Fan Culture / Featured / Union

Fans, idols, and managers

When I was about eight years old, my mother took my younger brother and me to Yankee Stadium and introduced us to third base coach and future general manager Gene Michael. As two boys growing up just outside New York City, we should have been thrilled to meet our hometown team’s coach, but we didn’t really care.

We just wanted to meet Donnie Baseball.

It was 1985 or so. Don Mattingly was the best baseball player on earth for our hometown team.* He’d won the batting title in 1984 and MVP in 1985, and his 145 RBIs in 1986 were the most in nearly half a century. He was so good a fielder at first base that he filled in at third base despite being a lefty, a rarity in baseball. Even people who hated the Yankees liked Mattingly. His nickname, “Donnie Baseball,” showed how he reflected what was best about the game.

Every sports fan has a childhood sports idol. For us, it was Mattingly.

Legends, heroes and Philadelphia Union

I thought of this story before driving to Saturday’s Philadelphia Union game to see Sebastien Le Toux return to PPL Park for the first time since Union manager Peter Nowak stunningly sold his best and most popular player to Vancouver two months ago.

Last week, fans debated how to greet Le Toux. Some called him a Union “legend” and wanted to give him a hero’s welcome. Detractors scoffed. One said he’d rather burn Le Toux’s jersey than honor it.

The truth should have been — and turned out to be — somewhere in between.

In these early years of pro soccer’s renaissance in America, we lack the vocabulary that builds up over decades of a professional sports culture. “Legend” and “hero” are stolen from the English game, and they’re both inappropriate hyperbole. A sports legend is when Babe Ruth calls his shot before hitting a titanic home run in the 1932 World Series, and the facts are disputed for 80 years. The closest thing to a sports hero in American soccer was Landon Donovan after his goal against Algeria in the World Cup.

Le Toux was neither legend nor hero. After just two seasons in MLS, the Union are too young to have either. Had he stayed with the Union, he might have become a sports idol to a generation of soccer-playing kids in the Philadelphia area. But he didn’t.

Instead, those kids saw what they saw Saturday.

In just the team’s second home game of 2012, empty seats abounded at PPL Park. The cold, wet weather surely played a role, but if the Union were playing well and the team’s off-season hadn’t soured so many, it likely wouldn’t have kept as many fans away.

The Califf cheers, the Nowak jeers

We can talk and talk about Le Toux and the cheers he received upon being announced, and how fans still called out the signature “Touuuuuuuuuux” refrain before and during the game.

But more significant was the announcement of the Union starting lineup. The announcer introduced the first 10 players to varying levels of applause.

Then he announced captain Danny Califf. Fans responded with their loudest, most extended cheer, which reverberated with support for Califf after his two-week benching for an injury that few believe exists.

Nowak’s name was then announced. A chorus of boos and jeers greeted the Union manager, rising to a crescendo that echoed throughout PPL Park.

The message was clear: Union fans are not happy with their manager.

Based on his post-game comments, in which he humbly said all the right things, Nowak may have finally gotten the message. (Of course, that followed a game in which Nowak left Roger Torres off the game day roster, Danny Mwanga on the bench till the 86th minute, and poachers Chandler Hoffman and Jack McInerney in a position more approximating a left winger, so as usual, time will tell.)

Kids don’t idolize coaches or root blindly for a shirt. They idolize players, because those players live the dream so many kids have: Maybe one day you too can be on that field and live the glory. You may grow up, but that residual feeling never fully goes away. When my brother took me to a Yankee game for my birthday a few weeks before they knocked down Yankee Stadium, he bought me a throwback Mattingly batting practice shirt. I still wear it, even though I don’t follow the Yankees anymore.

It’s one thing to lose a few games. Life goes on.

What’s been happening with the Union has been something else altogether. Le Toux isn’t coming back. Everyone gets that. Now it’s time for Nowak to repair the breach he created with Union players and fans. Otherwise, replicating the sustainable fan culture that surrounds the Eagles, Phillies and Flyers will be just a pipe dream.

