Commentary / Union

Dreaming of greener pastures

“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Clearly UCLA Bruins football coach Red Sanders didn’t envision the advent of the internet back in 1950.

Sports have clung to this quote for far too long. It’s a Machiavellian reduction of fandom, and it ignores the evolution the games we love. Social media and non-stop coverage have turned professional sports into year-round enterprises. We follow the Adrian Wojnarowskis and Adam Schefters of the world on Twitter, ravenous for a bit of breaking news, anything to satiate the emptiness of the offseason. We dream of transfers and trades. We analyze free agents and scrutinize mock drafts. Our joy is no longer limited to game day.

In 2018, winning isn’t the only thing.

It’s still the most important thing to win. The exuberance that comes from all those offseason acquisitions stems from the belief that they will lead to victory.

But what happens if those moves fail? What happens if your favorite team is worse than it was before globs of cash were dropped on a star? Does it invalidate the delight you felt before the ball dropped? Can it erase the euphoria you felt when the new first broke, as you scrolled hot takes and sent exuberant texts to fellow fans?

This city saw the Philadelphia Eagles’ self-proclaimed “Dream Team” get demolished, but it sure was fun watching the construction. Recently, fans have “trusted the process” and turned the NBA Draft Lottery into the most important day on the basketball calendar.

Even if you can’t win during the regular season or the postseason, you can still win during the offseason.

But what happens if your favorite team can’t win during any season? Well, just ask Philadelphia Union fans.

Photo by Earl Gardner

Photo: Earl Gardner

Philadelphia’s soccer franchise resembles professional organizations like the Milwaukee Brewers, Denver Nuggets, and Florida Panthers. None of these teams have a history of success on or off the field. All of them are rather… meh.

Meh might be the worst thing an organization can be. On the national stage, the Union have become an afterthought. During MLS’s schedule release “show,” national pundits spent no time discussing the team from Chester, Pa. Now that same sentiment is seeping into the Union’s own supporters. If a team can’t create excitement among it’s fan base, the antithesis will come to fruition. Apathy.

The Union have never advanced in postseason play, a distinction matched only by newer additions to the league. Without a history of on-the-field success, at least the club has entertained off-the-field, right? Umm…

Even the Union’s best signings haven’t translated to excitement among the fans. United States internationals Alejandro Bedoya and Maurice Edu were both quality and well-known players, but defensive midfielder isn’t the most glamorous of positions. A certain Algerian goalkeeper seemed like a mistake from the start.

Tranquillo Barnetta may have been the best signing in club history, but only the most avid of soccer fans would have recognized the name. Both Barnetta and Bedoya had the same problem from an excitement standpoint: They were summer signings with the season already in full swing. Fans didn’t have the chance to let the anticipation build for months with hopes being met or dashed on opening day.

This offseason has been more of the same. Sporting Director Earnie Stewart is following a familiar pattern. He has traditionally waited until mid-January to make his first signings. Rumors do not leave Union headquarters until the team releases a pic of a new player holding a blue and gold scarf with the Commodore Barry Bridge in the background. When that picture pops up, don’t expect to know the name offhand. Haris Medunjanin, Jay Simpson, Giliano Wijnaldum, and Walter Restrepo weren’t exactly household names.

Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo didn’t produce on the field, but they were dynamite signings from an entertainment perspective. The Union have never come close to names like that. It’s easy to be jealous of Montreal with Didier Drogba and Chicago with Bastian Schweinsteiger.

It’s even easier to be jealous of the new trend in MLS.

A year after breaking the transfer record on Miguel Almiron, Atlanta United are on the verge of signing the 18-year-old Argentine star in the making, Ezequiel Barco. The dynamic player scored the game-winning goal in Independiente’s Copa Sudamericana championship – and that’s after the Georgia club added Darlington Nagbe.

Expansion franchise Los Angeles FC made a similar signing earlier in the offseason with 19-year-old Uruguayan Diego Rossi. The new marquee signings in MLS are electrifying youngsters who look destined for greatness.

The depressing realization is that the Union can’t spend $13 million on a teenage South American sensation. Instead, their keys to consistent league success relies heavily on the success of a youth academy already bearing fruit. Jonathan Tannenwald’s piece on the recent U.S. youth national team’s vote of confidence on the academy offers hope for the future.

