VANCOUVER, B.C. - No matter which coast it takes place on, the Union's annual game against the Whitecaps feels like a family reunion.
Vancouver stalwarts Jordan Harvey and Brad Knighton enjoyed successful spells in Philadelphia during the Union's early years. Across the field, Union fans still haven't forgotten the controversial trade that sent Sébastien Le Toux to the Whitecaps after the 2011 season.
Last year, Le Toux came to PPL Park as a visitor, and helped his team secure a scoreless draw. This time, the Union walked off the field with bragging rights.
Princeton product Antoine Hoppenot came off the bench to deliver the win, scoring in the 85th minute to secure a 1-0 victory at a sun-drenched B.C. Place.
The Union (9-6-7, 34 points) gained a big advantage just eight minutes into the game, as Vancouver's Jun Marques Davidson was ejected after headbutting Keon Daniel. The sequence exploited what has quietly become one of Philadelphia's strengths: annoying opponents to the point where they commit rash fouls.
As Daniel and Davidson fought for a loose ball, Daniel swung a leg out in Davidson's direction. It wasn't clear whether Daniel was going for the ball or the opponent, but Davidson retaliated by headbutting Daniel.
Referee Baldomero Toledo immediately blew his whistle and showed Davidson a straight red card.
Toledo also gave Daniel a yellow card. It could have been more.
The sellout crowd of 21,000 gave Daniel an earful, and they did deliver more. Daniel was booed whenever he touched the ball for the rest of the game.
Daniel offered a succinct reaction when asked for his impression of the atmosphere after the game.
"Great," he said. "I love that, man. That's all I have to say."
His teammates within earshot in the locker room burst out laughing.
Davidson's ejection marked the 10th time in 22 games this season that a Union opponent committed a foul which resulted in a dismissal.
Union manager John Hackworth conceded that "people are going to say we're getting lucky." But he sees more of a coincidence than a pattern.
"I just think it's going to be one of those weird stats," he said. "We haven't had a penalty kick all year either."
Toledo wasn't done dealing cards after the early fracas. Indeed, he didn't take long to go back to his pocket. In the 24th minute, Jack McInerney was booked after he crashed into Knighton contesting a cross from Michael Farfan. The collision left both players sprawling on the artificial turf, with Knighton staying down for quite a while.
Despite being down a man, the Whitecaps (9-7-5, 32 points) had the better of the play in a scoreless first half. Star forwards Kenny Miller and Camilo Sanvezzo both came close to scoring, but neither could get the ball on frame.
Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath did not have to make a save in the game until three minutes into the second half, when he punched away a rocket of a shot from Camilo.
Vancouver's best chance to score came in the 51st minute. Rookie speedster Kekuta Manneh split the Union backline and fired a shot past MacMath, but it hit the far post and just barely stayed out.
MacMath conceded that he thought he was beaten.
"Thankfully, [Manneh] took it with his right foot," MacMath said. "It was curling away from me a little bit, hit the right side of the post and came right back to me."
MacMath was tested again in the 68th minute, diving to catch a long shot from English veteran Nigel Reo-Coker.
Daniel was not surprised that Vancouver continued its attacking ways after Davidson's ejection.
"Sometimes when a team is down to 10 men, they get more energy," he said. "I think we did well to cope with it. We worked hard together as a team, and the longer we stuck together as a team we broke their hearts."
The Union were unable to muster much creativity until the latter stages of the second half. Substitutes Fabinho, Hoppenot and Aaron Wheeler lit the spark, as the Union changed from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a more attacking 4-1-3-2.
"I think that shows we don't go on the road and play for a draw," Hackworth said. "We made three attacking changes in the second half, we were going for it, we changed our formation trying to get the three points."
MacMath remained busy at the other end, making two saves in quick succession in the 84th minute. And just when it seemed the Whitecaps might break through, the Union turned the tables.
In the 85th minute, Hoppenot made a darting run through the middle of the field and played the ball ahead for Aaron Wheeler at the edge of the 18-yard box. Whitecaps defender Carlyle Mitchell – just into the game as a substitute - slipped trying to block the pass. That gave Wheeler space to backheel the ball to the onrushing Hoppenot. The Princeton product collected the ball, charged into the box and calmly fired a shot past Knighton from 15 yards out.
"I gave the ball to [Wheeler] and [he] played me a good ball and I was through," Hoppenot said. "The ball was bouncing and all I had to do was put it in the back of the net."
From there, it was just a matter of holding on. The Union did so for five minutes of regulation and four minutes of stoppage time, keeping the ball away from the Whitecaps with impressive precision.
Hackworth was pleased with how his players closed out the victory.
"It wasn't perfect, but we tried to kill off that game with possession," he said. "We rolled the ball around a lot, and we didn't really put ourselves in difficult spots. Earlier in the year, that wouldn't have been the case."
As the Union celebrated in the locker room after the game, it was not lost on them that they were the first road team to win at B.C. Place this year.
The result was even more impressive for having come at the end of a month-and-a-half stretch in which six of their seven games were against playoff-caliber teams.
Three of those seven games were draws which easily could have been wins. As Hackworth pointed out after the game, it's a sign of the Union's growth that they finished the job this time.