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Where does Philly fit in the world of soccer?

The graceful ballet performed each week by Lionel Messi, Kaka, and their respective team mates isn’t just entertaining, or game-changing, or merely the key to Madrid’s and Barca’s domination of La Liga Primera. What it is, undeniably, is Spanish. What it is is continental. Likewise, the robust, unyielding direct assaults by the likes of Wayne Rooney and those United behind him are as British as they are unstoppable. To state the obvious: national character informs style of play.

So where does the Union fall on that spectrum? What is American soccer? Philadelphian soccer? How does the nation that gave us both Thomas Jefferson and Carrot Top express itself on the pitch? How so the city that gave us Ben Franklin and Green Man?

That every country’s top league is a reflection of its national spirit is true, even given that most FC’s include at least as many resident foreigners as locals. The Justice League amalgamations that characterize a great club are the natural product of the global marketplace, sure, but in no case does the influence of so many from abroad manage to overwhelm the league’s basic idiom. When in Rome, international soccer players must, on some level, do as the Romans do: dive.

Just kidding. I would never characterize Italian soccer as a theater of melodramatic attempts to gain free kicks and penalties. That would be as rude as it is inaccurate. But the point remains the same – English play like English, even when they’re African; Spanish play Spanish, even if they don’t know paella from a chalupa. The melting pot effect is undeniable.

For the most glaring example, one needs look no further than the case of Cristiano Ronaldo, by far one of the world’s greatest athletes-cum-underwear models. Brilliant as he is, skilled as he is, ovulation-inducing though his sculpted abs may be, his record-setting, opponent-embarrassing, Chelsea-terrifying antics at Manchester were never really…English, were they? The boy could free-kick the hairs of an Anglican gnat’s ass, but he could never, despite his best efforts, fit in. In the end, he made for Madrid the way Kipling’s Mowgli made for the human village, to be free and happy with his own kind. Not his own genetic kind, of course, but his own football kind – players who move the ball with a fluidity rivaled only by actual fluids, who attack in curves and waves, who move in the moment and play a given situation as it is rather than try to bend it to their will. This is La Liga soccer – it is smooth. It is soft. It is grace incarnate, and when the ball spins into the netting, it has gotten there because men like Gonzalo Higuain and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have acted as agents of its will, rather than placed it there by virtue of their own.

English soccer is almost exactly the opposite. The English imperial spirit is alive and well on the pitch, as the Queen’s men seek to dominate, through superior organization, planning, and barrel-chested huff, the course of the game and the path of the ball. When that blessed servant of the people Wayne Rooney puts foot to synthetic leather, he is commanding it to rocket directly past that fellow with the gloves and into the heart of darkness like the sword of Britannia into the bosom of the uncivilized world. The opportunity to strike has arisen because other English (in the football sense) players have decided where the ball is going today, and imposed that vision upon reality – Alex Ferguson, thy will be done. Rooney’s current golden age is the direct result of being un-tethered from the square peg that was Ronaldo in the round hole of the English game. One wonders if the disparity between Dimitar Berbatov’s obvious talent and his often mellow performance is the result of some Bulgarian version of that very syndrome.

The rest of the world’s styles can be stereotyped broadly: Central and South American soccer = technicality + bravado. When such players, in club or national teams, face those of the Eastern Hemisphere, it is truly a weighing of individual brilliance versus cohesion. Little can be said of African soccer, as it doesn’t come on Fox, and as the motherland’s best in all fields inevitably fall prey to the “œbrain drain” syndrome that has robbed the continent of its greatest everythings. As for Asians, I only follow one: a diminutive, mop-topped Korean hero named Ji Sung Park. He is another key example of how a failure to assimilate culturally can cost one. Ji Sung Park could have scored countless more goals by now, but his inimitable selflessness and Confucian devotion to the greater good has left him bereft of individual accolades despite his being one of the main reasons for Sir Alex’s happiness.

And so we come to the New World, and more specifically to the birthplace of the American Republic, Philadelphia. How does the Union fit into the scheme of world soccer, or “football,” as people who use bidets call it?

If American soccer is anything like American culture, it can’t be singularly described. What’s true on one end is not true on the other, nor so in the middle. So let’s analyze Philadelphian soccer thus far. Our first few games have revealed a few things.

  1. They are a young team and must stumble before they can sprint.
  2. They have heart. Real heart.
  3. They are not afraid to get physical. (Reader, forgive the understatement.)

