A View from Afar

So this is what it feels like to be a Philadelphia fan

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

You don’t truly get what it’s like to be a Philadelphia fan until you experience it yourself.

Sure, you understand it in theory. The suffering. The frustration. The madcap insanity. The absolute conviction that things will go wrong.

But you don’t quite get it the same way an actual Philly fan gets it.

It’s like the difference between knowing that it hurts to get kicked in the groin — and then getting goal-kicked in the groin by Sarah Sunday and her finely sharpened cleat. You feel it rather profoundly.

About 10 years ago, I tried becoming a Philadelphia Phillies fan. (Remember: I grew up in north Jersey in a family of New Yorkers.) I went to a game, had a blast, and decided to watch a few games on TV.

That lasted about a week.

I realized that consciously choosing for the first time to root for an established Philadelphia team was masochistic. It’s one thing to grow up rooting for Philly teams when they’re your local childhood teams. You’re raised to root for them. But to choose this as a free-thinking, fairly logical adult? It was like voluntarily signing up to be punched in the stomach repeatedly for years. If you weren’t a native Philadelphian, why would you do this?

After following Philadelphia Union for their entire history, I now get what it’s like to be a Philadelphia fan in a way most non-Philadelphians don’t.

While writing about the Union, I have always separated myself with a barrier of journalistic objectivity.

Somewhere along the line though, the Union cracked the veneer. Sure, I let them in that first season when I enjoyed the team primarily as a fan, but I knew what my background was. There would be no pure fandom, not while I was writing about the club.

But still, I couldn’t help it: I grew to like this team. I liked the lunch bucket, blue-collar, hard-nosed, no-nonsense mentality of so many of their players: Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Califf, Sheanon Williams, Michael Orozco Fiscal, Amobi Okugo, Ray Gaddis. Guys like Zac MacMath grew on me after I watched him take a beating from fans and media (including me), only to see him persevere through it all and start to make good on his promise.

So now I get it.

It’s like getting kicked in the family jewels.

And then you come back for more, even though you know you’re going to get kicked again and again and again.

I won’t tell you to keep rooting for this team or even follow them the rest of the year. You’re going to do it anyway, probably complaining the whole time, because you’re a Philadelphia fan and that’s what you do even when you know what’s going to happen.

This is what makes Philadelphia fans crazy, and it’s what makes them great or horrible, depending on the individual and your view. Most of the Union players deserve these fans. Management is a different story.

After Rais Mbolhi’s howler on Thursday night probably cost the Union any shot at the playoffs, fans and columnists immediately started calling for Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz’s head and blaming him for the Union missing the playoffs. Mbolhi will almost certainly go down as the worst signing of the season, and the choice to replace MacMath with him in the lineup may be the worst personnel decision of the year.

Few blame Jim Curtin for this choice. Mbolhi wasn’t signed to sit the bench.

Too bad Mbolhi was set up to fail. He should have had to earn a starting spot, rather than get handed it, particularly considering he was going to miss so much time on international duty. And he should have gotten a little coaching on how to talk to American media and fans after costing your team the playoffs. You don’t have to cry or beat yourself up, but you have to offer a little more than “mistakes happen.”

A reckoning is due this off-season. What kind will it be? Will it be the kind that escorts Amobi Okugo, Zac MacMath and other talent (Nogueira???) out the door? Or will Sakiewicz himself be forced to step back from his CEO role?

I have no idea, although I’m not betting on the latter.

Mostly, I’m still trying to catch my breath. Those kicks to the groin take a lot out of you.


  1. Joe Carter, Patrick Kane’s OT goal, Iverson’s Sixer’s against the Lakers, Phillies 1964, Blown offside call 1980 Stanley Cup Finals, running into Gretzky’s Oilers twice in the 80’s, trading Fergeson Jenkins, the star crossed Lindros years, trading Ryne Sandberg, various playoff humiliations during the NcNabb/Reid years… I could go on…

    • Sixers – Lakers didn’t crush me. I don’t think anybody in their right mind thought the Sixers would win that series, even after taking Game 1.
      That said: The Super Bowl vs the Raiders, the 83 Phillies (who also took Game 1), the J. D. Drew draft debacle, Buddy Ryan not having an offense to pair with that incredible defense, Sixers vs the Trailblazers…

      • neck label says:

        09 world series phils won game 1 at yankee stadium.

      • Much like Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, I’ve blocked that ’09 season from memory. It doesn’t exist…
        Along that line, both the ’10 and ’11 teams, as well.

  2. Most of these franchises have had bad ownership at various times: cheap, or indifferent or meddling. In those cases diehard fans are (sadly) enablers.

