Season Previews

Why you should follow the Union this year

Photo: Ryan Griffith

Editor’s note: This post kicks off our week-long season preview for Philadelphia Union. Check in all week for more in-depth looks at the 2018 season. Read the other posts of the season preview here.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever accomplished?

Did you summit Everest? Did you finish a marathon? Did you land the job you’ve always wanted? Did you finally, boom-box-in-outstretched-arms, get the girl/guy? Maybe more simply, did you finish a whole box of Lucky Charms in one sitting?

Think about it.

Whatever it is, it was profound wasn’t it?

Last year on PSP Dan Walsh wrote a piece entitled, “Union fans are in the middle of a great story.” He was right then and even more right today, his thoughts magnified by the generational catharsis of the city’s other local football club and what it accomplished in this year’s Super Bowl. Nineteen different teams have won the Super Bowl. The story of the Philadelphia Eagles winning has the depth it has because of what this team, these fans, and this city went through before they became champions.

Fans don’t spread their family member’s ashes during the victory parade of a local sports team unless that team has put those fans through something real.

Family matters

Now think about your family.

Who is the sibling that you would unflinchingly take a bullet for? The cousin that has a heart of gold but just can’t seem to get her act together? The uncle that’s a disaster on his best day and a liability to the family name the rest of the time?

Think about them.

They’re a mess, but they’re your mess, aren’t they?

Last year, a new and highly overrated Philly Soccer Page columnist wrote a piece that argued:

“Union fans have options. People with options don’t have to keep dating the team that doesn’t love them back, no matter how many bribes of puppies or tacos they may offer.”

He was wrong. Fandom is not some fly-by-night, here-again-gone-tomorrow, at-will relationship. Fandom is deeper than that: fandom is family, and we don’t choose our family. We are born into it.

This family of Union fans existed years before the team itself, but they didn’t pick Nick Sakiewicz to start the club on his American Express card. They didn’t pick Peter Nowak to train his players in a public park or to have him believe that drinking water during training was for weaklings.

Fans didn’t have a choice in loving Sebastien Le Toux or loathing Rais M’Bohli. They certainly didn’t have a choice in building a beautiful stadium in Chester, Pa. Fans didn’t decide on having their early chances for success scuttled by an owner who made his fortune in real estate and timed his only soccer investment perfectly with the collapse of a housing bubble and the greatest economic recession in 80 years. They might have opted for, but had no real say in, said owner having a helicopter and knowing how to use it.

Union fans were born into this family, and when you’re Blue, you’re Blue. For better or for worse.

What now?

This band of Union fans, this family, are in the midst of writing their great story. They didn’t choose this adventure, though, it chose them. The fans cannot fail because the narrative won’t allow it.

Failure is only failure if Frodo says, “Actually, I don’t really wear jewelry, so…”

Failure is only failure if Mario says, “She’s in another castle? Seriously?…”

Failure is only failure if Maximus Decimus Meridius says, “Are you not entertained? Oh, you’re not? Oh… OK.”

The only chapter that matters to the fans, the heroes in this Union epic, is the next one. Even if the franchise folds, the only chapter that matters is the next one. Just ask fans of the Cleveland Browns, the Winnipeg Jets, or the San Jose Earthquakes. They’ll tell you factually, from experience, that even the final chapter isn’t always the last one.

So long as there is soccer in Philadelphia, the only chapter that matters is the next one.

March 3 is the next chapter for Union fans. It might be great, like a home playoff game. It might be terrible, like many things historically called “So Union.”

It might be inexplicable, like that part of Harry Potter where they spend 300 pages sitting in a tent, listening to left-wing bootleg radio, and basically nothing happens. Or that part in Lord of the Rings when Gandalf uses his staff to create a beam of light and ward off a whole mess of those dragon things when, practically speaking, he could have done that a long time ago and saved a lot of brave Middle Earthling lives.

The only chapter that matters is the next one. Fans will never know what happened unless they keep reading.

So here’s to the next chapter.

43 Comments

  1. I have to give you credit for some skillful writing, but the fact that the team’s disastrous mismanagement gave you nothing to work with outside of a guilt trip is pretty telling. I’ve been giving myself this guilt trip for years now and at a certain point there’s supposed to be enjoyment with an activity.

