Culture / Fan Culture / Union

The devil and the Union-Man U divide

Usually when I see Satan, it’s an alcohol-induced hallucination. And the Lord of the Flies, shapeshifter that he is, doesn’t always come in his true form. At times he’s been my girlfriend, my girlfriend’s best friend’s ass, or simply that voice that keeps me from writing or encourages me to grab another Spaten Optimator (but let’s make it clear that God/L Ron/Buddha are responsible for gifting us with beer).

But hey, we had to stay classy and display quizzical animosity against a world class opponent we were basically paying to play.

But there he was yesterday at the Linc, where mediocrity is valued as much as a championship trophy. He taunted me. Me, specifically. Even that hump the air routine directed at fans two sections over was somehow meant for me. Was my future ex-girlfriend/his next form sitting over there? SOB!!

And he even did the finger wave taunt. Wait, that’s our bullshit taunt, our clever way of telling teams with 100 plus years of history and rows upon rows of silverware that you indeed do “suck, asshole.” It’s especially brilliant when considering how we once again turned our backs as another storied team’s starting lineup was introduced, a team that won the Champions League in ’08 and ’99. But hey, we had to stay classy and display quizzical animosity against a world class opponent we were basically paying to play.

Perhaps the greatest illustration of that divide relates to just how either side comes about its young players.

But maybe instead of just needing to act like a misguided Philly fan, some of that behavior was fueled by the glaring divide between the two sides (and maybe, some alcohol as well, but that’s been covered since I already said ‘Philly fan’).

Perhaps the greatest illustration of that divide relates to just how either side comes about its young players. Whereas the Reds can look to Nani and Federico Macheda, we can offer up Roger Torres and Danny Mwanga. While there’s definitely more experience with Macheda and Nani—18 and 23, respectively—only Nani, who should have a breakout year with United, has some distance on the Union’s pair of teenagers, or trio if you include Union Jack McInerney who needs to continue to help push the play up through mid on the attack. Indeed, against United, he continued to show that he’s maturing quickly, with strong play on the ball against much more experienced defenders, along with decisive takes on net not too far off the mark.

As for United, Macheda, like Berbatov, is looking for regular time, but from a much different position. Having pulled a Danny Mwanga in back to back matches—a la Danny Mwanga—after coming on even later in his respective games, Macheda pretty much ensured United of the title two seasons ago. But the ‘all Rooney’ show ensued and he hardly got more than a sniff, having featured to any major degree only in cup competition.

So all the more reason he seemed keen from the outset last night to run at Union defenders, showing off just why United plucked him from Lazio’s youth development program, much as they grabbed Nani from the same Sporting Lisbon side they snatched Cristiano Rinaldo away from.

Of course the other dirty little issue here… is that we’re bound to lose some, if not all, of our top young talent before they even begin to take off fully.

The Union, on the other hand, were set to pick from America de Cali of Colombia for Roger Torres, while Mwanga came out of a U.S. collegiate program that’s definitely not on level with one of the best sides in Portugal. And McInerney, like Mwanga, was also grabbed in the MLS Superdraft, his U-17 experience making him a standout selection.

Mwanga particularly shows a strong upside. He’s strong on the ball, can deliver crucial goals, can help move the ball up-field, and can equally confound and dazzle opposing defenders. While Torres, who didn’t feature at all against United, doesn’t seem to have the same upside, he’s not that far behind with an amazing ability to cross the ball and serve up forwards—Le Toux particularly owes him a few beers—let alone a keenness to check back and win the ball, something McInerney is also beginning to take to with alacrity, but then again, it’s obvious that this is something Petr Nowak is preaching to his entire bench.

Of course the other dirty little issue here in diving deeper into the all too obvious gulf between these two sides—and this is where Satan comes back into it—is that we’re bound to lose some, if not all, of our top young talent before they even begin to take off fully.  And we’re not going to stop being a stepping stone anytime soon. It’s inevitable. It’s sad. It’s an unfortunate reality that can only change some day, if, in the words of Rocky, if I can change and if you can change (those of you who just started loving the beautiful game), then perhaps everyone can change.