  3. Dan your article is why the movie Rocky is so important to who we are and how the rest of the country sees us. Without fail a true Philadelphian will see the left hook, step in to absorb it and then keep coming forward. Relentlessly pressing and absorbing the blows year after year for love of the game and landing our shots to the body to make the tongue stick out like Apollo Creed. I comment about the Philadelphia Pathos often in my writing on this blog because it is distinctly what separates us from other areas. Yes we know failure. Yes we know the shoe will drop. Yes we know bullshit and hacks. Yes we are neurotic to a fault but we are dead loyal to the cause and without fail will keep getting up and fighting landing body blows till you can’t breath- often times to stand and watch the other guy raise his arms in victory. But one thing I am certain of– If you ask anyone in this country who they’d want on the wall or in the hole when shit hits the fan- pun intended, the answer would be a native Philadelphian.

  4. Thanks, Dan. I have pretty much the same background as you. I grew up in North Jersey (a Ranger fan that saw the Islanders win the Stanley Cup all four years I was in high school – and Philly just doesn’t have a rivalry like Rangers-Islanders). Now the Union are my TEAM across all sports. The first one from Philly I’ve followed and the first from anywhere that I’ve had season tickets (along with the Independence during their all too brief existence). I’m learning what it’s like to love the players but not the CEO.
    We’re from Philly, We’re from Philly, no one likes us, we don’t care.

    • Gasoline Fight says:

      Same here. Well, not the North Jersey part, but a similar story. I never thought that I would love a Philadelphia team more than my native Pittsburgh teams, but that’s exactly what’s happened. Union season tickets are the first that I have owned, too. My brothers still give me shit about abandoning the Riverhounds, but I think I’ve lived here long enough to get a pass.

  5. I grew up outside of NYC but have lived here 30 years.

    I follow the Phillies but my passion is with the Union.

    Nick has not been a huge success anywhere he has been.

    In the movie “the Bronx Tale” he is “The Mush” anything he has touched eventually becomes mush.

    The problem with this franchise is the front office.

    I am very proud of how loyal the Union fans are in spite of the team being 5 years old and having poor management

  6. Pretty good article. The main kick in the groin through 5 years is Sakeiwicz. From Nowak to signing M’Bolhi, he has turned what promised to be a dream come true for so long into a nightmare. He comes here trying to put his brand of BS into the Philadelphia sports culture and IMO comes off as disingenuous and condescending. Philadelphia can be a very welcoming place if you earn our respect. Once you do that your good to go. However, you come here like a snake oil salesman or BS artist and tell us to give YOU our hard earned money and kiss your ass so to speak …well you get the picture. To a fan we have waited for glaring weaknesses to be addressed over an over. We see players sold or given away under dubious circumstances. We suffer through Hackworth. Then we use the top draft pick on a keeper and our long awaited striker turns out to be another keeper who by the way, is forced in as thee number one starter,again under dubious circumstances. Yes as a fan base we are fierce and loyal. We don’t have the luxury of having 2-3 teams per sport, nor do we want that. All we ask you NOT to do is take us for granted and treat us like a 2nd rate outpost. We want and demand star power like the NYC, Seattle. ..etc. We’ve had marquee talent on our sports teams as well. If Sakeiwicz can’t do the job then the least he could do is get someone who can, then step aside.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I would be fine without marquee names if we had a team the plays together as a team and is able to score/defend, etc. I’d rather have ten Amobi Okugo’s than one Michael Bradley and nine scrubs.

  7. Seattle sells twice as many seats & seems to gross twice what Union do. NYRB reportedly are losing millions (& relatedly its sponsor). Jay & Sak are here to make money. Had a brand name regional sponsor (IBX, Verizon, Subaru, etc.) outbid Bimbo for a jersey deal, an influential voice from the community would have been added. Watch Comcast affect how Phillies will be run after its’ huge investment in broadcast rights. If the fans support the team regardless of achievement, ownership still profits.

    • You still need some marquee talent while building an academy infrastructure in a top market place, otherwise what’s the point? What they’ve done thus far is try to get over- on us. All the posturing and lame scenarios and excuses mean nothing. Philadelphia sits right in the middle of the northeast corridor and is the 2nd largest market on the east coast. Sakeiwicz needs to build an organization worthy of the market. He obviously thinks so by misguidedly signing M’Bolhi. He needs the marquee talent in the right position. I’m also not buying the idea that BIMBO is the best Sakeiwicz can do.

      • How about a permanent manager first? That’s my indictment of Sak. Just list his quotes from June through September. Utterly incoherent. Still hasn’t addressed the leaked “interim ” tag removal. CEO 101: “Have a message & follow it or don’t expect anyone else to.” I think Bimbo is as good as HE could do.

