The potential game that every Philadelphia Union fan has looked forward to since the first kick on March 25, 2010 in Seattle is finally here. I was at that first game in team history, and now the Union is set to kick the ball today at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. (5 p.m., ESPN2) in a contest that means more than any played since that cold, rainy night in the Emerald City.
Today's MLS playoff opponent is the Houston Dynamo, just like that first night the foe was the Seattle Sounders ... all looking to stand in the way. But the team lining up against the Union isn't what matters. What's most important is the fact that there's a potential trophy at the end of this proverbial journey.
A rainbow, if you will, to chase in search of a pot of gold. Or, in this case, a platinum-sliver trophy that represents supremacy in our country's top-flight soccer league. Not a bad position to be in for a second-year franchise that could be in the same poor position as flegdling teams such as Toronto FC. Namely, on the outside looking in.
But the Union has shown grit and determination. Heart and desire. That commitment has come from the top ... from owner Jay Sugarman, operating partner/CEO Nick Sakiewicz, manager/director of soccer operations Peter Nowak, assistant coach John Hackworth and other, not-as-public figures in the team hierarchy.
That has been matched by the onfield commitment of players such as Danny Califf, Faryd Mondrago, Sebastien Le Toux and Carlos Valdes. These are the men who truly matter. That's not to say all things are rose petals and stirring music in this Union garden. Remember the seasons when the Philadelphia Eagles have underachieved?
When they've taken superior teams into NFC Championship games (specifically at home against Tampa Bay and Carolina in the Andy Reid era) only to fall flat and break the region's collective heart? When teams don't leave everything out on the field, that's when a fanbase can turn against you rather quickly.
It's hard to see that happening with the Union, but there's always that danger. Houston is a team that's won the MLS Cup, and their manager Dominic Kinnear isn't in the habit of letting his sides go into a playoff game unprepared. Union fans know that Nowak has the same meticulous way of coaching, so that battle could be even.
The two-game, aggregate series could be calling out for someone to do just that little bit to unlock the other team's defense. The Union have a plethora of candidates, but my guess is that Justin Mapp will be the guy who steps up for Philly. He has that right mix of skill and solidity to be a difference-maker when all things are said and done.