Fans' View

Fans’ View: U-turning toward ambition?

Photo: Earl Gardner

School is back in session, the air is getting a bit crisper, pumpkin beer is back (okay, that happened by about Aug. 1 or some equally crazy date), and another Union season is drawing to a close soon. While the math may still give us a shot at the playoffs, logic says otherwise given our inconsistent form and teams immediately above the line having games in hand. All eyes are now shifting to the U.S. Open Cup final, as they well should be, and a victory there would surely be an incredible bright spot to celebrate. Plenty will be said about that in the weeks to come though.

What else can we rescue from the ashes of another season where the team we love is watching the playoffs on TV? Have seeds been planted? A direction established?

Ambition matters. Money and a high profile location that draws star players (see Galaxy, L.A.) helps, but successful teams in MLS have a plan, invest intelligently in infrastructure, and are smart with personnel. Money isn’t everything. Toronto has over $20 million in salary commitments this season in exchange for mediocre results. (Yet they’re still set to make the playoffs. Thanks, Eastern Conference!). The current top three in the Eastern Conference, consisting of New York Red Bulls, D.C. United, and Columbus Crew? They rank 20th, 18th and 13th in the league in total salary commitments, respectively, according to the MLS Players Union.

Are the Union ambitious?

There’s been so much surrounding noise in recent years. It seems there has been a lot of clean up and maintenance, but little to inspire confidence that we’re building towards something great. Cleanup from the Nowak era took a season and a half to clear. The Mbolhi mistake cost the team half a season of roster clean-up, and quite possibly the best fullback on our roster to free up salary cap space. (I’ve always been a big Sheanon Williams fan and believe letting him go was a huge error.) That said, there are signs that our team is thinking bigger now. Possibly even laying the tracks that will help elevate this team to something bigger – something this market and fan base deserve. Ambition. A dedication to making this team the best possible version of the Union is the ask.

The Union Academy is a nice isolated example of ambition from past years, but this year, there are actually a few key examples that the team may now be setting a proper direction:

  1. Training fields on site at PPL Park – The thought of players taking a van to a public park for training says the opposite of “we’re ambitious.” Getting these training fields set up this year seems like an obvious step, but it’s an important one to let players know the organization is trying to compete. They’ve also proven to be a nice asset for community events, clinics, etc.
  2. USL affiliate in the Lehigh Valley – The new Steel organization, whatever geographic descriptor lies in front of it, will be a step in the right direction. A fully integrated minor league affiliate offers consistency of teaching methods, more control over how players are used at the USL level, and the opportunity to get players on the fringe of the game day 18 more consistent time. Enough has been said about this already, but definitely a move that shows signs of increasing ambition.
  3. Summer transfer window – I’ve already stated that losing Williams is, in my opinion, a noticeable step backwards. For all his consistency issues, he fits a counterattacking system well, plays multiple positions, and is dangerous up the flank. What makes the transfer window positive though is the ability to successfully bring in a player with national team and Bundesliga pedigree, Tranquillo Barnetta. While it’s too early to assess the impact, the act of getting him on board is impressive. Perhaps more importantly, the club appears to have made a genuine effort at bringing Alejandro Bedoya aboard, at a sizable salary, to address needs for attacking play on the wings and perhaps some assistance in the possession game. It’s one more sign that maybe, just maybe the ship is righted almost enough to be a bit more ambitious.

I’m not suggesting for a second that we’ve arrived at our destination. This may well be the most closely watched off-season yet. The items mentioned above as examples of a growing sense of club ambition are mostly foundational ones. There’s still plenty of work to do with the on-field product to be more competitive. For me though, ambition is less of a question now with this club than at any point in the past. It’s now time to execute and deliver something we can rally around.


  1. I would think that having a training ground on site would be one of the first things a team would obtain, not a year 5 project. That said, I always thought that the team ownership, executively led by Sak, had ambition. I never thought Sak could execute on that ambition on soccer-related matters.
    It’s frustrating that our owners have shallower pockets than the big spenders in MLS, but in truth, we’ve always spent slightly more than average in terms of player salary. However, this team has been stingy on the employment of coaching/soccer director staff. Addressing this fundamental weakness would go a long way towards building a strong club, IMO.