It’s a great start for a successful future, but let’s be honest. Compared to other clubs, it’s boring.

Photo: Daniel Studio

Name recognition isn’t limited to foreign stars. Fans of MLS have this weird ability to recognize stars in their own league. Benny Feilhaber and the aforementioned Nagbe, among others, have already switched sides this offseason. The most intriguing move was Orlando City SC’s acquition of midfielder Sacha Kleijstan from New York Red Bulls. Orlando now has one of MLS’ best No. 10 to pair with U.S. international Dom Dwyer.

Over the weekend, another MLS requested a move. Columbus Crew’s Justin Meram reportedly requested a trade. That’s a name that should leap out at Union fans. Meram is a high quality winger who fills a position of need for the Union. Columbus reportedly has a steep asking price and moving for an aging star would be short-sighted for the current roster.

That said, it could still be the perfect move for the Union.

The supporters can’t be blamed for dreaming of greener pastures. The Union have never been a consistent winner. They have never been the talk of the league. Really, the only exciting thing about this franchise was the newness of it. As that fades, so does the patience of its fan base.

The Union need to start winning on the field or off it. They need to make others ask, “Why can’t we be like the Union?” If it doesn’t happen soon, how many fans will be left when success does come.

51 Comments

  1. One year ago, I was really positive about this franchise’s chances. I thought Stewart was the right guy for the job. I was optimistic that Simpson and Wijnaldum were savvy, moneyball moves by a football man who knew what he was doing. They’d have an impact, and we had a squad with talent that had underachieved. Oh to have those feelings for this club again….

    To be honest, this season is the end of my rope for Stewart. I know he only has a couple seasons under his belt now, but my patience has worn thin. I want to see this team express some sort of ambition. If he does nothing and this team is a disorganized mess again from the start, I’m going to tune out. I won’t follow another MLS club, but this one won’t get my attention.

    Stewart can challenge fan loyalty all he wants. I don’t necessarily have to see my team go all Manchester City, but I want to feel like my club is doing the best it can. I don’t feel that way at all right now.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      I lived in Portland for a stretch….6-8 year sentence commuted to 4 years for good behavior- or something along those lines.
      .
      So happens anyone paying attention knows my feelings about NY Cosmos and therefore Gio Savarese who I’ve lobbied for to get an MLS coaching chance now for about 3 years.
      .
      City of Roses is my spiritual home now with the coach of my spiritual team. There is No.Thing as equivalent to a game at Providence Park stateside.
      .
      It’s fair to say I may be spending more time at Stumptown Footy.
      .
      All things being equal at the moment.

      • I grew up in CT. Can’t do NY teams and NewEngland seems like an even more dire franchise to follow, though to its credit, it held its coach accountable. I have no faith in that franchise beyond that, though.

      • godspeed.

    • I’m with you on Ernie. I too was full of hope when he was brought in, and excited/positive on him at this point last year.
      .
      Now… well given his words at the end of the year I have pretty much given up on him doing anything for the Union.
      .
      Even if he follows through with his ‘process’, it’s going to be years before we get close to the playoffs, especially given the growth of EVERY other team in MLS. Even the Crew – who’s owner theoretically shouldn’t put a single dollar into their players this year – are buying young SAmer talent. (#SaveTheCrew)
      .
      This year, I go to Talen to enviously watch the rest of the league, and HOPE that the Union at least can pull out another winning record at home…

  2. I’ve said this a couple times, but it bears repeating …I guess…
    It seems like everyone associated with the Union want to be traded. Coaches, players, front office…all of them. Until Sugarman sells, here we are.
    It’s hard to still get excited when they’re not.
    Please sell Sugarman.

  3. It stinks. Sugarman has made it clear he has no intention of competing and it trickles down throughout the entire organization. We’re stuck waiting until the end of expansion when Sugarman will hopefully cash-out. In the meantime, the gulf between the U and the rest of the league will continue to grow.

    .

    The Academy is nice, but it’s not a silver bullet for the U’s problems. Every other team has an academy AND money to spend on its first team.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      YUP! This team has squandered all good vibes and free passes with it’s complete lack of ability to compete. They can no longer sacrifice the first team, at the expense of the academy. The league has changed… is changing… and will continue to do so. We are so far behind as an organization is sad.
      .
      It’s January 10 and there isn’t even a rumor.