  2. Ah…let’s call this the “Inertia Sales Pitch”. You’ve been supporting them, they’ve been historically incompetent and chronically bad since jump street, but why quit now?!
    .
    It does raise a point. We should embrace the mediocrity. It’s our mediocrity. We don’t need no stinking real DPs like Atlanta! We don’t need talent or competent coaching!
    .
    Because one day…my descendants can sprinkle my remains in the flood plain of a former superfund site and I can be “let down” one more time in Chester. And that makes it all worthwhile!
    .
    Dude, I’m in.

  3. Excellent writing, especially given what you have to work with. It’s a shame that’s really all we have.
    .
    At least we’ve almost signed a 10. At least we upgraded wing, at least they’re trying Fontana at the beginning and Trusty in CB. Those things at least are changes from last year.
    .
    I don’t have a lot of faith in Curtin, I just don’t think he’s good enough for the way the league is now. But at least if we get Dockal then we have somewhat of a fighting chance to win. It’s a reason to watch other than “hey they’re our team”. It’s something more than we had a month ago.
    .
    On that note, I’m hoping the Elephant in the room didn’t watch that rowdies game, Blake’s first game back, pushing everyone upfield and giving the boot every time he touched it.

    • I think this is the first year we really start playing our youth. Mainly because it’s the first year they are ready. I expect Trusty, Real, Jones, and Fontana to get really solid minutes this year. Other young guys will too but they are really ours (Rosenberry and Burke kind of count but each in different ways).

  4. The Eagles have tried to win (and actually have won national titles before the SB[though who’s counting right?]). The Flyers have tried to win and have (not too long after they came into the league btw). The Sixers have tried to win and have won. Same with the Phillies, though they really have been cheap for most of their existence.
    .
    When has the Union tried to win? When will the Union try to win? When will the owner sell so we can get someone who will try to win?
    .
    Nah, the Union doesn’t even come close to those bumbling cousins or siblings or aunts and uncles. They are more like the newest girlfriend your brother has. You just hope she doesn’t take him for all he’s worth. Maybe she’ll stay long enough to get married for a few years before the baby comes and they get a divorce.

    • The Phillies have tried to win like 3 years out of over 100. They don’t count. The rest of them I agree, but there hasn’t been much success with any of them.

  5. *Unpopular opinion warning*
    .
    I don’t think we have ever given enough weight to the real estate collapse and its direct and lasting impact on the direction of this franchise. I have contended before that Sugarman had to be convinced to buy into the league, that he had no particular drive, but the league needed an owner for a fanbase clamoring for a team. He agreed, splashed a bunch of money, and then saw his net worth evaporate immediately afterward.
    .
    There have been minor investors join along the way, but for everyone screaming for him to sell, I ask…to whom? We’ve had this discussion ad nauseum here. But it’s worth repeating because we are essentially screwed from an ownership perspective for probably the next decade until the expansion stops.
    .
    So I’m with Chris. I’m on board. I’m born and raised a Philly Sports fan, and that has involved a lot more gut-punches than it has parades. There have been more “ah, who cares?” moments than there have been parades. But at the end of the day, it’s our team.
    .
    I am a disciple of The Process, and I know the Larry O’Brien trophy will come to the Well in a few years. I know the Union are nowhere near that level of certainty, but if I was a fan during The Process, I can be a fan during The Slog (we’ll work on that title).
    .
    I’m in. And I’m excited to see a competitive team this year and to see if the additions of Accam, Dockal, and Trusty can be the spark to something special.
    .
    If not, I’ll see you next February and I’ll write the same damn comment.

    • I’ll see your unpopular opinion and raise you one — This requires some deep speculation powered by many “what-ifs.”
      .
      I’ve wondered if maybe the Sons of Ben were successful beyond what was in their best interest. Say they hadn’t clamored for a team. Would Sak and Sugarman have entered the fray and invested in this team? No.
      .
      So a franchise goes to St. Louis in 08.
      .
      In a few years, as MLS started to ramp up to an investment opportunity for which ownership groups have been prepared to shell out 9-figure franchise fees, whither the Philadelphia MLS team then? Does this market go team-free? Or would a wealthy group, prepared to build in Center City and invest serious $$ have entered the mix?
      .
      Who knows? But yeah. This team is ours, ever mediocre bit of it.

    • I don’t think you’re looking deep enough into the real estate bubble.

