It’s fitting that the Union’s first-ever trophy is the Supporters’ Shield.
The work to bring Philadelphia a MLS expansion team was started 13 years ago by a fan group, the Sons of Ben, that wanted its own team to root for. And the Shield, awarded to the team with the best regular-season record, was created by fans who wanted the league to value the regular season more.
On Sunday, the current leaders of the Sons of Ben got to give their team a trophy after a 2-0 win over the New England Revolution at Subaru Park.
It turned out that the trophy presented was a facsimile of the original, which got stuck in a UPS shipping delay. And the coronavirus pandemic meant that only a small crowd could see the ceremony in person, as ABC’s broadcast didn’t show it. (Fortunately, the Union streamed it on their YouTube page.)
But what matters most is the victory. Those who watched it happen witnessed a moment that, for so long, they were only able to dream of.
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“I am so proud of this team," Union majority owner Jay Sugarman said on the field. “In this year full of challenges, they fought for each other, they fought for our fans, and they fought for what’s right, and they showed what our club stands for.”
Sugarman thanked the fans, too, for their support through so much suffering.
“This Shield is from you, and it’s for you,” he said.
Sergio Santos and Cory Burke scored the goals that secured the win and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Union will begin their postseason campaign on Nov. 24 against the worst of the Eastern Conference’s two play-in game winners. Those games will be played Nov. 20: No. 7-seed Nashville hosting 10-seed Miami, and 8-seed New England hosting 9-seed Montreal.
Santos' 42nd-minute opener, like much of the game, was scrappy. Jakob Glesnes served a ball from the top of the 18-yard box that Alejandro Bedoya headed off the crossbar, and the ball fell right to where Santos was standing on the 6-yard line.
Up to then, the biggest news had been Matt Freese getting the start in goal over Joe Bendik. Freese didn’t have to do much, but he made a few calm stops.
Referee Drew Fischer also drew a big share of attention by letting some hard fouls go without cards — including one on Bedoya that could easily have led to a penalty kick.
But once Santos scored, the crowd’s rancor dissipated. Santos would exit in the 63rd minute for Burke, who slammed a low cross from José Andrés Martínez into the roof of the net in the 69th.
At the same time, second-place Toronto was surprisingly losing at the New York Red Bulls, 2-1, and the score was on the out-of-town scoreboard. The final minutes ticked away, and so did so many memories of the failures that defined the Union’s first decade.
This year, they have the best record in Major League Soccer.
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“I think all Philadelphians, and Philadelphia soccer fans in particular, and Union fans, should walk a little bit taller, be a little bit prouder — and make sure that our guys drink for free in this city for a long time to come,” manager Jim Curtin said after a celebration in the locker room.
Curtin is now the fifth manager in MLS history to win the Supporters' Shield as a player and a coach.
“The first trophy at a club, I know it sounds cliché, is the hardest one to get,” he said. “You guys know the story of how close we were in those Open Cups. But this is a different type of trophy. It shows that we’re a better club.”
Ray Gaddis closed out the on-field ceremony by alluding to the Union’s most famous fan being crowned champion-elect of his campaign the day before. Yes, that’s Joe Biden, who was on the field at the Union’s first-ever home game in 2010 — and Freese was an 11-year-old in the stands.
“Good things happen in Philadelphia,” Gaddis, the Union’s longest-serving player said, to one of the loudest roars of the night.