* NOTE: Yes, born in NYC, raised in north Jersey, moved to the Philly area in 2000. Deal. 😉

24 Comments

  1. Great piece. Perfectly captures my growing ambivalence about this team and it’s manager.

  2. Good column, but the only thing that fixes what’s been broken is winning, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Nowak and Nick Sack have quite possibly done irreparable damage to MLS in Philadelphia.

    • Well Ryan then I guess we won’t count on seeing you at the game. But the fact is Philadelphia doesn’t have to treat the Union like they do their other teams, while expecting and demanding a quality product is a good trait, not supporting a developing team is not. The unique part about soccer is that there are unsuccessful teams (some chronically so) around the world that have a huge following. People love the game for what it is and revel in whatever success the team can have. Obviously I want the union to be the best team in the MLS but the fact that they aren’t on the level of some of the other teams that are improving at incredible rates isn’t going to stop me from showing up. I would argue that aside from the illogical managing moves we have an improved team from last year and trade value for future acquisitions. If you don’t want to show up then sell your season ticket so I can get two more next to the two I already have.

      • Well, I’m a STH and I would personally prefer something other than an “F U” from the FO and manager in return for my money. Maybe that means I’m just not a true fan, but I think that means I can think for myself.

      • Blake, it’s a bad habit to assume, because someone made a comment, that they don’t support the team in a sense of being a fair-weather fan. You can support the team while making sure they know you do not like the decisions they are making, and sadly, the one main way to say this (aside from social media) is to boo the person making the decisions.

        Nowhere in Ryan’s post does he say that he is jaded with the team, he only says that at the moment- their (Nowak, Sak) decisions are costing us wins.

      • read – made a negative comment…

        damn monday morning skipping words…

      • Thank you.

        For Blake, it’s not about you dude, or even me. It’s about the chance the Union have (had?) at belonging to a higher caste than the Soul and Wings in the Philly sports scene, and how trading their best and most marketable player for reasons not clearly related to winning – reasons Nowak refuses to even articulate or address (witness what happened at the presser last week) – has hurt that chance, maybe even killed it.

        This franchise thrived its first two years when the front office looked like it knew what it was doing and that it wanted to win, the diehards dug the players, the players dug the diehards, and it all seemed *cool* to casual fans – cool enough that they came all the way to Chester and paid (let’s face it) handsomely to be part of it.

        Now? Now it all looks like a mess, and it’s not just the losing, which is honestly forgivable – it’s the perception that the team values other things, some of them petty, above winning, and that’s Philly sports *poison*. And if the diehards are disaffected (and they are, judging by the reception Nowak has gotten), casual fans will be asking themselves “why should I come back and be part of this?” You saw it Saturday – Dan alluded to it – there were lots of empty seats, and no doubt it was cold, but it’s been cold before and PPL has been packed. Make no mistake, the Union *need* those casual fans you disdain. They need them dearly because it’s through them the Union will tap into broader appeal in the Philadelphia sports market, and the only way to get them back now is to win and win a lot and change the conversation and make it look like the front office knew what it was doing and didn’t totally cut its nose off to spite its face, and I just don’t think this group has the horses to do that.

      • Well put Ryan, I assumed a little there which from one big fan to another ain’t cool. I’m struggling with trying to accept that in fact Sakiewicz and Nowak in fact gambled and lost. All along I assumed while it looked bad these players coming in must have had the talent. I totally agree with your point about not dropping down to the level of the Soul or Wings and the need to keep a very new product cool. Unfortunately Philly isn’t supported by the culture of for instance the Pacific NW. Alright well, important to reiterate to all here as that I’m on your side in being pissed about Nowak’s moves and Sakiewicz approval through silence. Make no mistake I don’t want to watch a losing team either…

      • Blake, as a Cubs fan(no I did not grow up here as the author of this article didn’t), I understand that many teams in many sports the world over have bad teams and still support them. But I don’t want the U to be one of those, I will continue to go to games, I will not sell my season tix, but I will continue to criticize what I see wrong(just my opinion of what I see wrong). Because as a life long Cubs fan I see what can happen when a fan base stops caring if there team wins and just supports them no matter what the situation is. Every year I make it out to Wrigley and every year by the end of the season the fans are saying “well there’s always next year” but no one truly believes it. I want the team to do well, and I believe they can, but I see them making the same mistakes from the first season, with different players every year. And you only rebuild when your players get old or you’ve made a few runs at a championship and realize what you have isn’t going to get you over the hump, we were making progress and started to rebuild for no reason. All of these issues I put at the feet of the coach as he has been the one constant, I’m not saying he needs to be fired, he just needs to pull his head out of his rearend. OK I’m better now

