammate came by, tried to pick Mbaizo up, to no avail. He finally stood up, then dropped again.

Imagine what it must have been like for the players who couldn’t play. A lifetime to wonder how being vaccinated, as the players reportedly were, wasn’t enough.

“We’re all obsessed with the optics of safety,” Curtin said later. “But let’s face it, nobody is safe. We just had 20,000 people face-to-face, indoors, in suites.”

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

Don’t turn this into a rant on FOX or CNN, Curtin immediately added. (Good luck to that.) He was just pointing out that his players were tested every day, that protocols meant 11 players who were actually “healthy enough to play a soccer game” were out “because they had the sniffles.”

He knows this virus is deadly, said he knew it is spreading in Philadelphia again. That wasn’t his point. (It shouldn’t be. I gave a eulogy last month for a friend who died of COVID while scheduled for his booster shot, talked to another last week who was hospitalized under the same circumstances and told by doctors he’d have died if he’d have come in a day later. Another point: I didn’t need to be tested or show proof of vaccination to work in the press box.)

“Imagine if every person who walked in our stadium got tested,” Curtin said, surmising more than a few would be surprised to find themselves testing positive. Yet it was his players who suffered. All the details of what knocked players out, unclear.

“I don’t have the answers,” Curtin simply said.

The beautiful game can be a cruel enough game without a pandemic getting involved. In Curtin’s mind, it isn’t even a what-if question.

“You give us back those 11 players,” the Union’s coach said while he listened to the other guys celebrate in the locker room next door, “I think we can beat anybody.”

He’s right; the what-ifs will haunt them all forever.