We don’t think any of the current seasons taking place now as “COVID seasons” like we did of the previous ones played in empty stadiums/arenas or in weird, neutral venues altogether. But it still very much is, which the Philadelphia Union learned the all-too hard way yesterday.
Last Thursday, the Union lost six of their regular starters to COVID protocols, and 11 players overall. It wasn’t disclosed if they had tested positive, or were close contacts, or breached protocols, but whatever it was, the Union had to roll out the B-team for their first-ever Eastern Conference championship game against NYCFC.
Now, the urge is to say that MLS should have found a way to postpone the game, like we’ve seen recently in the NHL with the Islanders or Senators, or we saw earlier in the soccer season in the NWSL, with eventual champion Washington. And had it been the regular season, they very well might have.
On one level, MLS was never going to give up a prime slot on ABC on a Sunday afternoon, at least for anything short of Beezlebub himself swinging a flaming sword at the stadium (and that would have made for good TV in itself). Second, it’s not clear where MLS could have moved the game. Players testing positive have to be quarantined for 10 days, if that’s what it was for the Union, which would be even past next week’s MLS Cup. Close contacts have to be quarantined for a week, so maybe they could have played Thursday night, but those players wouldn’t have had a training session and then would have the championship game just two days later. It’s a nightmare scenario, but this is how it goes. MLS certainly couldn’t move their marquee event next Saturday to accommodate the Union’s breakout.
And the Union almost pulled it off. Three-fourths of the backline had combined for just two starts in the past two months. Only four starters had played in the previous round. The Union held NYCFC off for most of the afternoon, with the Pigeons seemingly caught off-guard from deciding whether to stick with the counter-attack plan they would have used against a full-strength Union at home to suddenly being thrust to the favorite who should be taking the game to a bunch of subs and guys the Union bribed outside the stadium to come inside.
The Union even took the lead after an hour. But the thing with starting so many players who hadn’t been playing regularly, in addition to just the drop in quality, is that most of the team just wasn’t conditioned to play 90 minutes. And there were few options on the bench, because they were already playing. The Union faded badly after the opening goal, giving up the equalizer within 90 seconds, and then were under siege for the next 25 minutes. After surrendering chances in the first half to New York that amounted to a piddly 0.10 expected goals, the Union surrendered 1.54 xG in the second half alone. Finally, in injury time, NYCFC heartbreakingly put the Union out of their misery when Olivier Mbaizo exhaustively played a lofted cross like Manny Ramirez in the wind, letting in Gudmundur Thórarinsson to cross for Telles Magno.
Sometimes, soccer is just a wicked bitch goddess.