      • Haha, well the more respect to you and of course as a life long Philadelphian I’m somewhat spoiled (constant success with little hardware) Rest assured I won’t become the fan who stops caring, I guess I mistook a one liner as writing off the squad. Monday morning isn’t an excuse but perhaps a reason. And from some surprisingly intelligent post game comments it looks like Nowak’s head might be on its way out….

    • I agree with Ryan, I’m a season ticket holder and I want to see the best possible product that the team can field. Nowaks decisions are very questionable, for example starting chandler Hoffman up top instead of Mwanga. That was almost as bad a call as starting Zach pfeffer against the red bulls last year in what was probably the biggest regular season game last year.

      • Oh I totally agree that Nowak has been clueless whether its Hoffman, Christian Hernandez, Caroll every game, the majority of our formations, switching the midfielders away from their strong feet, taking four games to bench Lopez. I’m on board with the fact that he’s to blame. I was just frustrated to acknowledge that after only four games this season the teams popularity is done. I’m holding out that they can retain their fan base.

      • Ed Farnsworth says:

        To Ryan, Blake, commentator Dan, Steve L., and Roma, I want to thank you for what each of you brought to this conversation and how, in the end, you all respected each other’s opinions. We can all agree or disagree but how we do so is very important to us at the PSP. Everyone who reads your comments has learned something, thanks to each of your unique perspectives.

        One thing, though, is important to stress: this team’s popularity is not done, or even close to being done. We all recognize how the buzz of the first year largely made on-field results secondary, and how the unexpectedly good results in the second year not only made for a great time but larger expectations. Whatever is going on now, don’t forget that this is still just the beginning. The way I see it, the team’s popularity in the long term is still being defined. And when this team is 10, or 20, or 30 years old, we can all look back and talk about how grateful we are to have been there in the beginning.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        Ditto. We’re huge fans of the conversations in our comments sections. Props for staying classy to each other when it easily could’ve turned into people going at each other’s throats. 😉

  3. I Trust In Nowak.

  4. This all brings up very interesting thoughts and opinions about, oh how should we say it, fan/supporter ethics. For example, in a situation like a team selling/trading/letting go a beloved player. Do you still root for the team, despite the fact that they may have ripped your heart out? When that player comes back, do you cheer him or boo him? Is the only thing that matters is that the team on the field wears your team’s shirt/colors? Is everyone uniformly the villain?
    Other questions are, what is the team? Is it only the team on the field? Is it everybody who is part of the organization? Why I say this is that there are people who are not in favor of Nowak but obviously still support the team. But is that possible? Or is that a conflict that can’t be reconciled? It’s the same with the Eagles. Many people despise Andy Reid. They want him gone. But the only way to do that is to wish for the team to fail, so he can be fired. But can a true fan really wish for the team to fail for whatever reason? Can wishing for the team to fail ever truly be justified? Obviously the hope is that by having such failure it will bring on a change that will make the team much better in the long run. That’s only a hope, there’s no guarantees.
    On the other hand, say the team brings in a player who is despised or disreputable, a la Michael Vick. No matter how much the team spins it, there is still a segment who will loathe him. Can you bring yourself to root for the team’s success but then be able to separate that support from personally supporting the despised player?
    Or, if you use Dan’s example, say Don Mattingly was revealed to be a wife-beater, a criminal, or some other kind of despicable person. But for some reason, he still kept playing for the Yankees. Would you still root for him, because and only because he is a Yankee, whereas every fiber in your being tells you that he should be condemned to the seventh level of hell?

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Fantastic questions, Jeff. I’m definitely curious as to what people have to say to that. (I’ll share some thoughts later once time allows.)

    • Coaches, players, and fans come and go. Clubs go if no one supports them. So while we might not be happy now (with the decisions) I’d rather be a unhappy fan with a team, then without a team to call my own! I think the club needs us to support them.. Yes, even when we lose and we play a rookie and sub on starters with 4min left. Even when the coach benches our Captian without a proper explanation of what “really” happened. Even when we trade away a defender for a wish and that sweet jet ski Nowak got for harvey. You cant support a team that doesn’t exist!

