The Union’s loss to D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday night went against convention in a few ways.
For one thing, just four days after the Union had a history-making comeback win, they gave up a late lead just like they used to.
More significantly, after years of watching the Open Cup be the top route to success, the fan base had a reaction that was overwhelmingly calm.
Perhaps it would be different if the Union weren’t in first place in the Eastern Conference. And if the Open Cup didn’t limit teams to five foreign players in a game-day squad — or if Open Cup games weren’t played during MLS’ Concacaf Gold Cup break — the Union would have fielded a stronger team.
But almost all the way around, the dominant sense was realism.
“I give a short-handed group credit for the effort they put in tonight,” manager Jim Curtin said. “These are young guys that are going to learn from it and be better, as hard as that is right now."
And it was hard, let’s be clear.
“It’s your typical Open Cup [game] where different guys step up in big ways, and that gives opportunities for young players to learn and grow," Curtin said. “Overall I think our guys will be better because of it, as much as it hurts right now. ... We finished the game with five or six academy kids out there, which is a good thing, but when you go up a goal, we still have to learn ways to grind that out and get through it."
Mark McKenzie was ashen as he stood in front of the media just a handful of minutes after conceding the game-deciding penalty kick.
“There’s really no words to describe what it feels like, going up and then to be down again," he said. "It definitely was a gut punch.”
But even he was able to see the bigger picture.
“Now we have to move on and focus on getting rested and recovered and recharged for this next push in the second half of the season,” McKenzie said.
The Union won’t play another game until June 26. That’s two full weeks to rest, recoup and relax — and maybe go shopping for another good striker to pair with Sergio Santos. As European clubs turn their rosters over this summer, there will be no lack of options, and Ernst Tanner has proven he knows how to scout under the radar.