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The crushing weight of finality

Photo: Rogerio Barbosa, courtesy of the Montreal Impact

Editor’s note: This guest fan post comes from Chris Gibbons, who traveled to Montreal for Saturday’s Philadelphia Union game. You can hear more of his observations about the Union on the All 3 Points podcast with regular PSP contributor Jeremy Lane.

I knew what I was getting myself into.

I knew the moment I left Philadelphia that I was embarking on a trip that, regardless of the beauty of the sights or the taste of the poutine, there was a real and distinct possibility that the capstone to my vacation was going to be a depression-inducing letdown. The stakes were higher this year and, if there were a letdown, it would be one that would be followed by an eight-hour drive during which any emotions I was feeling would have the opportunity to properly stew.

In short, I once again placed my immediate-term happiness into John Hackworth’s hands.

There’s no place like home

Teams play differently on the road than they do at home. In the NFL, conventional wisdom says that a team is a field goal better at home, just for showing up. In international soccer, according to the book “Soccernomics,” playing at home “is worth a lead of about two-thirds of a goal.” In MLS, that shrinks to about a half a goal but is still significant and broad. The Union score roughly the same amount at home and away but give up far more goals after a plane or bus ride. Despite their notoriety for road success in 2013 with some impressive results, they are most certainly not the same team away as they are at home.

That being said, it’s unclear anyone knows who this Union team truly wants to be, and at home, their identity is of a parallel ambiguity. On the road though, the team are a bit more straight forward and seem to focus on only one thing: not losing. They pack it in, sit deep, and pray for a counterattack (see Kansas City). Like a stunt double preparing himself for the physical beating of throwing himself out of a moving car, I sat in the bleachers of Stade Saputo in my best “casual fetal position,” braced for anything.

You’ve all watched the tape so you know that the “anything” I was steeling myself for started out not as a very, very poor man’s catenaccio, but instead an open and assertive Union that played with 25 percent more possession than they usually do away, dominated defensively with clever marking and preemptive clogging of passing lanes, and finally sliced open the Impact defense, on a night when Gentleman of all Gentlemen, Nesta, was honored, to allow Fabinho a rocket of a shot that few keepers anywhere would have kept out. Only the crossbar saved a two-nil score line, but it was clear the Union started with purpose, tous pour gagner, perhaps for the first time all season away from home.

The sign said: WAKEUP

Halftime was a blur of nervous exchanges, both between Impact fans and between me and the friendly people I had on all sides. (The stadium was again so welcoming that there was a piece of paper on my seat with my name on it when I arrived inviting me to purchase season tickets next year. I was nearly convinced, simply to try and match their hospitality.) They felt anxious but knew what a second half at home can bring. I felt anxious, too, with the knowledge that there is little solace in a goal felt to have been scored too early.

An Impact supporters tifo was unfurled as the second half began, a bold and simple sign that read, “WAKEUP.” There were forty-five minutes left in their season and, unfortunately for the Union, the Impact did exactly that.

Like attempting to ford the mighty Saint Lawrence River with nothing but a walking stick and a measure of rope, the Union were downstream the minute the second half started. There had been tactical shifts on the hosts side that the visitors were not prepared for and had little answer for. (Hackworth has admitted as much). Not only was the team regularly bombarded with wave after wave of frothy blue attackers, but the energy in the stadium began to swell as well.

Stade Saputo is an Erector Set of bleachers and metal that conducts sound in a way that has a special place in my heart, as a kid who grew up in similarly built Beaver Stadium. As their team began imposing its will, the Impact fans began stomping and singing, the noise emerging and expanding as an organic thunder that carried across the stands with cathartic abandon. There was a hum of noise that, without articulated words, was unmistakably anti-Philadelphia.

That half of a goal that comes with home field advantage was manifesting itself in a clichéd 12th man’s desperate urgings, knowing a win would be the only salvation. High tide was nigh.

The apocalypse comes with popcorn

Then, of course, predictably and devastatingly, came Di Vaio.

The noise, impossibly, was growing louder still.

The Union were a shell of their first half selves, without more than a smattering of forays into their adversary’s end, defending for the life of their season. Their fetal position and mine now bore an uncanny resemblance, except that I had a bag of popcorn to watch the apocalypse with.

A draw might have been consolation, but it was not to be.

Inevitably, an unlikely hero arrived: Impact academy product Karl Ouimette. This, like Fabinho before him, was his first goal, and one that was all too willingly gift-wrapped by a complete lack of marking. For a defense that had played so admirably for the past few months, it was gutting. Perhaps Zach McMath’s kick-save attempt was its own metaphor for a season “shassed” into oblivion.

Louder, and louder still.

The weight of finality

There would be no comeback in the face of this unification, and although Roger Torres made an impactful quarter of an hour cameo, there seemed to not have been even a strategy to do so. It was an impotent end.

Demons were being exorcised in every direction around me, demons that could only come from the freefall of one of the league’s most talented teams to one for which the playoffs were becoming an ever narrowing point of light. The demons found new and willing hosts in the disparate Union players. The boys in Bethlehem black were spaghetti-legged and indifferent by the 95th minute as, in a short half an hour, fortunes had changed and new narratives were written, one team nearly in and the other all but out.

As the game ended, I sat still, eye level with the rear end of the fan in front of me. Perhaps it was a fitting finish. I did my best to remain stoic and to mentally calculate the unlikelihood of Houston and Chicago doing the Union the massive favors they needed in order to find a place in the playoffs.

I couldn’t find Hackworth in the crowd.

Most of the Union left the field quickly as the Impact celebrated.

Those that stayed and watched were slumped on the bench or hunched over on the pitch. Their body language transcended any need for translation between English and French. It was an obvious and universal evocation of loss. Each one knew, as did I, similarly deflated, that points dropped were likely to be insurmountable. The weight of the finality settled upon us like fallen leaves in the cool, Quebec air.

7 Comments

  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    Sorry man. If it’s any consolation it sucked watching that second half on TV too.

  2. This is one of the most eloquently written sports articles I’ve read in a long time. Reminds me of reading “The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.” Thanks for sharing your experience, Chris. Please keep them coming.

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  5. Good article!

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