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Deconstructing the Union mythos


Philly's a tough town for tough guys, right?

So Philadelphia Union are the tough guys. This physical persona has been staked to the team name, apparently to assist in the arduous task of drawing non-soccer fans to the Blue and Gold. This is the town of Rocky, after all, where we’re constantly reminded of how blue-collar we are and how much we love  hard-working and hard-nosed athletes who give their all while displaying a willingness to knock the other guy down in spectacular fashion.

The ’93 Phillies retain a special place in the city’s collective heart because that ribald band of rugged slobs not only gloriously over-achieved — still a contentious point, depending on how much you blame Mitch Williams — but also (and sorry for pointing this out for the 10,000th time) because they’re seen as a fine example of the city itself, the distance between fan and player, as with the 2008 ‘World Fucking Champions’, obfuscated a bit by persona alone. Sure, the undulations of John Kruk’s gut as he earnestly strived for second base beat out Jason Werth’s soul patch, but we’re not talking worlds apart here. The current Phils follow a set tradition, rather than approximating something cold, robotic, and corporate (i.e. the New York Yankees).

And just as Eagles fans still adore former strong safety Brian Dawkins for his bone crunching hits, Flyers fans appreciate Dan Carcillo for his fiery spirit on the ice and his willingness to fight just about anybody, and those missing front teeth only help reinforce the Bobby Clarke comparisons.

But brutal displays coming from fantastic hits alone do not make a great player, nor likewise a great team.  As inspiring as his highlight reel hits were, Dawkins was more valuable for his sure tackling up the middle and in pursuit and for his timely forays into the backfield.  For all the plucky attitude Carcillo has shown for the Flyers, it’s his ability as a clutch scorer — with 12 regular season goals and 2 post-season goals, including an OT game-winner against New Jersey — and dependable checking that made him an asset in the playoffs where many players see little to no ice time.  As for The Phils’ ‘every guy’ image, that soul patch had a hand in about as many home runs as Pete Incaviglia’s gut.

So it’s time to jettison the erroneously applied tough guy mentality built up around Philadelphia Union.

Perhaps the “That’s Philly” comments were briefly funny when Danny Califf drew a yellow in the opening seconds, but any grins quickly faded once Toni Stahl was sent off prior to the half on his second yellow. Sadly, the parade has kept on with Danny Califf’s neck chop to Toronto’s Julian De Guzman matched by Stefani Miglioranzi’s recent two-footed near-horror tackle against L.A. that could have injured either Vitor Junior or Landon Donovan (thank God he didn’t sink our World Cup hopes on that play). Both fouls drew straight red cards. So much for the team being inspired by the removal of Califf’s mohawk and his admittedly much more composed play of late.

While other sports can tolerate some excessive roughness, the discipline and beauty of soccer calls for a scalpel as a opposed to the precision of a machete.  Aggression is certainly needed, but in a highly controlled manner. There lies one of the game’s more nuanced paradoxes: You have to be ready to kill the ball and out-assert your opponent on every 50/50  ball at any given moment, but please don’t lose your head, a la former incarnations of Wayne Rooney or Craig Bellamy. Physical play must be equally wed with skill.

Just as Califf’s straight red was highly inexcusable — fuck’s sake, he’s the captain — there no defending Miglioranzi as his retaliation was both untimely and poorly executed. Two-footed studs up idiocy hardly stands in as “sticking up for your teammate” when your dismissal lets everyone down.

Retaliation and aggression need to emerge when you’re going shoulder-to-shoulder in pursuit of the ball, out-edging a defender in the box, out-leaping an opponent in the air, and carrying through the ball and into your opponent on tough 50/50 balls. These are all legals forms of physical play inseparable from the game of soccer (all beer bellied Phillies fans who denounce soccer while loving inertia, take note).

Yes, we as Philadelphians deserve a team of a tough character. But as soccer fans we more truly want well-orchestrated aggression on the pitch, an assertion of Blue and Gold will that, at best, goes right to the brink of unraveling, just before spending itself on a fine last-minute tackle or a primal outburst following a shot slammed into the back of the net.

(Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

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