For Pete's Sake

Where’s the Union’s passion?

Photo: Ryan Griffith

The Union return home on Saturday after three road games.

How will the home crowd greet their boys in blue?

On the one hand, fan frustration and apathy is at an all-time high.

For every step forward the squad seems to take — a comprehensive season-opening win, a three-goal outburst against D.C. — there seems to be two steps back, such as the listless pair of matches in Toronto and Columbus that opened the road trip.

The Union have managed to score just eight goals in ten matches, earning the dubious title of “lowest scoring team in the Eastern Conference.”

What patience is left in the fan base with manager Jim Curtin is hanging by a thread.

On the other hand… the team does have a one-game winning streak.

This frustration from the supporters, this rising tide of apathy, is more palpable than it ever has been with the Union. Some of that is the poor results this season, of course, and some of it is a stretch of poor seasons that continues… well, back to the club’s founding.

But there’s something more. This year’s iteration of the Union hasn’t shown any of the intangibles, the little things that connect a club with each other and with its fans.

Call it passion, call it pride, call it personality — whatever P-word you like, the Union don’t have it.

And that’s why it’s so easy to tune them out.

The Legion of Le Toux

Sebastien Le Toux’s retirement announcement last week made me surprisingly emotional.

Like many of you, Le Toux was the first Union player I ever really loved. I mean… it’s tough to top a hat trick in your first ever home game.

In his two stints with the Union, though, Le Toux became more than just “a guy who scores a lot.” Some of what ties a player to his fans is talent, sure, but a deeper connection takes more than just skill.

While Dan Walsh, of course, best summarized Le Toux’s whole career last week, one thing I will add is that Le Toux always played like every game could be his last.

He exhorted the fans onto their feet when he ran over to take corner kicks. He celebrated his goals with bursts of manic energy and, occasionally, choreographed dances. He ran tirelessly until the very last whistle. And for that, we loved him.

Le Toux isn’t the only player who became beloved by the fans. Danny Califf ranks highly on that list too, for similar reasons.

Think about the fiery passion Faryd Mondragon showed every time he put on the Union shirt, seemingly channeling the Sons of Ben directly through his massive hands to stop a shot.

Think about the way that, in almost no time at all, Tranquillo Barnetta became his team’s beating heart.

Those kind of relationships are what make soccer worth watching. (They’re what make any sport worth watching, really — think of this city’s love affair with its wildly charismatic Eagles and Sixers squads this year.)

Something missing

Now think about this year’s team. What would you say this team’s overwhelming attitude is?

If I had to summarize it in one word, I’d go with “sulking.”

When the game isn’t going well — which seems to be most every game — the players all seem to be in a terrible mood. There’s the pulled faces at their teammates for not playing a perfect pass. There’s the disgusted gestures at the referee, for not bailing them out with a foul call. There’s the passive acceptance of being subbed off at another poor performance. It’s disheartening to watch.

Think, for a second, about Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya is the club’s captain, a U.S. international, the club’s record signing (by transfer fee paid), in possession of an actual off-pitch personality, and originally from New Jersey. On paper, it should be a match made in heaven.

And yet the actual attitude toward Bedoya is something more like apathy. Bedoya’s reaction to any negative thing on the pitch so far this year — a bad goal, an errant pass — has been to sulk.

His teammates, and their fans, can be forgiven for taking his cue and sulking alongside him.

What passion looks like

We talk a lot about “the badge” in soccer — in some ways, too much. After all, how much can a franchise that’s existed for nine seasons really claim to have a “badge” that truly stands for something?

But it’s become more and more apparent to me that this group of players isn’t playing for the badge.

There’s no pride in their performances, no sense that they should be giving 100% effort in every match.

Does anyone have a positive feeling so far about David Accam? About Borek Dockal? About Fafa Picault, even entering his second season in the squad?

When I think about the indelible images from this season, I think about the opening goal of the campaign, by Delaware native Anthony Fontana.

If one player on the club should care about the badge, it would be Fontana — a local boy who’s rooted for the Union his whole life, rising through the club’s Academy to start for the first team.

His goal sparked a celebration unlike few that we’ve seen in recent years. Exuberant, uncontrolled, proud, the teenager could barely control himself as he sprinted over to the corner flag.

But the first thing he did was to slam his open palm against the circular Union badge on his chest.

Fontana has played 21 minutes for the Union since that day.

Surpassed by players who don’t seem to care.

24 Comments

  1. Spot on, Peter. When the message from management and ownership is: “Well, we’ll try the best we can,” and the talk week in and week out is of “bringing knives to gun fights” and “we need to punch above our weight,” it’s understandable that the players will have a hard time fighting for that. I would argue that the Union’s culture took a turn for the worse since Stewart got here, which is odd, because Stewart does not strike me as a complacent guy. But results are results….

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    Hard to argue- especially the Fontana part- dude scored a beautiful run of play gol…. then vaporizes.
    .
    But hey, playing in Lehigh’s going to help him and apparently turn Derrick Jones into a ‘great player,’ in the “greatest second division on earth.”
    .
    so we wait as this team sorts out whether it earns First-Third playoff seeding thru the deplorable days of August.

    • The only game we have looked consistently dangerous was when Fontana started.

      • Scottymac says:

        Also the only time we’ve played a team reduced to 9 men

      • Yeah, but before that we were killing them. We completely dominated them. If CJ could finish we would have had about 4 goals in the first half.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Fontana has been the primary backup to Dockal and has appeared for the Steel 3 times, all starts, completing the full 90 all three times.

    • Scottymac says:

      A beautiful goal? Wasn’t it that pretty much burying an empty netter up a man off that deflected pass from Bedoya off CJ “the playmaker” Sapong’s leg? Well, we’ve only got what, 8 goals? Guess they’re all beautiful in their own way.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Yes though we’ve seen that botched 100x ….could be I’m desperate and reaching.

