But before we get to the positive COVID tests that benched eleven Union players and hollowed out the squad two days before the biggest game in club history, we need to understand just how hopeful the Doop fans were feeling that December week in Chester, PA.
It’s sometimes sunny in Philadelphia
The Union were on a postseason tear in 2021. An overachieving Philadelphia squad had dispatched the New Jersey Red Bulls with an extra-time 1-0 home win in the first round of the playoffs, then played Nashville SC to a 1-1 draw over 120 minutes and won the ensuing penalty shootout behind the heroics of goalkeeper Andre Blake. Next up were NYCFC, who had played the New England Revolution to a draw and also won on penalty kicks. The Union had three key advantages over New York City: Philadelphia were playing at home, NYCFC were on short rest, and City striker Taty Castellanos was out of the game because of a red card.
Philadelphia won the Supporters’ Shield in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, and now they had a legitimate chance of lifting the 2021 MLS Cup. But first, they had to defeat a travel-weary NYCFC squad missing three starters.
Then the club dropped a bombshell. Two days before the game, head coach Jim Curtin announced that a number of players on the Senior Team tested positive for COVID.
The full impact didn’t become apparent until later: Eleven players were ruled unavailable, including key starters Alejandro Bedoya, Jakob Glesnes, and Kai Wagner. Blake was out, as was backup goalkeeper Joe Bendik. Basically, the entire starting defense plus half the midfield and attack were ordered to isolate.
Curtin was forced to call up academy players to fill out his roster, and on game day he pieced together a team that held the line against NYCFC—almost. The Union made it onto the scoreboard first thanks to an Alexander Callens own goal, but then NYCFC manager Ronny Deila made tactical substitutions that changed the shape of the contest. A New York City goal evened the score, then forward Talles Magno knocked in the game-winner in the 88th minute, sending the NYCFC faithful into raptures and driving a dagger into the collective heart of Philadelphia soccer.
Really, that’s where this story begins.
They was robbed
It was a hard loss for Philadelphia, and Curtin didn’t take it well. While some head coaches might try to be graceful in defeat, or make some anodyne statements and disappear, Curtin was bitter and resentful in the postgame press conference, sounding more like an aggrieved fan after a few tallboys than a captain guiding his ship back to port after a rough day at sea.
In that press conference, Curtin essentially said that the players who tested positive for COVID should have been allowed to take the field. “We had 11 guys that are healthy to play a soccer game that aren’t here because they have a version of the sniffles,” he said, vastly understating the transmissibility of COVID and the impact of COVID-related pneumonia. “I’m not a scientist,” he said. “I defer to scientists, so don’t get me wrong,” he added after not deferring to scientists.
To follow Curtin’s reasoning, the Union should have been allowed to field a full team, including those who tested positive for COVID, and if the Eastern Conference Final turned into a superspreader event that infected healthy players—half of whom would go on to play in the MLS Cup Final the following week—well, that’s showbiz.
Curtin wasn't done. As recounted in Brotherly Game, he brought up “the ‘oil money’ behind New York City’s $5 million difference in salaries during his remarks.” He talked about the $8 million player NYCFC had on the bench in reference to the fee paid for game-winner Talles Magno, one of New York’s Designated Players. “Curtin took aim at the league’s protocols, Fox News, CNN,” reported Brotherly Game.
In other words, we was robbed.
Make no mistake, Curtin wasn’t merely saying that the Union were dealt a rotten hand and came up short, he was saying the the deck was stacked.
Curtin was using populist rhetoric to make the argument that the Union had been undermined by various members of an elite cabal: MLS, scientists, media, the wealthy. It didn’t matter if he was light on the details and ignored inconvenient facts, he was speaking at a vulnerable moment to a group of fans who felt wronged, and his words resonated. In the book “Populism: A Very Short Introduction,” Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser write that “populism always involves a critique of the establishment and an adulation of the common people.” It’s an emotional appeal to the every-person over the elite.
Populism doesn't exist in a vacuum, it feeds off conflict. In a piece for the Guardian, Mark Rice-Oxley and Ammar Kalia state that populism is “a strategic approach that frames politics as a battle between the virtuous, ‘ordinary’ masses and a nefarious or corrupt elite.” In this case, that battle is between the frugal $10 million payroll of the Union and the lavish $15 million of dirty oil money NYCFC spend on their players. It’s the common-sense logic that the sniffles are no big deal versus the by-the-book suits at MLS and the overcautious eggheads at the CDC out to get the Union. It’s Gritty versus the world.
Are we now rivals?
All of this leads to an interesting question: Are NYCFC and the Union now rivals?
The two have always been competitive but it hasn't quite reached the level of a rivalry, at least not yet. The Eastern Conference Final last December game might have changed that. Since then, Doop fans have been trolling NYCFC supporters—the mini championship banner unveiled last week at Yankee Stadium gave them a new, if small, target to hit.
The broad storyline behind the loathing is that a full-strength Union squad would have won the Eastern Conference Finals, therefore NYCFC’s MLS Cup is illegitimate. Never mind that two big what-ifs separate that statement from reality—what if all the Union players could play, and what if the Union won. Many Philadelphia fans think the star above the New York City badge should be an asterisk.
In Curtin’s narrative, NYFCF wasn’t another club forced to navigate the rules and logistics of the playoffs in a pandemic year. Rather, NYCFC were complicit in the injustice handed to the Union by taking the field and playing to win—New York City are to blame.
Sounds like the makings of a rivalry. A not-at-all-scientific poll currently running on Brotherly Game indicates that a good number of Union fans now see NYCFC as enemy number one.
Interestingly, both NYCFC and the Union have a common rival in the New Jersey Red Bulls. For Philadelphia, it’s a regional contest that dates to 2010, when the Union joined MLS. For NYCFC, it’s a birthright. But the mood is shifting in Pennsylvania, and NYCFC might become a more meaningful nemesis. That should make tomorrow’s game more interesting.
Besides, it’s just another reason why NYCFC are better than the Red Bulls.