    • I agree – execution is the big question mark. I think there’s a lot to prove there as far as investing in staff, proper assembly of a roster, etc. The first few years, I think it’s easy to argue that Union leadership was happy to be here, to show off a shiny new stadium, and sell merchandise. I think that enough evidence has come up in the last 12 months to suggest now that they at least care about building something meaningful (whether Sak is the right guy to oversee it is another topic). With some of these foundational/philosophical things seeming to shape up a bit, it’s now time to start executing well. Teams like SKC and Columbus do that consistently with middle of the road salary numbers.

  2. When the stated goal of the franchise is to win an MLS Cup and we have a Director of Soccer Operation and we acquire a philosophy of play that is laid down from the 7 year olds through the first team…then I will begin to believe in the greatness of the Union.
    Until then mid table is the goal of the club as evidenced by the managers comments this season and obvious lack of consistency. We have to be okay with this in the short term and mid term because it is the reality …my hopes and beliefs lie in developing the highest Academy quality in the MLS so this club can build from within and add keynote players along the way.
    The way forward with that lies in a clearly defined philosophy of play… this is the part that concerns me the most…. a lack of philosophy will never render the academy as successful to the first team as can be.
    I’m seeing the vision
    I’m seeing the plan
    Nothing at all pointing towards a philosophy.

  3. so, what you’re saying is, you’re a glass-is-half-full-of-pumpkin-beer kind of guy

    • I’d much prefer a full glass of pumpkin beer, but yes. I’m trying to my best to stay optimistic. Given all the mistakes of recent years, it’s tough to have faith in executing on a plan, but there does seem to be enough evidence in 2015 to suggest positive intent at least towards building something better.

      • Did you bring enough of that pumpkin ale for everybody, Mr. Ellis?
        Also on the positive side of the ledger: I heard a commercial on 97.5 for the Open Cup final yesterday, during the evening drive time. I can’t recall the Union ever advertising like that (though it could be selective memory).

      • John, I’ll have a few on standby on Sunday for tailgating purposes – stop on by!

    • Everybody knows it’s way too early for Pumpkin Ale. We need to get through all of the Oktoberfest releases first.

    • You’ve been crushing it lately Osager. Crushing it.
      Askew views are so welcomed.

  4. I see a lot of good fundamental building blocks for the Union including the training fields, the USL launch, the Academy at YSC, and the to-be-constructed first team locker-room / headquarters. That said, I think what is missing is a head soccer person who can blend all these good things into one vision. I have faith in Tommy Wilson and the Academy staff. Less so in Jim Curtin and the first team staff. And much less so in Nick Sak. So basically the most important piece we are missing is the brain power to properly utilize these physical assets. Training fields don’t mean anything if we don’t have a good coach conducting practice on them. A new USL team won’t do much good unless those players are scouted and developed properly by a knowledgeable soccer staff.

  5. How ’bout a nice bar or restaurant down by the stadium? Actually, how ’bout literally anything else down by the stadium? It has nothing to do with on-field ambition, but it gives people a reason to come down and have a good time when the on-field product is garbage. That and adding more parking, since Lot C used to be a great place to tailgate, but now it fills up so dang fast.

    • Yep. Right now, only fans of mediocre to downright crappy soccer are showing up at the Park. Without ONE SINGLE amenity, there aren’t going to be too many repeat customers after their initial visit because the subpar soccer sure isn’t the draw. And the parking is getting out of hand. I get down there fairly early, and can barely find a spot in Lot C. As I’m walking up to the stadium, I can’t help but notice that there are thousands and thousands of empty spaces in Lot B. Next season, combine C and B. Make it one big lot, or take some spots from Lot B and use them for Lot C, if the separation is necessary logistically.

  6. As far as ambition goes the additions of the academy, training fields and USL teams aren’t ambition per se but more like bringing themselvs up to the bare minimum of what a MLS team needs in 2015.

    • precisely. It is nice to see…but it is standard operating procedure…and needs to be directly linked to a club wide mission statement and philosophy of play.
      There is so much potential here. I see the vision. I see the plan. We need an instituted philosophy. This is why the club wide Director of Soccer Operations is integral. Nothing changes for the long term until that one piece is solved.
      Fields are great. Academy is lovely. High school is wow. YSC is swell. Applesauce is nice. Beer is good.
      This club needs a philosophy of play that a ten year old is able to begin displaying all the way up to a near retiring life long Union player.
      I want to see it written down on the web site and signed by the D.S.O. I want the statement of intent, whatever you want to call it written on the hall walls at YSC so every single pick up player and young kid and U16 player can recite it verbatim.
      I want it talked about in every press conference and transcript. I want it written about ad infinitum until we all want to puke over the philosophy of play. I want Grant Wahl to talk about the Union Way.

