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The first annual Philadelphia Union Supporters Summit

(Photos: Earl Gardner)

On a beautiful summer evening along the shores of the Delaware River, 200 Sons of Ben members gathered in PPL Park’s Section 107, looking out over the Commodore Barry Bridge. Across the pitch on the opposite side of the stadium, the word “Union” was emblazoned across the empty seats. On a far more comfortable evening than some of the recent blazingly-hot matchdays, the SoBs had traveled to Chester not to view a soccer game, but to take part in the Philadelphia Union’s first annual Supporters Summit.

The panel

The panel of participants, moderated by CSN Philly’s Amy Fadool, included Union players Sebastien Le Toux and Faryd Mondragon, coach Peter Nowak, Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz and MLS Commissioner Don Garber. The panelists were brought together to share in an open discourse with the team’s most ardent supporters—or as Commissioner Garber calls them, MLS’ “Super Heavy Users”—about the current state of the club, both on and off the field.

Nick Sakiewicz opened the discussion by reiterating the team’s commitment to inclusiveness with its supporters and reminding the Union faithful that no matter what other events make their way onto the PPL Park calendar (and they plan to have up to 40 total events annually), “This is a soccer stadium and will always be a soccer stadium,” Sakiewicz said as he gestured to the seats across the pitch. “Those Union letters aren’t going away any time soon.”

While similarly saccharine moments were inevitable during such an event, the Summit yielded many interesting tidbits for the avid Union supporter.

PPL expansion

On the subject of stadium expansion, Sakiewicz outlined a three phase plan to raise the stadium’s capacity to nearly 30,000. While noting that, “It’s not going to happen this year, it’s probably not going to happen the following year,” Sakiewicz reminded the audience that PPL Park had always been envisioned with three further stages of construction.

First, Phase 1 would involve the addition of corner bleachers in the Northwest and Northeast corners of the stadium (either side of the scoreboard), adding upwards of 2500 seats. Next, Phase 2 would add approximately ten rows of seating above the suites in the East Stand (nearest the bridge). Finally, Phase 3 would involve the construction of a nearly 7,500 seat stand to be constructed above the River End, allowing PPL Park to achieve maximum capacity. Each of these projects was described in a manner that, although not explicitly stated, appear to be a year each in the making, whenever expansion does begin to occur.

Your ticket, your responsibility

Seba, bring back the old boots!

One of the most interesting queries of the evening came when Sakiewicz was asked how he and the front office could help to keep River End tickets off of secondary ticketing sites like StubHub. While Sakiewicz pointed out that the Union’s own ticket marketplace was an ideal location to sell tickets that could not be used because the Union can monitor the eventual recipients of those tickets, he reminded fans that the club holds season ticket holders responsible not only for their own behavior, but for the actions of fans who use their seats.

While that may seem a little too controlling for some, at the end of the day, the Union are responsible for the fan experience within the confines of PPL Park and it therefore behooves them to maintain controls over the manner in which fans use their facility. Sakiewicz said that after a fight broke out during the Union’s recent home game against Colorado, the Union front office determined that the instigators of the altercation had purchased their tickets on StubHub and that the season ticket holder who owned those seats has since had his tickets rescinded for the remainder of the 2011 season.

Garber acknowledges the standard of officiating a problem

While the friendly questions aimed at Sakiewicz, Nowak, Le Toux and Mondragon focused on the Union’s efforts to build a successful program that can both win now and in the future, Commissioner Garber’s presence at a time when Union fans were at their most outspoken yielded plenty of more pointed remarks and queries about MLS refereeing and the dearth of Union players on the All-Star roster. To his credit, Garber was forthcoming in his discussion of MLS refereeing, though he was forced to admit just how little control MLS wields over the league’s officials.

“We are doing as much as we can with a process that is not managed by us,” Garber said. “The officials are governed by our federation and the challenge for us is where we look to the league to solve that issue with officials that we don’t control.”

Why are MLS officials so bad?

Whether you believe Garber or not, acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step toward combating it, and in that respect Garber was not shy.

“We recognize that we have an issue,” the commissioner said, “and we are trying hard to make it better.”

Garber described how the league is also providing its own training for the referees, with a “ref coach” assigned to each official to work with him following matches to ensure that calls are being evaluated and reviewed. Too frequently, however, the league’s only real recourse against violent or unsporting acts are the fines and suspensions they hand down to players after the fact.

