Commentary / Featured

On miracles and passion

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

I don’t usually cheer outwardly or audibly for sports much anymore. Too many years of loving laundry and waiting in vain for the Eagles and the Union to be champions have worn some of that raw passion out of me, not to mention all of the conflicting emotions that go along with being a lifelong Penn State football fan in the post-Sandusky era. On away matches, even when I’m sitting near the Sons of Ben, I’ll wear a neutral color and keep my hands to myself or to my nachos. Nachos never let me down in the 90th minute.

Such is fandom under the umbrella of unrelenting emotional self-preservation.

If you find me at Talen Energy Stadium, you’ll see me nodding in quiet satisfaction at goals scored and shaking my head in grumbling disdain at those allowed. Often times I can be found agreeing with officials for calls that are correct but go against my Boys in Blue, and saying little else during gameplay beyond a muted but seemingly ever-present, “Check to the d*ng ball…” In fact, I used to mildly disparage players from the stands, too (see: Sheanon Williams’s body language and Keon Daniel’s everything), but those days are most certainly over. I don’t want to be that guy, and, now that I have two kids, I certainly don’t want to be that dad.

PSP contributor, Jeremy Lane, would say that I’m a nihilist. Perhaps your therapist would say that I need to get in touch with my emotions. For this team, both of those would be honest assessments.

Saturday night’s alright

My folks came into town last weekend. They were here for some family business across the river, but stayed at our place so that they could spend some time with their grandchildren. We made dinner at home on Saturday night, a perfect evening for grilling out, patio time, and those bulb lights on a string that everyone has because Pinterest told them they were essential.

The Union game started at 7:00pm and under most normal circumstances I would have recorded it and watched later. My parents don’t really follow soccer, despite seeing me play a mediocre version of center back and center forward for several hundred games over a decade or so of diligent parenting. They’ve been to Chester, too, which did even less to light their soccer-loving fire: they were fortunate enough to see an impotent Union play to a scoreless draw with an equally impotent Houston on a colder than average September evening in 2014.

Saturday wasn’t normal, though, because my DVR wasn’t working, it was almost kickoff, and we had barely started cooking.

Focusing on the food

There was a fruit salad made from blueberries, melons, and peaches that we found at the farmer’s market in Rittenhouse Square in the morning. There were hand-molded hamburgers with various kinds of cheese and more than enough bacon for four people. There were russet potatoes, cooked in chicken stock and heavily salted. There was a spinach salad and a decent $10 bottle of white wine, too, chilled at the table. For dessert: homemade no-bake cookies.

So much food, so many bulb lights.

Though I positioned my chair to keep an eye on the television in the living room, all of these things kept my attention and sated my appetite substantially more than a team who was fresh off of a 3-0 thumping to a truly deficient New England Revolution side…until there was Ilsinho.

Goals are miracles

The eminently talented and yet confounding Brazilian is a fairly apt microcosm of the 2017 Union: subdued but real expectations and moments of explosive clarity that are too often followed by a maddeningly incomplete final product. Goals in soccer are hard to come by and sometimes seem in need of a miracle to even occur at all. As good as they’ve been at home this season and overall in the past few months (believe it or not), this Union team sometimes plays as if even a miracle might not be enough.

When the play started, most Union fans likely assumed a similar narrative. As Ilsinho began, splitting defenders on the wing like Messi against Getafe, I took one eye off of my burger to put both on the screen. Then, as he continued, cruising past the next red-shirted training dummy with a devastating step-over, a la fellow countryman Ronaldinho, I raised my eyebrows in impressed interest. When the momentum cooled, with both Chris Pontius and Alejandro Bedoya nearly turning the ball over, I felt my letdown coming. I know you did, too. Then, when Haris Medunjanin used the only FIFA 17 skill move that I can actually pull off in that game or in real life, I smiled to myself with pleasure and suddenly rekindled expectation.

Time had slowed to a crawl, allowing each one of us to take in the majesty of this revelation of a soccer play.

When Ilsinho flicked, I gasped. When Haris slid the ball across the face of goal, first-time with his weaker foot, I stood up. When C.J. checked his run, stayed on the goal side of his man and poked the ball into the gaping and vacated net, I raised my arms in triumph and actually cheered. It was an astonished and breathless exclamation that left me truly dumbfounded, and even as I watched the replay several times I could hardly believe it.

Arguably the greatest team goal in the franchise’s history had happened because of a series of sumptuous individual moments, magnifying nearly every attacking player’s strengths: Ilsinho’s skill, Medunjanin’s poise, Pontius and Bedoya’s presence, and Sapong’s positioning.

The team had scored as a team. Watching it again today, it remains as marvelous as seeing it in real time. Though I sat back down and finished the meal, the Union had my attention. If they keep playing that way this weekend and beyond, they’ll have the attention of plenty more of their doubters, the league as a whole, and those of us who love the team but have tried to protect ourselves by staying on the emotional fence.



  1. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Seeing it live I missed that Ilsinho’s feed was a back heel on a spin.
    The quality and the sense of miraculousness were as present live as they were electronically.

  2. Good stuff Chris! I’d comment more, but I need to go buy bulb lights on a string. Immediately.

  3. This was one of those beautiful moments in soccer where you could just feel the play grow and the goal become inevitable. From the moment Ilsinho split the two defenders at midfield to Sapong’s outstretched poke into the net there was just an unstoppable momentum. Even the two deflections fed into it showing their attempts to disrupt went totally disregarded.

  4. Nice piece! Those moments suck us right back in don’t they? It’s like golf. Play poorly for 15 holes, make a nice golf shot or two down the stretch, and you’re ready to go spend money on it again next weekend, convinced your game is improving.

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