      Remember the original stadium plans that included extensive mixed-use construction on the Chester waterfront? That would have required a lot of development, which would have made someone a lot of money. Someone with their fingers in real estate, development, and financing. Someone like … Jay Sugarman of iStar Financial.

      Maybe he bought the Union to get in good with Chester so iStar could get those contracts. Maybe he bought the Union to lend some shine to the construction he was planning to profit from on the waterfront. Maybe his intentions with the Union were entirely pure and the development project was simply how he planned to fund a top-tier MLS team.

      Whatever the case, there can be no doubt that this team’s financial troubles started with the real estate collapse.

      And then got worse after a series of increasingly unfortunate player decisions.

      • It wasn’t just the player decisions. We dug ourselves a giant hole with one signing in particular: Peter Nowak. His corrupt dealings set this team back and probably make Sugarman even more shell-shocked, since he was simultaneously getting hammered in the real estate market.
        .
        So many unfortunate events collided at the exact same time. Including, as Pete mentioned, the SOB actually being “too” successful.
        .
        Pete, you’re probably right. If the expansion hadn’t hit Philly until 2012, let’s say, there may have been a groundswell of fan and corporate support. The league may have recognized the massive importance of having a team in the metro complex, as opposed to the suburbs (like Dallas, Chicago, NE).
        .
        But, here we are. To quote Disney’s A Bug’s Life: “That’s our lot in life. It’s not a lot, but it’s our life! “

    • I’ll see all this speculation and add some more. How about if Jay actually tried to put a good team on the field in year one. How about if he had a recognizable name that actually sold jerseys. How about if as all his real estate capital was vanishing he had One property that made him money in the Union. Where would they be now?

      • And here is where I point back to Nowak and Sak. Sugarman wasn’t making the decisions. It was all those two in the early days.
        .
        From what I am guessing, it went like this:
        – Philly was begging for a team.
        – MLS decided to try to get them one…without an owner in place.
        – Sak was friends with guys in MLS and convinced them he could find an owner, as long as he would be named GM (or whatever title) and he got an ownership share.
        – The league agreed, just to fill the market.
        – Sak found a rich guy, convinced him it was a good investment and Nick told him that he would take care of everything.
        .
        5 years later, we were pulling ourselves out of a ditch, like the morning after a really rough bachelor party that went horribly wrong…

      • None of that precludes him from purchasing a star player though…If they had a star player that dragged the rest of the team with him, would Nowak not look better? Would Sak not look better? I do not argue how horrible those two were for this Franchise. I will argue how much a recognizable name would have made a difference. And I don’t mean a goalie that played in a little tournament.

      • I agree completely. But Nowak was too busy arranging shady and illegal South American payments to his offshore accounts to care about the actual direction of a franchise.
        .
        Sugarman was a Sugar Daddy for him.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        I would argue he DID purchase star players, or players he thought were stars. Freddy Adu, Maurice Edu, Rais M’Bohli, even Kleberson… all players he thought would move the meter and make a splash but didn’t.

      • Chris, when were any of those guys star players? Adu, maybe when he was 18. Edu, not sure when you’d call him a star player. M’baddie, really? C’mon, that’s just for a laugh right? Kleberson, uh, he had a nice run with Brasil, but domestic leagues…not much there. Maybe your definition of star player is way different than mine.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        I don’t define them as stars, but I could see how others would (particularly out of touch leadership). World Cup veterans and the greatest young player in American soccer history… the stories write themselves. They didn’t fit or didn’t play, but I would bet each was expected to be a hit with fans. Honestly, Carlos Valdez 2.0 and LeToux 2.-
        probably fall in that category, too.

      • Ok well from that perspective, you are probably right. I can definitely see Sak finding a Robbie Keane and saying no to pick up M’baddie instead. I was going on the premise the hand of god came down and touched little Sak on the head and he had a moment of inspiration not to ruin the club. But that was probably giving too much…No, but really I mean a bona fide star. One that real GM’s would have gotten excited over. Though I guess you and Prag are right that having Sak and Nowak there, precludes this from happening.
        .
        So if Sak had a muse and was inspired to buy an actual star player then maybe if possibly……Ok, you guys win.

  6. Following this team is a classic example of the “Sunk Cost Fallacy”. By definition, it is the tendency of people follow through on an activity that is not meeting their expectations because of the time and/or money they have already spent on it.

    The Misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experiences.

    The Truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.