Acknowledging that the process of improving officiating will be long and arduous, Garber urged fans to have patience with the league given their limited control over the situation. He also encouraged players and coaches to treat officials with respect and dignity, no matter how hard their decisions might make it for them to do so at times, because until that element of the culture improves, the quantity, and thus quality, of people interested in becoming officials will remain low.

On allowing tough play: intent is the key

Peter Nowak took the opportunity during the discussion of officiating to both praise Garber’s efforts and take his own dig at MLS officials. A rough and tumble player in his day, the Union manager relishes physical play and does not see the merit of penalizing players for tough play that is focused on winning the ball. While saying too many fouls are called on players evenly contesting a 50-50 challenge, Nowak reacted strongly against the idea of “lining up a player,” which has been on the rise in MLS this year with the severe injuries to high profile players such as Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales, FC Dallas’ David Ferreira and Seattle’s Steve Zakuani. Nowak brought up the now infamous leg-breaking tackle from Colorado’s Brian Mullan on Zakuani in stressing that, more than anything, referees must be better trained to decipher the “purpose of the tackle.” Praising the league for handing down the longest suspension in MLS history, Nowak asked the commissioner for continued improvements on referee decision-making for premeditated, violent tackles.

Scheduling, relegation

When pressed on non-officiating matters, Garber had plenty to offer the fans and he described the league’s current focus on evaluating the scheduling conflicts a 19 team league will pose on MLS.

Garber laid out three scheduling options with different focuses for the league, individual teams and sponsors. (Strangely, playing a home-home with every team and increasing the schedule by two games was not one of them.) First, like the NFL where teams play more games within their own division, a conference heavy schedule could be employed to build rivalries, decrease travel demands and strengthen the idea of conferences. Second, a rivalry based schedule could focus on regional or cross-conference rivalries, though, in the end, this is the least conducive to fair competition. Third, a TV friendly schedule that would insure that large market matchups occur on a weekly basis to encourage maximum interest in broadcasting the games with new partner NBC is also possible. These decisions and more are on the docket for the MLS competition committee over the next months.

When the inevitable question of promotion and relegation was asked, Garber dismissed it out of hand. Instead he described his hope to improve relations with other American leagues like the USL to create an MLS second division, which would be more akin to baseball’s farm system.

Defining success in the second year

"It's a process."

As far as the team on the field, both Sakiewicz and Nowak spoke at length about their satisfaction with the progress of the Union thus far through the first half of the 2011 season. They were also quick to rein in the inflating expectations for their young franchise.

Sakiewicz expressed that, regardless of what happens through the rest of the year, the fact that the Union play with spirit and purpose makes them a success in his mind. Nowak reminded fans that the team has already exceeded their point total from last year with only half of the season gone. While the offseason moves, the midseason departures and the recent addition of Freddy Adu have inevitably created instability within the team, Nowak believes the Union can go forward.

“This is a group that we believe in from the beginning of the season,” said Nowak, adding that with the roster moves aimed at solidifying and strengthening the club, he believes the team can progress towards the playoffs.

Whether an increase in stability off the field can translate into improved consistency on the field remains to be seen.

“It is a process,” Nowak said, imploring fans to remember just how young the Union are, both in their personnel and their organization. With a chance to wrestle first place away from Columbus this Saturday at Crew Stadium, the Sons of Ben, and all Union supporters can be confident in the knowledge that their’s is a team on the rise.


  1. Quite a neutral report from you! Expected more fireworks 🙂

    Noted that a lot more folks signed up than showed up…; based on the list they ticked off as you walked in.

    Thought going to the meeting was very worthwhile and I was very pleased that the Union and the MLS set this (what is supposed to become an annual event) up!

    • I hope that in the future the Commissioner doesn’t attend these. I think he answered the questions well and it was interesting to hear what he had to say, but his presence took the focus away from the Union a bit too much.

  2. Thanks for your coverage. I was there last night and have two points to make,
    One: SoBs where not the only supporters group in attendance. Member of the Corner Creeps, the IllegitimateS, and Bridge Crew attended and participated in Q&A.
    Second: I really appreciate the MLS and the Union providing this forum for the groups to address issues they view as important.

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