  4. I would be ok with any of the following:

    1. Legit international stars, even if past their prime.
    2. Unknown young talent from South and Central America that give us a few exciting years and then we sell.
    3. Local talent given the chance to produce.
    4. A well-coached, disciplined team of underdogs courageously and collectively punching above their weight.

    Sadly, I don’t think we’ve really had any of these. Just mediocrity and excuses.

    [Sigh]

    • The Union displayed pockets of (4.) across both of the last years. The question is can they string together a season of it.

      Not really, a response to this comment.

      But there are lots of calls for pro/rel. The last two years the Union was competitive, finishing mid-table/lower-mid table. They would have avoided the drop, like one of the boring anti-regulation masters in the EPL. Competitive but not contenders.

  5. John P. O'Donnell Jr says:

    Bethlehem Steel are having a more exciting off season….how is that possible?

    • They actually have a decent coach and are making good signings.

      Union seemingly are in deep freeze hibernation.

    • So far, I’m more likely to make the trip to see the Steel this summer than to Chester.

      • Which is perfectly fine. The more lower division soccer is supported the better the overall health and development of soccer in the USA.

        The fact that it costs less and might be just as fun doesn’t hurt either.

  6. I think a big part of the problem is the lack of communication. The larger problem is that it exists because there literally is nothing to communicate. ES and the team have said on multiple occasions that they have no intent to buy players at any big level. It’s been all lip service from Sugarman to this point, and really almost nothing from ES except some thinly veiled annoyance.
    .
    At this point I have almost no expectations, which is worse then being mad at stupid moves. They should at least be out saying that they’re actively talking to players and have scouts in certain areas, etc. Nothing specific with names, but at least something for the fans.
    .
    Think about some of the other teams and what is going on. In the meantime all we’ve seen from The Union are two not-so-young Steel signings (one who cant play yet), and 2 posts about unveiling (but not yet) the new jerseys, which coincidentally look similar so far.

    • They sat on their hands during last summer’s transfer window, while marketing their new “Chief Tattoo Officer.”

      .

      They communicate loud and clear through the actions they decide to take and not take.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Challenge to scout an international market when you ha e one scout.
      .
      Same problem exists for US Soccer. Course US Soccer has a $100,000,000 surplus of cash.
      .
      Not to mention a lead US Soccer scout thinks Messi’s football IQ is overrated.

      • This is a good point. Even worse than not spending money on players, they don’t spend money for personnel who can even find the players. The team is in the worst shape of its existence.

  7. el Pachyderm says:

    In other news one U17 MLS Academy coach leaves to coaches Big 10 college soccer and another DI Soccer coach leaves to coach MLS Academy U17.
    .
    I’m so confused.

    • Dude leaves Merck to go to Pfizer for an extra 20K. Other dude leaves Amgen to go to Merck for a job closer to his wife’s family and extra 5k.

      I was talking to someone about the PSU move and apparently PSU pays significantly more then Union. Where as some other D1 schools not as much.

  8. At least the Brewers made it to a World Series and have a couple pennant races under their belt, the Nuggets have some division titles, and the Florida Panthers have a few div/conf titles.

    The Union has to be the only professional team in the US that doesn’t have a single playoff win.

  9. I get that the team has no money, and will never make a significant signing. Fine, that’s sad but it is what it is. What I can’t understand is why we don’t use what we do have in a productive way. To get anyone from Europe on anything but a free transfer will require overspending (which we absolutely cannot do). Why are we not looking at in-league deals? Maybe MLS players are not all to the same quality as Europe-based players (arguable) but they are better than what our 8th place team has. In-league players can be acquired by a poor team through league mechanisums put in place for that purpose. Let’s use them.
    .
    Also, Curtain can explain it all he wants, but there is a zero rational basis to not play the young guys for the last two months of the past season. As a poor club, we need to develop players, not banish them to the bench for stepping on the practice field and not being IMMEDIATELY better than the vets.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      You know… someone raised the counterpoint to a point I made last week – as to why the Union don’t make trades within MLS – and they said it was because a lot of times you have to spend funny money (GAM, TAM, etc) to make it work.
      .
      But the Union don’t buy multiple DP’s or even Young DP’s. Who the hell are they spending this GAM and TAM on? I mean, we are THAT broke as an organization, that we have hoard our GAM and TAM, just in case?!?
      .
      I’ve said this season would determine if I was going to re-up as a season ticket holder next year. I’m 99% sure right now, I’m not… and the season is still two months away.