  3. Accam has attempted to rile up the crowd at least once (to mixed results).
    .
    Blake probably comes the closest to carrying on the legacy, but it’s still a candle in a storm.
    .
    Part of the problem comes down to simply having something to cheer for. The crowd can drive momentum, but there needs to be some momentum in the game to drive the crowd. That stretch of 1g in 3 home games was brutal.
    .
    Happy to see them beat up on DC, and very happy to see them take down Montreal w/o their bell tolling!
    .
    Let’s ride the momentum against RSL!

  4. “How can I get emotionally invested in the team when the players aren’t?” I bought season tickets for Year 1, and dragged my wife to the game. She knew nothing about the sport, but fell in love with the team (okay, mostly le Toux). We’ve gone to most every home game we could make, up until this year. We would plan an annual summer trip around a Union away game. This year, I gave up my season tickets, but decided to go to the Orlando game. My wife watched for five minutes (long enough to decide she really doesn’t like David Accam), then played on her phone the rest of the game. After the game, I asked her about it; her response was the quote at the top of this paragraph.

    • How can I get emotionally involved in a team when the guy who owns the team can’t be bothered to show up to see the means best player retire. He owns the damn team if he couldn’t make it that day have on a different day. Sugarman not being there is completely unacceptable.

  5. Other than the young guys (Burke, Fontana, Trusty, McKenzie) the only people who seem to really leave it out there are Rosenberry and Fabinho. Sapong is always running does but his just feels different. The vets are all just annoying because they always seem to be looking to blame someone else. We can’t only play the kids, but honestly at least 5 of the starting 10 should be these younger guys who are actually hungry.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      I think Peter nails it…how many times are you going to step into the back alley when your manager tells ‘the world’ we can’t really compete.
      .

    • In my opinion, better than the celebration of Fontana’s goal, was in the third game, he was subbed on late, he was hustling after a ball, then turned around to give Accam a mouthful for not doing the same. I asked my buddy if he saw the same thing, he said, “ No way an 18 year old is giving Accam a mouthful”, we went back to watch and it was true. The badge means something to these kids, not all of them will have long careers, but growing up wearing the badge as 10-12 year olds, up to 18, it’s going to mean a lot more than to a drafted player, although both and more are needed to sustain a winning tradition!

      • Yeah. Getting some players out there who care will either force the others to pick up their game or make it even more glaring if they don’t.

  6. Pete nailed it! I find myself having to push for something to cheer about. How much of the players lack of passion comes from the top.

  7. Zizouisgod says:

    Spot on! Bedoya is a terrible captain and leader. His constant remonstrations whenever something doesn’t go well or when he thinks a teammate did poorly are ridiculous. As a supporter, I view this behavior as deliberately showing another player up.

    Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for that type of thing where someone needs a kick in the @ss. However, he does it so often that it makes me think that he’s doing it purely for show. Like that he wants people who are watching to know that he’s not happy with his teammates either and in a way, he’s above the team. That’s not a good look for a captain/leader of any team, much less one that to play and develop younger players.

    Who would want to play along someone who acts like that?

  8. Regarding Passion…..You have got to kidding……. The problem with lack of passion is management and coaching generated…….. Curtin is the most unemotional excuse making, no personality coach I have ever seen. Couple this with his lack of a winning track record , no imagination on tactics formations etc. and a conservative good soldier mentality and you get what you see with the Union players.

    The Union will never improve until they get an owner who has deeper pockets and has a primary goal is putting a winning team on the field not building up the market value of his team. Once that happens that new owner can hire a gm who is not handicapped to searching for players who are a “good value” but may not necessarily be significant upgrades or don’t fit in. Then hire a new coach ho has all the skills…. a winning record at a higher professional level that can adapt that to MLS 3.0 play which is just around the corner………

    I think that Bedoya is one of the few players who shows any passion on the team in spite of his milk toast coach.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I think this argument can go both ways.

      Having a calm, zen coach can be really useful in helping young players manage their emotions and helping a collection of disparate players find a middle. So long as the coach keeps his cool, so too will his players.

      Having a calm, zen coach can be really infuriating when moments in the match, moments in a player’s 90 minute arc, moments in an official’s judgment, all might be more directly handled with some fire. Having a coach who never shows emotion makes this opportunity moot.

      Curtin is all Part A and no Part B. That’s problematic.

      I had a smart, zen coach say to me once: “I don’t know why some players run harder when I scream and yell and curse, but they do. So, sometimes I scream and yell and curse.”

      The players know Curtin to be a zen master, or at least to not show his emotions on the sidelines. However, maybe it’s time for him to yell at an official, kick a ball into the stands, or otherwise get himself sent off… just to see if it sends a positive ripple through the lockeroom.

      • OtherIanFleming says:

        Agreed. The cool, calm, and collected thing works great, but Curtain takes it a little too far to the point where he might as well be off on the sidelines playing a Game Boy.

      • Scottymac says:

        Curtin as “zen master” might be my new favorite ridiculously wrong Curtin narrative.
        .
        Maybe he’s quiet and walking with his hands shoved in his pockets because he doesn’t have a clue. He’s unable to provide guidance to his players to get the results his plan should provide. So he’s zenlike because there’s nothing for him to impart.

  9. Alone. I’d say most of the team, especially the veterans play like they’re alone. As if they’ve been on actual teams before and are frustrated beyond belief about their “coach” etc.

    To me, they look like they’re playing without hope.

  10. McCarthy has the mojo! Let’s get him in some games to lift team spirit!

  11. James Lockerbie says:

    It’s LOVE, that’s what’s missing !

    Love for themselves, Love for each other, love for the game,and love for the Badge !

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