      • What I’ve already posted. Settle the management issue. Bring in a GM to oversee the day to day and step aside. I agree, right on point. Bimbo is what Sakeiwicz wanted.

  8. You absolutely need at least three superstars in any league to win….I think we all know this….this team will not win for philly by just being hard working blue collar professionals. Look at the top team in the leagues. Superstars win period….so we need a couple don’t you think….smh

  9. I grew up in CT — 1974 to 1996 — a fan of the Red Sox. I know the feeling well. Though with the Sox, it’s always been about waiting for a really terrible time time, like a World Series or ALCS, before you blow it. Before 2004, there was always a Boone home run or a blown call involving Derek Jeter to dash your hopes and dreams.

    Thursday night was pretty close to that for me. A real kick in the groin. I, too, really got to like this team of blue collar players and felt up through the USOC that it was a cinderella team in the making… Now I’m just bracing for the disaster to play itself out.

    I’m still going to watch and root, but my hopes were dashed. My expectations, now, are zero.

  10. Credit where due: Chaco, Mo & Nogs were good bargains. Top talent can also be developed. Look at SKC. Fans here will give management all the rope it needs to reel in a trophy or to hang itself. Surely Sugarman was happy to with the USOC final. A big payroll is not always a great team: TFC, anyone? But moving up to draft an international GK while you’re talking to another one (so Mbohli says) is inexplicable. That’s not cheapness, it’s dumbness.

  11. amen. I have never been as passionate about a team as I have been about the Union. It started slow and as I have come to learn the game, know the players and build friendships with the fans around me, I will always love my Union even if the FO pisses me off. Kinda like a marriage…

  12. Its sad that this franchise is becoming Chivas of the east. 1 playoff appearance in 5 seasons. Bumbling management, financial squabbles, political and media disasters with the local government. Strange sponsorship deals. Big public focus on “youth development” (ie. cheaper players) with limited early returns, coaching turnover at an alarming rate. Sounds like Chivas. When do we get our hiatus?

  13. The Phillies won the series a few years ago. Other cities have it worse. Give me a break.

  14. Love this. You summed it up perfectly. When the Phils won the pennant, I still expected someone to take it away after the game for some kind of rule violation.
    By the way. If Nogueira goes, I might not be able to watch this team any more. That is all.

  15. Who can forget the Eagles of the early 70’s. Welcome to Philly sports kid. Thankful I have a granite chin.

  16. The BIMBO sponsorship is what it is, but why not use “stroehmann” on the kit than having little children and adults sporting BIMBO on their chests…..the brand has no identity and is a colloquialism for a “Dumb Slut.” I guess that is what the Front Office thinks the fan base is, we are all “Ignorant Sluts.”

    Five years of re-building, and this team is going into year 6 no better than how they left it. How is that possible? How’s is that moving forward in a positive direction?

    I would love to hear what the actual “Big Picture” is for next season, especially with Orlando and NYFC in the fray?

    Do I think Edu will still be on the roster? Not unless there is a true established manager/coaching staff.

    Do I think McMatch will be on the roaster? No, because if I were him after this Mbohli fiasco I would be taking my talents else where.

    Do I think Maidana and Nogs were good signings? Yes, but will the Union trade them anyway like they did LeToux not so long ago.

    There are a lot of holes to be filled in the off-season and no clear way of doing so in my opinion. Seattle proved why true “marquee” signings are important to any team, especially when involved in obtaining Silverware.

    Maybe we see a change in formation under a new manager from Outside the club? Maybe we see some new faces and a true “franchise” signing?

    However, I think we can all “Wish in one hand, Crap in the other, and see which one fills up first.”

    I love this team, I love this city, there is really no-where else that has so much heart and really exemplifies the American Fighting spirit than Philly……but that does come with a price…lol

    To reference Game of Thrones; “Gold or Iron?” The Union Players/Fans have paid the “Iron Price” for 5yrs……Gold however, wins you Trophies. It’s time the “Lanasters” paid their debts!

  17. crusty old coach says:

    I just read this, and although it’s 4 day’s later, the story line couldn’t be more relevant. It has to be tougher to be a Philly fan that any other fan in the world. All the letdowns for the few nuggets, and now…”The U.” What another massive letdown! I almost didn’t want to watch the match against the Crew tonight, simply because I felt that yet another Philly team would let down the entire region, and I was right. This sucks, and it just isn’t worth my time anymore. Maybe I’ll give it a try again next spring when Sac is sacked and JC is, well, curtained.

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