  10. Dreaming of greener pastures…
    .
    The problem here is that I don’t even dream of greener pastures anymore. Sugarman et al. have killed that dream. I dream of things getting so bad that the league has to step in. I dream of x many years down the line when the owner may or may not sell. I can’t imagine a “golden” generation from the academy because the “youth” this organization gets has it’s progress retarded after a year or can’t even see the field. How can an organization claim to build through youth when these things happen? How can they ask fans to trust when they show they don’t know what they are doing?

  11. I’ve argued before the Sugarman was convinced to buy into the league, due to overwhelming demand from SOB. But there was no natural ownership group ready to jump into Philly. So we were stuck with a friend of Nick Sak’s as our owner.
    .
    Now, what would you rather do if you were interested in buying an MLS franchise? Take over a floundering team that plays its games 10 miles from downtown with no public transportation access? Or buy a new franchise where you can strongarm a city to build you a stadium in a much more desirable location in your new city’s downtown?
    .
    We are stuck with Sugarman until expansion stops. No one is paying for this team when they can build their own clean legacy.
    .
    We’re stuck hoping that the Youth Development pattern works out.

    • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

      This. Once expansion is complete, Sugarman can sell the organization. Franchise value will increase because the cartel has closed the doors. Then the new ownership can extort Philly and the new city it wants to move too for a new tax payer stadium, etc. In the mean time, the Union stadium is paid for, so they can take their time in finding the best city to extort and then move too. There will not be a team here in 7-10 years. So why would Sugarman put his own money into the team?

      • I definitely have skewed towards the negative since 2014, but I would never have thought the city wouldn’t have a team. Now… I can see a scenario, just like the one you described, happening within a few years.

      • I don’t think the team will leave the city. Or if it does, I don’t think it will be far. I can see in 10 years a new ownership group arguing that they need a stadium downtown or at the existing sports complex, somehow. And if not, they can even move to Wilmington, or Camden, or Trenton, if they felt any allegiance to the location.
        .
        But keep in mind that expansion is going to hit AT LEAST 28 teams. I’d be a little surprised if it didn’t climb higher than that. That means that roughly 30 other cities (or 25ish, considering the markets with 2 teams) already have a team. This will put Philly in an interesting position – they won’t be hard-pressed to fund a stadium. And unless MLS can prove massive profitability, the city won’t be held hostage when they already have new(ish) stadiums for the other 4 major teams.
        .
        This could be a bleak outlook, but I think there are too many people with financial interests to let this experiment fail. Problem is, it’s going to take some patience as we deal with even rougher times than we have.
        .
        Just one man’s opinion…

      • This is way too big a metro area — and one with a vast and rich soccer community — to walk away from. It makes no sense for this area. And to be honest, this “market” (always cringe when I use the term) is worth more than the franchise. That and the IP (logo/name) are valuable. I agree otherwise. Sugarman will bide his time until expansion stops and sell for a huge profit. Who will buy? Good question. I don’t know, but until there’s pro/rel, buying a team is the only way to get in the top flight. And I think soccer might be the one sport in this country with tremendous growth potential still.Soccer and basketball.

      • Dan C( formerly of 103) says:

        Why does the size of the metro area matter to a potential owner? A potential owner is looking for the most value it can get for the team. New Stadium, good sponsors, ways to make money. If I buy a team for 200 million, and some mid size city gives me a 150 million dollar stadium, I’m out. Why would I care about the metro size? Philly is 5th biggest market and in bottom third of attendance, if I buy team, that’s also a reason I’m out.

      • Why? More customers? Better TV deals? Attendance is down because the team is shit. Put a shit team in Philadelphia or Peoria, Illinois, and attendance will be low. If the Union was a team winning games, they’d fill Talen easy, and could arguably do even better with a bigger stadium. If you had a hard time selling Yugos, you shouldn’t conclude that people don’t like cars.