  5. Nowak knows hes on thin ice with the fans. He also knows that the FO has probably given him this year to make mistakes. So no matter how much we boo and tweet and complain i think nowak is here to stay (for this season) If we perform poorly all season I think next year we might see the FO questioning Nowak. I watched the post game interview and for the first time he seemed to be speaking honestly to us about what was going on in his head. I think that If he can continue to do that then he can get back into my good graces, hopefully yours too. Wins will help, but wins wont change who nowak is. He can still be the non social, miscommunicating strong silent type he is. If he can open up a little bit with the fans while he is is a “slump” as a coach I think that proves he wants to connect with us, he wants to engage us into this club. Thats something he needs to work on and based on the post game it seems like he might be trying. We don’t have to be winning games for the coach to be open and honest with us.

  6. All these comments make sense, I don’t think anyone here comes off like less of a fan. I think I see various degrees of “hmm what now?” with the fans feeling so out of the loop, having players shipped to Vancouver, having other favorites benched etc. What Nowak is doing is what I used to do on NHL 96 for Sega, just make crazy random moves with really no rhyme or reason. As fans, we’re in the ship with Nowak, as insane and as paniful as that can be at times. The element of feeling in limbo is normal. We have some new faces with skills we’re not used to seeing yet. Until we start seeing these guys do their thing a bit more, it will feel a little more out of place for us more this season than the last 2. I do think, little by little, guys like Gomez, guys like Pajoy, they’ll show their true colors, we’ll relate to them a bit more. I can’t speak for Nowak, because even with all these great comments and with the great piece, there’s Nowak confusion. All justified. Just know, as weirded out as 90% of us are by Nowak seeming to hit a self destruct button after last season, we’re all in it together. I’m glad these comments are here, so we can all talk it out together. The season is still young, let’s have some fun with it. I’m looking Over a Four Leave Clover, all the best, TIM

  7. I agree completely with the Hero and Legand part, there is no way we could have either after 2 years.

    Nowak will get run out of town if he doesn’t shape up and to take a page from our fat ass football coach “Do a better job”….the boo’s will not sit well every match at home with Union management.

    Jack Mac and Danny are dud players, we need to move on with it, put them on the bench…maybe they will come along later in their careers…if not sell them and get our apparently cash strapped team some money

    If Nowak played a simple 4-4-2 with a diamond mid-field all his problems would go away. He is being too cute with all this crap.

    Gomez has replace Carroll in the starting 11, you cannot start two guys at the same position.

    the reason we can’t score goals is because we are playing defensive football, c’mon 2 CDM’s every game and basically 1 striker????

  8. * NOTE: Yes, born in NYC, raised in north Jersey, moved to the Philly area in 2000. Deal. 😉

    LOL Grew up in NE raised to love all and everything NE and Boston sports teams wise and do. Hate everything NY. Living in NJ home town to Juan A. USMNT and can’t cheer for the Pink Cows because they claim NY yet play in NJ show some pride for where you play you PINKCOWS.
    Started watching the UNION their 1st season and fell in love with the Club with this scrappy little club.
    Your right the CLUB doesn’t have the history yet. Fans after the fans start liking PLAYERS then they start cheer those players on and when those players show heart and pride the FANs begin to LOVE them it’s those Players that make the TEAM and bring the fans and players closer.It’s those player that the FO needs to keep and build around. The Team and Fans form the CLUB. Maybe the FO and Staff will start seeing that without them you don’t have a CLUB.

    I want to see the UNION stronge and Proud for many many years to come.

    • Heh heh. Man, I’ve been hearing that NJ/NY crack at the Giants and Jets for years. 😉 NYC is the nearest big city (just across the river via PATH) for them and the Red Bulls. That’s what most American pro sports teams have done for decades, regardless of where they are. The Detroit Pistons don’t play in Detroit, Chicago Fire don’t play in Chicago, the Union don’t play in Philadelphia, etc., etc.

      But I like calling them the Pink Cows too.

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