Our footballing character can be fairly well surmised by these three observations. Our team’s relative youth, like our nation’s, leaves us lacking a certain . . . refinement.  Mistakes, miscues, and missed opportunities have been as avoidable as they were cringe-worthy. Communication is an issue. We must work in soccer, as in national life, to understand each other’s intentions and be at the right place at the right time to succeed as one despite our differences. And we must be sure to follow through on those intentions faithfully.

That said, the Union’s resolve has been nothing short of epic. Our boys began their first game seemingly under the impression that they were going to win as a matter of course. When that proved unrealistic, there was not a single moment in 90+ minutes during which the Union acted the defeated team. Note also the team’s attitude after losing Califf in Toronto – no panicked hunkering down into defensive mode, no confusion or loss of moral. They simply applied a little extra help in midfield and pushed forward as if no one had been clothes-lined. In both cases, what they lacked in precision, they made up for in sheer stick-to-itiveness. The heart required to maintain such attitude after being dealt a blow or two is a precious commodity, one that will serve them well once it’s combined with time-earned cohesion. In all, the Philadelphia Union have faced all comers with the same illogical optimism that saw this nation through the Revolution, the Great Depression, and nine seasons of Everybody Loves Raymond.

Lastly, there is one very American, very Philadelphian trait that has shone through. Our be-hawked team captain earned our team’s first official caution less than 35 seconds into the start of our first season. This set the tone for what would be described as hard-nosedness, “physical” play, and blatant bullying. In no way does this blogger celebrate fouls or a lack of sportsmanship (the sending off of Toni Stahl was entirely appropriate, and Califf has taken responsibility for his inexcusable move in Canada). But we, Americans, and we, Philadelphians (and greater Philadelphia suburbians), have always made one thing clear: Take us on at your own risk.

You may beat us. You may deny us the prize. But our brashness, our pride, and our stalwart nature won’t allow you to walk away without a limp, or to look with anything resembling confident ease to the next time we meet. We thrive on bad odds, because it is in the nature of a people who would make America, and Philadelphia. It is in the nature of a people who would dare the powers that be to deny our self-determination. This is why our crowd cheers when the opponent goes down, and jeers when he does anything other than dust himself off and carry on. You may win the game, but you will be sore tomorrow. It’s not bullying, or crassness. It’s simple, sheer American toughness. For better or worse, it’s our defining characteristic, the one that the Union now proudly deposits into the totality of world soccer.

Conor O’Grady also writes for Philly Union Talk.

(Photo: Paul Rudderow)


  1. Gerhardus van Wilgen says:

    No, no, no, you can’t get away with that so easy, doing the Broadstreet Bullies routine. O, look at us, we’re so tough. I think right now you can’t answer that question because nobody knows yet how it’s going to turn out. If you want to develop a Philly style soccer don’t try to replicate other countries, especially Italy, England or South America, with the exception of Brazil. Where American soccer come up short right now internationally is what I would like to call smart brutality. What I mean with that is the use of effective physical and verbal attack with out being fouled. The play that is learned on the street. If players don’t have that background they should talk to other athletes (football, basketball, hockey) about how to properly use the body and also the mouth – that’s how you get into people’s head, not by kicking their legs.

    Those red cards? Come on, not very effective.

  2. i do agree that maybe this is the easy way out to describe our boys in blue as the broad street bullies of chester county. it’s a philly stereotype, to be sure, but one that we embrace in literally all of our professional sports teams. coming from that precedent, then, it’s honestly a largely accurate summation of a Union team that is raw and rouge-cheeked, but undeniably ambitious. the red cards are a waste, yes, but somehow anticipated growing pains and learning moments. in due time, this is a team to be reckoned with that already owns a fan base to be proud of.

  3. The Union do not own ‘tough’. Toughness is a standard. Without it, a player does make an MLS team.

    What I like in Torres, Fred, La Toux, Novack & Moreno is best summarized like this: “Clever play wins the day.” Go Union, baby!

    Conversely, lack of clever play leads to silly red cards and poor goalkeeping.