    The Fix: Cut your losses now.

    And that, boys and girls, is why after suffering as a season ticket holder since Year #1, I am no longer a season ticket holder.

    • Yup. Good for you. (I hope this doesn’t come across as sarcastic, I don’t mean it to be).

    • I disagree that following the team is a sunk cost fallacy because why would you follow another team when there is a local one. It just doesn’t make sense. Now, not buying season tickets or spending as much (or any) money/time on the team does fit perfectly. Can’t blame anyone for not being a season ticket holder with this team.

    • Atomic Spartan says:

      You are assuming that fandom is a rational practice that should be based on purely economic principles, but the fact that we spend any time at all arguing such points on a website would expose that assumption as a non sequitur, albeit entertaining.
      .
      Were we all as dispassionate, there would be no pro sports left in Philly – or Chester.

      • The Cleveland Browns have existed…twice. With the same level of success in each incarnation.
        .
        Fans are not rational creatures.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        This is it.

      • Whoa there, Nelly!
        .
        The Cleveland Browns did not begin their life as abjectly as they are currently conducting it.
        .
        None of the rest of you’re born yet, I realize.
        .
        Otto Graham, Jim Brown, all those struggles with the NY Giants before the Jets had even been conceived.
        .
        The first incarnation was a lot better than the Eagles of that day, save for the Dutchman’s miracle.

  7. Nice writing. Poor analogy though about dating. This is a toxic relationship.
    .
    #slumlord

  8. The comments discuss blame and fault. The ownership is to blame like many, many Philly sports owners over the decades.
    .
    At this point the ownership is just being spiteful. There are ownership groups willing to pay $150M to $200M franchise fees for far smaller cities. One of the comments asked, what buyer? Seriously? The ownership could sell in a month, I suspect.
    .
    #slumlord

    • That was a topic in recent weeks. Would you buy an existing franchise that you have to completely turn around and try to win over a fanbase? Or would you rather buy an expansion franchise and start from scratch? Chances are, any interested owner would want to start from scratch, not buy someone’s used goods.
      .
      That’s why I say we will likely have to wait until the end of expansion before he sells. Unless, of course, he gets a ridiculous offer for the team, which is unlikely.

      • Hmm Austin,Texas or Chester, PA. Is this even a question? You’re so right Prag.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        For a guy who signs 100 year land leases, what’s a 20 year soccer investment?

      • I’d take Chester and the Philadelphia market over Austin, without question.

        But Pragmatist poses a pretty good question. I’d prefer the expansion franchise, particularly considering the success of the recent wave of expansion clubs using downtown stadiums.

        That said, the Union might sell for less and have fewer up front expenses in comparison. (Forbes values the club at $170 million.) The academy is in place and finally producing. (Trusty could be a multimillion-dollar sale in 2-3 years if he comes good.) The question is what the debt is, as well as projected growth. I think the Union can routinely sell out a 25k-seat stadium with a good team.

      • Consider ALL the assets of the ENTIRE organization, please, gentlemen.
        .
        The Steel and the Academy have meaningful value.
        .
        Why else did a successful Dutch soccer executive pull up roots and move?

  9. I always liken following a team to reading a great book series or watching on of the MANY great TV series on these days. I read/watch, I get involved with the characters. Some chapters or episodes leave you thrilled/inspired/confused/devastated/etc and still I read or watch. I buy the next book or watch the next season, happy for the diversion from my more mundane routines.
    .
    “My teams” or even individual sporting events are no different to me. I love sports as much as anyone I’ve ever known, I’m just not irrational about it. I enjoy the journeys (lifetime allegiances, seasons, individual games) for both their highs and lows alike.
    .
    Great writers purposely take you through low and dark places so they can lift you that much higher at some point. I don’t think most sports teams approach things this way on purpose (unless you’re a long suffering NBA team), but the fact remains the highs (when they finally come) wouldn’t seem so high if there hadn’t been some suffering and uncertainties prior.
    .
    In the end, I close the book, or switch off the set, or leave the stadium, and I have been entertained. I’ll look forward to the next chapter, or episode, or game and wonder where it will take me next.

  10. I don’t see my lifetime STH loyalty dying anytime soon but if this season’s like last season my dedication to making every game will taper off. Just a fact of life; if the product’s not worth my time I can find something else that is.
    .
    C’mon boys, make me eat my words.

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