Until then, we’re not even going to be Sporting Lisbon or Lazio. Sure, 44,213 at The Linc is great, but how many of those mostly red clad fans will actually come down to Chester for a game at PPL Park? How many would have cheered if Mwanga would have put one away? At least without thoughts of him in red?

No doubt there were many locally based United supporters at the game, supporters who chose the big EPL team over the nascent home team. I can’t be too judgmental since I was up in the air as to whether or not I should wear my favorite non-scouse red shirt. While I think going with the home squad was the better move, I couldn’t help but cheer for Ryan Giggs and Scholes, while shaking my head at the nonsense spewed the Welshman’s way every time he took a corner.

…until the game becomes ingrained in the culture to the extent that the market and level of competition entices top young players to stay stateside, there will always be a red devil waving its fingers at MLS fans.

And then to all those taunts, but to me specifically, Satan waved his fingers. Because after all, how can we keep Mwanga, a player who only entered the MLS draft since an early trip to Europe would equate to copious time on the bench at first rather than quickly growing into a starter’s role? How can we prevent stars like him from leaving when games such as yesterday’s match draw more fans decked out in opposing colors than the home blue and gold? Until that situation changes in every MLS city, the migration will continue.

We’re open to solutions, but perhaps the most glaring problem is that the poor in this country, unlike others around the world, don’t play soccer, thus preventing us from having a deeper talent pool that would enable the game to transcend social strata. The World Cup and ESPNs continued interest in raising the profile of the game—they finally recognize the profit in it—should help,  but until the game becomes ingrained in the culture to the extent that the market and level of competition entices top young players to stay stateside, there will always be a red devil waving its fingers at MLS fans.

(Photo: Paul Rudderow)


  1. Jeremy L. says:

    Brion, an interesting article. I would point out one quibble–it’s not true that the lower-class youth of the USA do not play soccer. You only need to go play at 12th and Wharton to see a bunch of them doing just that. The only catch is they speak Spanish and probably consider themselves more Mexican than American. That said, many, if not most, indeed _are_ American citizens, and their children certainly will be, and will likely identify more as Americans than their parents do. And this is happening all around the country, and not just among Mexican-American populations. It’s true that poor black American youths don’t play much soccer–basketball is a much simpler-to-play urban sport, in that there are courts everywhere and an an ingrained baller culture–and as soccer supporters we should try and encourage them to come play pick-up with as when we see them shooting hoops beside us at Starr Garden, or 12th and Wharton, or up in NoLibs, but I think the demographic change you’re looking for, where our talent pool increases from the suburban soccer-mom set to kids from all walks of life, is already underway. Players like Roger Torres are just the tip of that iceberg. So, chin up.

    • Brion Shreffler says:

      Jeremy, you’re definitely right. You make a great point. I see exactly what you’re talking about in different parts of South Philly all the time, so yeah, the chin is held high in that regard. It is a bit of a shame though that we don’t have the kind of access to the game for underrepresented communities that suburban areas may have. But there’s also the cultural caveat as well, since kids in other countries will just play in the streets, whereas here it’s basketball or stickball. What I was pointing out then, is the vast disparity, the fact that the majority of youth in the lower strata do not play soccer. Hopefully though, the demand coming out of the Mexican communities leads to parks and recreation devoting more funds to soccer pitches. I’ve played at Polumbo at 10th and Bainbridge and it’s a bit sad that soccer takes a backseat to just about everything else, even though they know the demand is high for it.

