CHESTER, PA—As Zach Pfeffer placed his 93rd-minute strike into the back of the net on Sunday night, the crowd at PPL Park, who experienced a wide range of emotions in the three hours prior, erupted in celebration of a long-awaited Philadelphia Union victory.
The goal from the homegrown player was a perfect end to a dramatic week around the grounds of PPL Park that featured a fan protest against ownership and a dramatic match against D.C. United.
The Union, who entered the match with one win and six points from 11 matches, were marred by a traumatic stigma surrounding their goalkeeping situation for quite some time before manager Jim Curtin officially declared Rais MBolhi would no longer be a part of the team's plans ahead of the team's trip to Vancouver last week.
MBolhi, who starred for Algeria at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, inked a deal with the Union during the 2014 summer transfer window and debuted near the end of August.
From the start of his Union career, Mbolhi's transfer to Major League Soccer was greeted with nothing but skepticism since the club already had two capable goalkeepers on its roster in Zac MacMath and Andre Blake.
Part of the reason why the Union supporters group, the Sons of Ben, took to the pathways outside the stadium before Sunday's clash was to express their displeasure with how the front office spent money on MBolhi. Instead of purchasing extra help at positions of need like centre-back or forward, Union CEO and operating partner Nick Sakiewicz brought in MBolhi after the World Cup.
What ensued was a spell of disastrous performances in between the pipes for the Union throughout the end of the 2014 season and start of the new campaign in March. The first of the Algerian goalkeeper's major blunders came on October 2, 2014 in a must-win match at home against the Chicago Fire. MBolhi played a goal kick straight to Robert Earnshaw, who proceeded to equalize the game at 1-1 just minutes after the Union found a breakthrough.
With MacMath loaned out to Colorado for the 2015 season and Blake on the mend from offseason surgery, MBolhi was the only choice to start in goal as the Union opened the new year against the Rapids on March 7. MBolhi's spell in goal lasted all of five matches due to a bevy of mistakes as the final line of defense.
Philadelphia tried to tread water with local prospect John McCarthy in net, but the goalkeeping jinx hit him in the form of a concussion before Week 10's trip to Vancouver.
With loanee Bryan Sylvestre in net and a makeshift defense in front of him, the Union were torn apart by the Whitecaps at BC Place. The final result over a week ago was the tipping point for many fans of the club, who organized a march before Sunday's match against D.C. to voice their displeasure with everything about the club.
“I would say first and foremost they’re entitled to voice displeasure when the team’s only won one time coming into this game," Curtin said.
"I look at myself in the mirror first. We’ve had injuries, we’ve had different things, we’ve had off-the-field issues this year and it's been very challenging. If you’re a fan of this team, you’re entitled to be pissed off at how this has gone. I’m pissed off with how this year has gone. I share their sentiment. I feel the same way," the manager said after the match.
After the protest ended and the fans filled their seats, a boisterous roar of chants spilled through the stands at PPL Park on Sunday night, even when it seemed the Union would not capitalize on their chances and earn the three points.
“It’s always great to have people in the stadium. We know that we have fans that are always allegiant toward us. It’s great for us to have that. I really appreciate that. It’s hard for them right now because we didn’t do well (to start the year)," long time Union player Sebastien Le Toux said after the 1-0 victory.
"I can understand that. I can’t say I agree 100 percent with them. I understand how they feel. They are here and they want their team to do well. When you don’t win the games, you feel unhappy. I'm with them. I'm unhappy and I play on this team. They deserve for us to do better and they deserve to have a winning team because they are always here," Le Toux continued.
Philadelphia knocked on the door for 92 minutes before Pfeffer finished off a Fabinho cross to send the stadium into a loud uproar.
Curtin wouldn't say the win brought a sense of relief to the club, but he did acknowledge the importance of the goal given the circumstances the club has faced.
“I never feel relief. I’m happy when we win. But I don’t really dwell on it too long. I don’t have time to think that we’ve accomplished anything yet because we haven’t," Curtin said.
"We won a soccer game at home. That’s what we’re supposed to do. I understand the word relief because it has been a crazy, stressful season but I’m more happy for our players because they deserve three points," the manager continued.
One thing Curtin did make sure to note after the contest was the bond formed between the players in the locker room, led by United States World Cup veteran Maurice Edu.
"I’d actually like to commend Maurice Edu for keeping the group together. It’s been a big step in his growth and leadership," Curtin said. "
"He’s always been a great player. He has qualities I can’t coach or teach. But he’s really improved on being the man in the locker room that keeps everything going in tough times. Anybody can lead when you’re winning and it's easy. It's the guys that can lead in the hard times, those are the real leaders in my eyes. That’s when you really see who the real leaders are," Curtin continued.
"It’s easy to start pointing fingers, drift off into small cliques and whisper and this and that. We ask everyone if they have something to say, speak up. We have team meetings and things like that. It’s important that everyone takes part in that and expresses their opinion," Edu said.
"But again I want to reiterate that we have a really good locker room here. I think that goes a long way so even in the tough times we stick together. We all enjoy each other’s company off the pitch as well. In training we try to keep things positive, push each other and bring out the best in each other," said the midfielder and center back.
One win over the top side in the Eastern Conference doesn't guarantee the Union are out of the danger zone just yet, and the players and manager are aware of that. But on a night where everything could have gone wrong in front of a national audience once again, order started to be restored on the banks of the Delaware River.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.