June 14, 2016
It was June 17th, 2014.
The Philadelphia Union were 3-7-6 in league play and manager John Hackworth was fired when his team stumbled into the World Cup break with a disappointing 3-3 draw against the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps.
With all eyes on Brazil, assistant coach Jim Curtin was handed the reins for the Union's opening game of U.S. Open Cup, which looked like a relatively easy matchup against affiliate club Harrisburg.
Instead, the visitors scored in the 38th minute through Jason Pelletier and carried that lead into the second half. The Union needed an 89th minute equalizer and two stoppage-time goals just to get by their third-division developmental partner.
Of course, the Union roster was a mess back then. Curtin's first-ever starting eleven looked like this:
It's strange to think how far this team has come in two years.
Anyway, we all know what happened after that performance, which Curtin described as "rusty" and "sloppy". The Union fought their way to the U.S. Open Cup final and finished the season in much better form, leading to the removal of the manager's interim tag.
The storyline is different in 2016. Harrisburg is no longer the Union's USL affiliate. They aren't even technically called "Harrisburg" anymore. The team now goes by "City Islanders," since long-standing stadium issues have them currently playing in Lancaster.
But strong connections do remain, especially in the heart of the Union defense. Philly center backs Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez, who will likely start on Wednesday, both played full seasons for the City Islanders.
"I'm excited," said Marquez of the matchup. "It's gonna be fun seeing some old coaches, old faces and friends and all of that. But it's just another game, you know? Once that whistle blows, you forget about who you're playing and who your friends are, because you're very much enemies after that."
Tribbett joined Harrisburg from the Michigan Bucks in 2015. He made 28 appearances for the City Islanders last season.
"It's a chance to play your old club," Tribbett said. "I respect them, but I don't fear them. They're a team we should beat, but I know a couple of their guys pretty well, so I know it'll be fun."
Marquez is one of the few success stories of the Union and Harrisburg partnership. As a rookie, he spent the entirety of the 2014 season on-loan and finished the USL season as the league leader with 2,520 minutes played. Marquez played 90 minutes in 28 games for the City Islanders, and the team went on to finish as a runner-up in the USL championship game despite entering the playoffs as the eighth and final seed.
"I'm very grateful to have had that year in Harrisburg," Marquez explained. "The coaching staff and the players were awesome. I still talk to some of the guys. We had a good run that year actually; we lost in the finals. But it was a blessing and I'm very grateful for that year. I think that was one of the bright spots for me, was to be able to get that amount of minutes. Because transitioning from college to this level is obviously a big jump. Being able to get that many minutes, I was able to practice things that I needed to work on, and try different things, and develop my game, and figure out who I was as a player."
From an outside perspective, Philadelphia's split from Harrisburg felt like it was inevitable, yet amicable.
In the past, former Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz had publicly expressed dissatisfaction with Harrisburg's stadium situation, going all the way back to 2013. There were talks about moving the team closer to Philadelphia, or buying them out, or even building new facilities. Harrisburg CEO Eric Pettis even considered relocating his club to Nashville.
In the end, it just made more sense for the Union to create their own affiliate, and that's how Bethlehem Steel came to be.
The Union dissolved ties with Harrisburg, and president Tiago Lopes moved on to other things, leaving the club in the hands of the two men who originally ran the show – Pettis and head coach Bill Becher.
Is there bad blood? Probably not. After all, most of the people on the Union side who made those decisions no longer work for the team.
"I'm not sure it really matters," said Tribbett, regarding the split between the clubs. "I think it's water under the bridge at this point. I'm sure they might have something to prove, coming against us, like, 'hey, why did you part ties?' But it is what it is. We just have to come out and take care of business."
The Islanders don't have much in the way of financial resources, but they do have experienced guys at the top and on the technical staff.
Becher has coached the team since 2004 and has plays a huge role in player development. Guys like Tribbett, Lucky Mkosana, Matt Bahner, and Sainey Toure have all gone on to play for NASL or MLS clubs.
MLS veteran and Mechanicsburg native Bobby Warshaw recently returned from Scandinavia to join up with the Islanders, and did this not long ago:
The Islanders also have former Union striker (or center back?) Aaron Wheeler on the roster this year. Jose Barril is a tricky winger, and they've got a trio of young Jamaicans who can score goals and create opportunities in the final third.
"[Becher] does a great job," Marquez said. "One thing he really focuses is on is team chemistry. A lot of those guys, they stick together through it, all or none. And it shows on the field because they always tend to have a good team, and a team that's always fighting for the playoffs."
"They're one of the lower budgeted teams and (Becher) always manages to put out a strong starting eleven," Tribbett added. "What he's been able to do with the budget and the players he has is pretty remarkable."
All praise aside, this is a game the Union should win with relative ease.
Unlike previous matchups against Harrisburg, Philly isn't limping into this game after an atrocious spring. This team has more talent, more confidence, and more experience.
They are sitting atop the Eastern Conference for a reason.
"I think it's just about coming out and playing how we've been playing," Marquez said. "You don't take any opponent lightly because that's when things become troublesome, when you start thinking too highly (of yourself). I think the way to approach it is to literally go in there and say that you hate that team. That's how you should approach every game, to try to dominate as much as you can."