  2. I have to be honest. Most of the United supporters at that game, especially the ones from the Philadelphia area, are not the type of people I really want to see at Union games. I encountered many a fan who were upset because Cristiano Ronaldo “wasnt with the team for the US tour”. My problem is not the fact that many of the United fans in the US have soccer IQs of a k-mart brand soccer ball. But, that they epitomize the “euro-snob” America crowd who believe United are the most successful team in the game, no one can beat them and especially not a petty American team. I would hope that even the most ardent United fan who actually follows the team would acknowledge the fact that realistically United are a big team, but not the biggest, a successful team, but not the most successful team. The other thing is that comparing Lazio and Porto to American teams is difficult to make. While it is true that both of us ask as feeder systems for major EU teams I would argue that both are headed in different directions. For the first time the financial future of the MLS looks brighter than that of teams like Lazio, Porto and even many Premier League teams. In the past year we have seen major teams in all three leagues have serious financial concerns. In England we saw Portsmouth along with financial woes at Liverpool and Man U, in Spain we saw a a mass sell off at Valencia, Mallorca suspended from Europa league for financial woes, and even mighty Barcelona is showing signs of cracking. Meanwhile Italy has seen a once great team in Messina completely disappear from football, Milan and Roma’s futures look bleak. On the other hand the MLS is seeing teams that are actually profitable for their owners instead of the slow financial bleed that they are in Europe. Finally the MLS has seen more and more of its players travel over to bigger European teams then ever before such as Oyewu at Milan and maybe Landon at Everton. The stronger American teams get financially spells a good future for MLs keeping its talent.

    • Jeremy L. says:

      I’ve always thought being a ManU fan was just lazy–like LeBron joining the Heat. And I agree that if Landon Donovan ends up playing at Man City or Chelsea (or Everton, too, but the effect isn’t as grand) would feel like a tipping a point–the first American attacking player to play for a Big with a capital B club in Europe.

    • Brion Shreffler says:

      Yea, I’ve been embarrassed by many a fellow United fan. I’ve been watching a while and still have much to learn, but that’s along the lines of tactics and strategy. There’s a great book I found on that very subject that also relates a lot of soccer history, which I’ll write about soon. Basically, anything in life worthwhile requires continuous study, but God, be quiet at the pub or game if you don’t know what you’re talking about. So yea, that CR comment is particularly funny. I hate going out to Fado or Dark Horse and the people who only show for 2-3 big matches are the loudest, dumbest fans.

      No doubt the MLS is facing a financial uptick, while indeed some euro teams are facing dire straits (i.e. Man United’s absurd debt). Given that, the comparison concerned the stature of the respective clubs, with the disparity between Wednesday’s match opponents being highlighted by the fact that we’re playing a team that poaches from two storied sides in Europe, 1 being a recent Champions League winner. While I don’t think recent trends for the MLS gives us too much room to boast, it is amazing that our league is in the green while so many big leagues in Europe have suffering teams.

      • Brion Shreffler says:

        As for Americans supporting Man U, I think Ryan Pine put it best:
        The way he brings the Union into it, in a piece looking ahead to the start of the MLS season, is a perfect reflection on Wednesday’s match for all the conflicted fans out there from Philly who either wore red or wore their United kit under their Union jerseys. Not that there’s anything wrong with supporting two teams. No matter who you previously supported abroad, you have to love the Union and the quality with which they play.

  3. Hey I would like to add that I think we need to stop having United come to Philadelphia unless they actually bring their team. MLS and the various stadiums that host United needs to start swinging some wait about seeing the big stars come out and play atleast a little bit. Real Madrid announced their roster and they are atleast bringing the entire squad to the US. We will see who actually plays, but atleast fans may get a view of the stars. I was very disappointed that United left most of their starters on the other side of the pond and those that came did not even suit up (Nani, Vandersaar(horrible SP i know)). The EU teams that visit over the summer know that the US is a goldmine for them and its time that the contracts start requiring more than a reserve team atleast suited up.

    • Ed Farnsworth says:

      The World Cup just finished, Mike, those stars you missed have to get a break sometime. Nani is coming off of an injury and even if van der Sar didn’t play, I saw him pressing the flesh, signing autographs and having his picture taken with fans at the half and after the game. If this wasn’t a World Cup year you would have been more likely to see the stars. I saw good football played by the Union against a top team, which is all I care about.

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