Commentary

Talking about practice

Photo: Earl Gardner

In a fit of writer’s block, this piece started as a commentary on the newly finished practice fields in the former Lot B. I debated whether to write a “hot take” — trying to argue that somehow, in some way, the construction of new practice fields for the Philadelphia Union right next to PPL Park is a very bad thing.

I ran through a number of angles of argument, presented here for posterity:

  • The daily van ride to Chester Park worked wonders for team chemistry. Without “van time,” how will the Union players bond with each other?
  • Covering parking lots with green grass is fundamentally un-American.
  • Players who don’t want to work a little bit extra just to get to practice aren’t “Philly tough” enough.
  • Many, many balls will be lost into the Delaware River — an expense that will eat into the Union’s allocation money.
  • The money could better have been spent building a rocket with which Fabinho could be fired into the Sun.

And so on and so forth. Finally, I came to the conclusion that there’s not much downside to the move. But what is significant is the timing. The fact is that for five years first-class practice fields were not a priority. Now, they are.

When you zoom out a little from the fields, a positive trend becomes clear — the punchline is that the Union are definitely making investments in a new way. PPL Park, of course, remains the biggest investment in franchise history, a jewel of a soccer-specific stadium in a picturesque setting. But the franchise’s early years were marked by a distinct lack of long-term aspiration; rather, the focus each year was on the first-team roster, and even that was to be shredded at a moment’s notice.

Change, though, has come. I’d argue it began with the opening of the YSC high school last year, a massive amount of capital put into a concept unique to America. Operating a functioning high school is no small logistical feat, combining both the sporting component with the day-to-day educational mission. Every year, if all goes according to plan, more and more prospects will attend the Union’s high school, and some will play minutes for the first team.

The practice field situation was rectified next. It remains a total embarrassment that a MLS franchise trained part-time in a public park for five years, not much of a step above where you or I might play pickup on the weekends or Kiddie Kickers might touch a ball for the first time. But I give the front office credit for working through the obstacles with the city of Chester — and demonstrating a willingness to forego some parking revenues — in order to give the first team a pristine, convenient space of their own to train.

Intriguing, too, remains the floated concept of the Union fielding their own team in USL PRO. MLS clubs are increasingly operating their own reserve sides, and though the Union have seen many of their players get time in Harrisburg the word is that team executives are not completely happy with the partnership.

Make no mistake — this would not be a simple thing to put together. Union Two would require separate staff, additional equipment, and an expansion of the team’s front office. All this on top of the expanded salary budget that would be necessary, as the Union would have closer to 40 players on their payroll than the current 30. The fact that this topic is even a discussion for the front office, though, speaks to a newfound sense of ambition. Or, more than ambition, a realization that long-term success requires extensive foundations.

At the press conference unveiling Rene Meulensteen — and make no mistake, Meulensteen’s “consultancy” is a significant investment itself — Jay Sugarman outlined, for the first time, a serious vision for the future of the franchise. Now, I don’t necessarily agree with every part of it. In particular, I remain skeptical that the Academy will produce first-team players of the caliber and quantity necessary to give the Union a major competitive advantage.

But one thing is clear: in a season defined by insanity, the franchise has indeed been installing the basis for a bright future. Only time will tell if that investment will pay the desired dividends: a MLS Cup.

28 Comments

  1. Hezekiah Ezekial Petershwim says:

    Poor Fabinho. People want to fire him into the sun now.

    • Maybe he can patrol outside the fields to prevent balls from going into the river.

    • Yea it is quite ridiculous I think. Almost every player on this team could be ripped on but yet Fabinho is chosen over every other player even when he played pretty damn well at the end of the season. There is a lot worse on this team then him.

  2. Next they should build some type of Club House on the river with a good restaurant & bar; then I’ll be happy!

    • +1

      Seriously, there was so much development planned when the team was announced c.2008.

      Even one restaurant/bar right on the river would do wonders.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        If they put a warehouse with bathrooms in the corners, and bars in the middle, they could buy 3 new DPs with the amount of money they’d make. Seriously, build something… Anything!!!

      • Did we forget about what happened in 2008? Jay lives and dies regarding Wall St.
        He finally has some money to play with. Don’t fuck it up.

  3. If there ever is a Union Two is must be named the Twonion or 2nion

  4. I thought that one of the next steps, after the completion of the Practice Fields, was to be the renovation of that eye-sore of a building that more or less is ajacent to the Wharf building, in Lot C. The UNION were planning on making that their Front Office HQ. I’m wondering what’s now up with that…

  5. “covering parking lots with green grass is fundamentally un-american,” reminds me of Talking Heads (Nothing But) Flowers….
    .
    Once there were parking lots, now it’s a peaceful oasis, you got it you got it.

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    “The money could better have been spent building a rocket with which Fabinho could be fired into the Sun.” — I want to see 500 words on this by Friday!! Haha!

    • Dammit, don’t encourage him! He actually wanted to write that column, and I encouraged him to write about something else.

      • Peter Andrews says:

        Unfortunately, Wolfpack, I don’t have the technical know-how to construct the requisite rocket. Though I have seen Interstellar and it doesn’t seem like it would be *that* complicated.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I know a guy who knows a guy, who would be interested in funding something like this… HA!

  7. There are several factual errors in your article, including calling PPL Park “a jewel,” and not pointing out how stupid it is to replace your prime parking area with a practice field.

    • Those are both opinions, not facts. So no, neither is a “factual error.” You’re entitled to your opinions, even if you’re wrong. (PPL Park is a fantastic small stadium with great views.)

      • When I read your comment I see a guy running into the end zone- his teammates surrounding him as he tosses a fake grenade and they all fall backwards. Boom.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        I share Ryan’s opinion regarding the practice fields, so I guess I’m wrong too.
        .
        Failing to have a proper practice facility and instead plopping fields in the middle of the parking lot was a very strange decision. Especially if they ever do want to turn the practice fields into something more, for example adding a locker room, gym, training rooms, ie making it into a proper practice facility, they will end up building a wall of program between the parking lots and the stadium. For me this is a very bizarre oversight and one that negatively effects the fan experience.
        .
        If the plan was always to build a practice complex, it would have made more sense to put it out of the way, perhaps in the far corner of Lot A (sorry Ed) so that the Union could build a top tier facility for their players and still have the apron of parking essentially flow right up to the stadium.

      • pushing a paying customer further away from the product you are trying to sell is bad for business.

    • Prime? Lot A is the prime lot! I don’t see the practice lot having its own twitter handle…

  8. “Change, though, has come. I’d argue it began with the opening of the YSC high school last year, a massive amount of capital put into a concept unique to America.”

    A massive amount of someone else’s capital…

  9. Scott Wilkinson says:

    If the Union start a USL Partnership they would easily have the best name out of all of the existing MLS-USL teams. So much branding possibilities (and possibly legal affairs…)

    U2

    • What you have there is the bee’s knees. What’s a little trademark infringement? Bono and the Boys have enough money.

  10. I might have to take a trip to PPL Park on Thanksgiving to see the new practice facility.

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