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Young, shorthanded Philadelphia Union suffer “gut punch” in U.S. Open Cup defeat

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  As Philadelphia Union midfielder Anthony Fontana sprinted past the goal in celebration of his 113th-minute strike on Wednesday night, it appeared the latest bit of U.S. Open Cup magic struck the club. 

When the final whistle blew seven minutes later, a distraught Mark McKenzie fell to the Audi Field pitch in disbelief of what transpired after the Union took the lead. 

“When the (second goal) hit the back of the net, it’s like, oh crap,” McKenzie said. “You see it and it happened and everything happens kind of fast on the field, and there’s really no words to describe what it feels like, going up and to be down again. It definitely was a gut punch.” 

In three minutes, the typical elation that the Union have felt in the early rounds of the competition quickly turned into the heartbreak it is used to feeling when eliminated in the latter rounds. 

In all reality, it was a miracle the young, short-handed Union got to the 118th minute with the lead before things went south. 

Due to injuries, international duty and roster constraints limiting five international players in the squad, Union manager Jim Curtin was forced to start a back line that hadn’t played together all season, use super-sub Ilsinho for 120 minutes and bring in three regulars for USL Championship affiliate Bethlehem Steel as substitutes. 

The inexperience reared its head in a few key spots. Midfielder Zach Zandi missed an opportunity in front of goal in the first half of extra time and goalkeeper Matt Freese made a critical error on Chris McCann’s equalizer by mistiming his jump off a set piece. 

Even some of the Union’s experienced players had off nights. Forwards Sergio Santos and Fafa Picault were largely ineffective for a team that put six of its 24 shots on goal. 

Curtin even mentioned the over-reliance on Ilsinho, which worked in the club’s favor in Saturday’s come-from-behind win over the New York Red Bulls, hurt the Union in stretches. 

“Sometimes I think we do give (Ilsinho) the ball and just watch and say good luck and hope he beats three guys. That’s not something that’s possible every time,” Curtin said. 

But for all of the deficiencies on display on Wednesday, the Union still had a glimmer of hope that came from the unlikeliest place on the field. 

Fontana was subbed in to play at the No. 9 spot of the 4-2-3-1 with no other available forwards on the bench, and he miraculously took the best of his chance in the 113th minute and finished off a Jamiro Monteiro pass into the back of the net. 

The go-ahead goal even came with a feel-good you-can’t-make-this-up storyline since Fontana promised his father earlier in the day he would score on his birthday. 

“Today is my dad’s birthday,” Fontana said. “I texted him this morning and told him I was going to score a goal for him. I was happy I was able to do that for him.” 

“When it’s 0-0, you’re just waiting for something to happen,” Fontana said. “I was just telling myself if I was coming in off the bench, I was going to make an impact.” 

But in just five minutes, the Union felt a different type of shock on Freese’s blunder, and it got much worse when Luciano Acosta was tripped up in a one-on-three matchup on the left side of the box in the 119th minute. 

“We have three guys around Acosta at that moment,” Curtin said. “As dangerous as he is, if you reach in, he’s pretty clever about drawing contact. We have enough bodies there, but again when you have the combination of tired legs between everybody, a good player on the ball, it becomes a difficult situation.” 

While Freese’s mistimed jump and the failed attempt to stop Acosta stood out as disappointing moments, there were plenty of chances for those miscues to be prevented in the first place. 

“Before we concede the corner kick where Matt (Freese) makes a big mistake, he comes for a ball and can’t get it,” Curtin said. “There’s six things we could’ve done to even prevent giving up the corner kick. There’s four things  we could’ve done before it becomes Lucho running full speed and Mark (McKenzie) or Ale (Bedoya), I’m not even sure who had the contact, pulled him down.” 

When the result was made official, McKenzie, who was one of the three players defending Acosta, was consoled first by game-winning goal scorer Wayne Rooney, then by other D.C. United players and finally his own teammates, who lifted him from the field after an exhausting 120-minute performance.

While it was hard to evaluate any positives from the meltdown, the Union were able to learn much more about the form of veteran center back Aurelien Collin, who was arguably the best player on the field.

Collin’s performance put him into the rotation for a stretch of four games in two weeks that begins June 26 at New England. 

“I’ll stress Collin was excellent,” Curtin said. “We learned a lot about him as a guy we can go to and not miss a beat on the back line so that was the one big takeaway from the game.” 

The Union’s latest Open Cup heartbreak might turn out to be beneficial in the long run now that the club can focus on earning first place in the Eastern Conference and a home playoff game, but that won’t lessen the sting Wednesday’s loss left right away. 

“We want to win our first trophy,” Curtin said. “It hurts. Does it make the schedule a little bit lighter down the road? Sure. It’s a tough one. You don’t want to say it’s better to go out now than late because you want to keep playing games because these games are valuable for all your players.” 

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