      • Dan C( formerly of 103) says:

        No because it doesn’t matter where the team is. You make money from national tv deal and from SUM. The union don’t make shit from local tv deal. If I’m in Peoria with a new stadium I’m charging 18000 people an average of $50 per seat because I have no competition for their money. In philly it’s 15000 an average of $30 a seat. It’s math, not emotions, not civic pride, not a legacy, it is simply math.

      • Right, it’s math in that in a large metro area there are a lot more potential customers. For tickets and for merch. Sports teams aren’t in big cities by random coincidence. Point is, no sports league is going to go without a team in Philly. That’s just ridiculous.

      • Dan C( formerly of 103) says:

        And the NFL went years without a team in LA. So yes, MLS could survive without a team in Philly.

  12. Interesting take on Sugarman. In some ways we’re stuck with an owner who feels like he was stuck with the bill. Everyone else bailed on him.
    .
    I don’t know what it’s worth, but he is on the Expansion Committee. I am somewhat surprised he hasn’t used this as a resource to search for other investors.

    • At a press conference, or interview (can’t remember which) a few months ago, he made the comment that he would welcome new investors. It was almost a subtle sales pitch. I’m guessing no one is in a hurry to board this sinking ship when they can join new franchises with more potential.

      • Exactly. I love the fantasy idea of new investors. What business savvy has Sugarman shown to entice anyone to get involved with him? I wouldn’t give him the price of a ticket. Why would anyone give him serious money to play with?

      • The Union have pretty decent potential, if you look at the club and infrastructure. We have an USL affiliate, a solid Youth Academy (tied for highest in Youth Nationals Camp), and a decent stadium in a highly populated area.

        We are confusing the potential of the club with current willingness to spend.

    • The Chopper says:

      Sugarman would love investors, but finding investors who would sink money into this club while Sugarman has the majority of shares and control is simply not an easy thing to do.

      Based on his current track record, no savvy investor is putting up funds without being guaranteed a certain amount of control over various club operations. Sugarman refuses to cede any control

  13. In no previous season did I not have the calendar release date marked and anticipated its release – until 2018. I’ve been a 76ers season ticket holder 6 years too so their success I admit has distracted me from the Union’s stagnation, but nonetheless the apathy is real. There are few joys in life like sitting in TES on a Saturday evening watching the Union. I am looking forward to opening night and the atmosphere – but right now that is yet, since the team that will be on the field hasn’t given me anything to look forward to yet.

    • “…so their success I admit has distracted me from the Union’s stagnation…”
      .
      In a nutshell, this explains how catastrophically bad this team screwed up the past 5 years. Phillies, Sixers, Eagles, Flyers…they were all bad. The Union could have grabbed a chokehold on this town.
      .
      Instead we’re debating if they will relocate. Absolute failure.

      • Sugarman went about this in the wrong way. Instead of passing out nickels in the first few years he should have spent big on a recognizable name. He would have created good will, sold merchandise out the wazoo, and maybe even won a playoff game. Now he’s so far behind the eight ball he needs a miracle to happen. Good luck with that Mr. Sugarman.

  14. OneManWolfpack says:

    How much would it realistically cost to buy the Union? $200 million? $300 million? Does the stadium come with that? My point is, that I find it hard to believe no one would take a chance to try and cash out Sugarman. It seems to me, that yes he can wait, and I guess he will, but I also think if someone wanted to buy him out – he’d leave tomorrow. I truly believe this team would be a hit in the summers especially, if they would just be competitive and do something – aka: spend money and bring some names in. Sadly, Sugarman is an investor not an owner. Paging John Middleton!!!! Please…

    • Brain Roberts? The Campbell’s Soup heiress is worth about $3B and lives in Chester County.
      .
      Man, we’re desperate.
      .
      Any chance Mark Cuban wants an East Coast presence? That would be nice…

  15. Make some bold moves Sugarman or sell the team.

    If Stewart does not sign a replacement center attacking mid equal to or better than Barnetta he should be fired plain and simple.

    A serious right wing upgrade and a left fullback upgrade is also needed just to stay even with the other playoff bound teams. Get it in gear Ernie you have had 2 years to replace Barnetta. Your incompetence sickens me.

    Philly fans are sick of this just be barely competitive attitude of the Ownership.

  16. Lee Nguyen? Any rumors?

  17. Nguyen definitely wants to leave NE He would come to Philly for a respectable offer 800 k would do it. Make your move Ernie. You have ethe money

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