  4. Francis Marino says:

    But none the less Philly has always been a city that simply is rough. We are a working class blue collar city at its core ( despite what city hall is trying to make us). At our base we are UNION, meaning, hardworking, rough, plain spoke, nothing overly fancy and dont back down. Im proud to see it in all our sports teams. But the Philly Union needs time to find itself still. its early in the season and its early in the life of the club. But guess what Im loving the ride so far

  5. Ed Farnsworth says:

    “If American soccer is anything like American culture, it can’t be singularly described.” The same is correct for all soccer. I am reminded of SAF’s recent ridiculous outburst that Bayern, a team coached and captained by Dutchmen and which started six non-German players against Man Utd in the second leg of the CL quarterfinals, play like “typical Germans.” This from a Scottish manager who started only three Englishmen on an “English team.” Is Arsenal “English?” Is Chelsea or Liverpool? Are there degrees of “Englishness?”

    And if “English play like English, even when they’re African . . . The melting pot effect is undeniable,” how is Christiano Ronaldo “the most glaring example” of this if his “antics at Manchester were never really…English?” Is the basic idiom of Portugese soccer diving or technical prowess? Is Steven Gerrard, a world class diver of the first rank, a player in the Italian style or the English style?

    If you want to talk about “national character” (are there any countries out there who define themselves as “pushovers” or “not very technical”?) maybe you can talk about national teams, but that’s a very big maybe. The Brazilians, for example, haven’t played like “Brazil 1970” for years.

    When coverage of international soccer was not widespread and the transcontinental movement of players and coaches was not the norm, distinct regional styles were apparent but that seems to me to be very much declining. I think what we are seeing now is the spread of tactical philosophies that have little or nothing to do with “national character” and everything to do with the quality available on a given squad, whether it is a club or national team, wherever its home.

    All of the Union talk about “tough play” is simply PR, and good PR at that. As a Philadelphian I embrace both the city’s and the Union’s scrappy self-image. But there isn’t a single player on the roster at the moment from Philadelphia (Noone is still a trialist and I think he’s from Harrisburg) and of the six US-born players in the last starting lineup, only two had been born on the East Coast and they had been born in Florida. How much can they know of Philadelphia’s character of toughness? Very little, I should think. But what they, and the five foreign-born starters, do possess is the attitude that made them a part of the team, the attitude that Nowak and his staff seek to instill. So, is it American or Philadelphian to play tough, or is it simply individual attitude and coaching?

    If the Union suddenly began to play “attractive, free flowing” soccer that relied upon technicality and refinement, would Philadelphia soccer fans like them less? I doubt it. “Tough” soccer and “attractive” soccer do not have to be mutually exclusive, do they?

    • Don’t mistake the broad generalizations to apply in every case– soccer is like every other global entity, quickly shedding its fractured nature and turninig into something well, global. In a few generations nothing I wrote up there will even apply anymore. But you can’t claim that national styles are extinguished by the global market any more than you can claim national cultures are extinguished by McDonald’s and Hollywood movies. Ronaldo fits WAY better into Madrid’s scheme than United’s; that’s why he’s the best example. And how else would you account for Park’s unselfishness? Maybe it’s best to say that we’re all witnessing the final days of national soccer character, but it’s certainly not a myth.
      As for Philly- I would wager that alot of fans, especially those new to soccer, are a little more interested in tough play than flowing skill. It’s not my personal cup of tea, but I see the appeal. Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Heh. Leave it to Ed to be short and to the point.
    I agree that it’s good PR, sure.

    But Nowak clearly went for some hard-working, hard-nosed players: Le Toux, Moreno, Califf, Orozco, etc. There were other options in the expansion draft besides Moreno, but Moreno looks like a guy who fits Nowak’s mindset. He and Le Toux look like more the model that Nowak wants, whereas Califf took the tough mindset to excess.

    Great piece, Conor.

  7. Carolina Vinyl says:

    Those photos are phenomenal!
    Is Rudderow on board The Union or The Page?
    You are lucky to be graced with such a talented photographer! If I were a betting man, I would say he has a soccer background. I can envision him calculating the next play, and timing the next shoot! If he is not already on the team payroll, or newspaper staff, you better hurry up and seize the opportunity before someone else does!

    UNCW soccer Fanatic

  8. Good stuff. I agree that league teams reflect national styles- to a point. Union do play cleverly in midfield, exceptionally so for MLS- which you didn’t mention.

  9. Jorge Maradona says:

    Is 34,000 fans a good indication of where does philly fit in the World of soccer? My question to you is how do you fit 35,000 fans in an 18,500 SSS Stadium?
    The owner can make the supporter section twice taller, and he can even add 5 rows of seats all around the stadium. But Somebody miscalculated the tremendous support of soccer in Philadelphia, it is only second to Seattle.

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