There are very few words that can sum up the Union’s U.S. Open Cup matchup against the New York Red Bulls on Tuesday night. The word that probably fits the best is short, sweet and to the point.
Wow. Just wow.
In a year where the Union seem to be sucker punched in the gut over and over again, the game at Red Bulls Arena was close to being the what many would consider to be the knockout punch.
Without regular starters C.J. Sapong, Richie Marquez, Andrew Wenger and Brian Sylvestre, the Union were already heading into the game far from their best. Add in a red card in the 40th minute and a 90+4 minute stoppage time equalizer from the Red Bulls and the possibility of coming away with a miracle win seemed to go out the window.
But that’s the funny thing with miracles, they happen at random but are most often found when skill, preparation and hard work all converge and that is exactly what happened for the Union tonight.
The game started hot right from the get-go with Cristian Maidana nearly getting a shot on goal in the first 30 seconds. The game went back and forth from there, neither side being able to score the game first goal though the Red Bulls gave it their best shot.
John McCarthy was called on to make a series of phenomenal saves over and over again starting as early as the third minute when he leapt up to push the first shot of the game away from the top right corner.
For the Union’s part, they were content to sit back in the early goings of the game, letting the play come to them. They didn’t have a shot on goal until after the 30th minute but that didn’t seem to bother them. The Red Bulls are known for playing a very high-pressure style, something that their head coach Jesse Marsch is renowned for. Jim Curtin, to his credit, bade the Union to sit back and capitalize on their counter-attacking chances.
Curtin’s job was made exponentially harder in the 40th minute when Conor Casey made a late tackle on the sidelines against Red Bulls’ left back Connor Lade. It was a hard foul and most certainly deserved a card but when the referee came over and pulled out a straight red card, the Union players were left in disbelief. This marks the second Open Cup game in a row in which the Union were shown a straight red card in the first half, the last one being given to C.J. Sapong in the 27th minute of the game against D.C United for a high elbow.
To their credit, the Union didn’t get disheartened and managed to make it to halftime without conceding a goal. After the half, the Union somehow managed to turn up the pressure and make it look like they were the ones up a man.
This high-press paid off in the 56th minute when Vince Nogueira picked the ball up in midfield, made a couple of defenders miss before passing it off to Sebastien Le Toux, who then played it back to Nogueira who was making a run on goal. Nogueira took the ball to the end line and played it across the face of goal to a streaking Eric Ayuk who slotted it home to put the Union up 1-0.
“I made a run and played the ball to Le Toux, he gave me back the ball and I’m in the box,” Nogueira said after the game. “I saw Ayuk, he was by himself, and I just gave him the ball and it’s a nice goal.”
After the goal, the Union went all-defense, pulling everyone back to the top of the box and defended for their lives. The Union pulled Le Toux in the 60th minute and put on Sheanon Williams to give them more a defensive look while the Red Bulls put on three offensive minded players in an attempt to pound the ball into the box over and over again.
McCarthy was able to make great save after great save to bail the Union out when the ball got through but the defense stood tall and cleared more than 40 balls out of the box.
The game seem to slow down in the last ten minutes of regulation time with McCarthy eating up the clock by holding on the ball for an extra ten seconds whenever he touched it. When Fernando Aristeguieta came on in the 90th minute, the Union looked have seen the game out.
As luck would have it, or wouldn’t have it in the Union’s case, the Red Bulls were finally able to put a ball in the back of the net late into stoppage time after the ball was flicked around inside the box before Lloyd Sam buried it past McCarthy.
“Most teams would quit and collapse but our guys kept fighting,” said Curtin after the game. “I think the chance we had to go up 2-0 when Brian Carroll gets in and we had a chance to maybe get the second goal. We misclear a ball straight up and they score and at that point, everybody in the whole building thinks that that’s it for the Union.”
The game went into extra time with both teams out of substitutions, leaving the Union stuck in their defensive game plan. The Red Bulls tried to take full advantage of that by tallying 34 shots with 10 on target by the time the game ended. Again, McCarthy did all he could to keep the game 1-1, including making an incredible reflex save from six yards out as the second period of extra time ticked down, finally ending 1-1 and destined for penalty kicks.
“I mean this is the U.S. Open Cup,” said Ray Gaddis. “We knew when we gave up the goal late in stoppage time, we knew we had another 30 minutes and we knew we had to finish the job. From top to bottom, everyone was encouraging and we stuck together no matter what.”
The Red Bulls elected to take the first penalty, giving the duty to leading goal-scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips, who proceeded to step up and ping the ball off the crossbar. The miss would give the Union the advantage throughout the shootout after Williams walked up and rocketed the ball into the lower left corner.
The Union had a chance to end the shootout on their fourth PK after McCarthy made a goal line save against Lloyd Sam. Fred’s game-winning attempt would be saved but the Union would not be denied.
With a second chance to clinch the game, Fernando Aristeguieta walked to the penalty spot with the game on the line and powered it home to the keeper’s left to give the Union the miraculous victory.
“I went to the coach and said that I wanted to shoot the fifth penalty,” said Aristeguieta. “I felt it. I don’t know. It’s something that you feel. Usually I try to take the first one to get it out of the way but this time I went to him and told him that I wanted to take the fifth one to kill it.”
The Union now have a day to regroup and recover before they go back to training to get ready to take on D.C. United on Sunday night. And while the game may be over, its one that Union fans will remember for a long time.
“It’s the Union’s biggest win in their history,” Curtin said. “The fan support was incredible. I thought our players showed a ton of heart, the heart of a lion. I couldn’t be more proud. They represented the badge very well. They represented the fans, our city, and left everything on the field.”
Contact Union writer Kyle Basedow at email@example.com.