  7. OneManWolfpack says:

    I think what is the most frustrating for me, is that a lot of the things we assumed we would already have – training grounds, homegrown players, a solid USL affiliate, NOT having to clean up roster mess, after roster mess – have taken WAY too long… or occur to often. It’s not acceptable to be in the 6th season and be where we are.
    That said, I agree with the article… there are things that are getting better, albeit at a snail’s pace – our apparent willing to spend, creating our own USL affiliate. But a Director of Soccer to give this entire club (1st team, USL, and academy) direction is ESSENTIAL. It MUST happen this offseason.

    • I’m not convinced it ever will happen. It’s going on two years now since the search began. A bit late in starting. Too long in finishing. I understand wanting to get the “right guy”. But in a whole world that plays soccer, it shouldn’t take two years to find that guy. And if it does, are you looking for the right things in “that guy”. The training fields are nice. The USL team essentially gives more roster space to develop young talent. Bringing in Barnetta was good. Not sure if it was worth the cost Williams.
      Basically what all this shows me is that the Union do things half-ass’d. It doesn’t give me hope. It doesn’t say they know what they are doing. It doesn’t even indicate that they are committed to wining. It indicates reaching in the dark. Fumbling through a black morass. Poking and prodding in hopes you might turn up something positive. You may see things half full. I think the organization sees it as overflowing. There-in lies the problem. Until they see it as near-empty, they will never figure out how to fill it.

      • I have to add, what’s really disconcerting, is an owner who “been in soccer for over 20 years”, or whatever Sak claims, is so inept at his job. With such experience, the Union should be at the forefront. With someone who watched the dismantling of the old NASL, shouldn’t he have insight and knowledge on how Not to do things? From what I can see Sak didn’t learn a thing in his 20 years on the job. Well, maybe he learned to do things the wrong way.

      • Come on man…Mr Sakiewicz rocks the cornflower blue.
        Sorry…. my effort to always come back to Fight Club.

      • You’ve just botched the first rule!

  8. As long as Sak is a part of this organization I cannot feel hopeful.

  9. So while some of you seem to have it right, where is this sudden optimism and koolaid drinking coming from. This franchise seems to only know how to screw things up. Lets see: hire Nowak, get players from South America, develop youth talent, build connections with other teams in other countries, get a sponsor, hire a new coach to fix problems, get a Director of soccer operations, have a USL affilate, player selection in transfer windows, proper training facilities. All these things were busts and have worked poorly or way to slowly. The list goes on and on. They hire from the inside cause no one outside agrees with their so called vision, plan, and philosophy that is non-existent. To me this franchise is a laceration that is hemorrhaging. It is covered up by band aid after band aid when stitches are needed. With this FO nothing will ever be done right. Just look at the talk, people are happy they have a USL team yes this would make sense if they use it correctly/ Although, I have no hope that they understand what they are doing in general during training sessions (this seemed pretty clear in some of the drone statements), so how does this help players develop in a lower tier league. Plus if we have this so called USL team how come we haven’t established anyone on this roster yet. Time runs fast and the Unions thought process is slow. Plus there is the other point of going after Bedoya once again bad personal decisions. Look Bedoya is a solid player and I can see how he could make sense, but lets imagine for a minute we have Barnetta LM, Chaco CAM, Bedoya RM, Nogs CDM, Lahoud CDM (I put them in our standard setup as regardless this team will never switch to the 4-4-2 event though personal calls for it. Well, ok this on paper looks fine possesion oriented, creative, strong player makers. Ok well who is scoring CJ has 8 goals not even double digits how does this team win (yes he was injured but its a goal every other game he starts (started 16 scored 8 played 23)). Chaco is allergic to putting things on frame. Barnetta would like to score, but his thought process is far ahead of anyone on this team making him in the right place, but to fast for anyone on this team to get him the ball. Bedoya is not a goal heavy winger and only gets the occasional goal (we need more then occasional. And Nogs will score his occasional goal. This midfield while good on the ball I think produces 10-15 goals. Our current midfield has 17 goals not an improvement. Now this would work if you have a top scorer of 20+ goals but not likely on this team. And there are still so many other holes the money needs to be used fill said holes (LB, ST, CDM, CB, GK). I just don’t understand why this FO can never see the obvious or solutions that are pointed out in so many varying ways.

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