A View from Afar / Commentary

More than a trophy at stake in U.S. Open Cup final

Photo: Earl Gardner

Philadelphia Union’s win over the Houston Dynamo on Sunday shows the club can play some very entertaining soccer when they’re on the mark.

But all some fans wanted to talk about after the game was the poor attendance.

Announced attendance was 14,784, a low figure for the Union even if all the seats were filled. But they weren’t. My seats went unclaimed Sunday night, as the friends I share tickets with did not show up. The same went for others.

There are plenty of good reasons for fans not to make a Sunday night game. First off, it’s the equivalent of a midweek game for families with school-age children, who must wake early for school the next day. Second, it competed with a Philadelphia Eagles game that was still going on when the Union game kicked off, and if there is something that league schedulers should avoid, it’s that.

Finally, there is of course the state of the Union’s season. They look set to miss the playoffs for the fifth time in their six seasons in a league that sends more than half its clubs to the playoffs.

The team has actually played fairly well since their horrific start. They have made the U.S. Open Cup final for the second straight season. They are 4-2-2 in their last eight regular season games and 8-3-8 since their horrendous 1-3-7 start to the season. Tranquilo Barnetta is rounding into form and looks like a good addition. Cristian Maidana was doing sick things with the ball Sunday night. The center back mess is finally (kind of) fixed. (But no, I don’t know why Andre Blake isn’t starting. More on this below.)

Further, the team has almost perfectly nailed their plans to launch an affiliated USL club in Bethlehem next season. (Almost. More on this too later.)

There are plenty of reasons for optimism, if you go looking for them. But it doesn’t change the bottom line: The team appears to be losing fan support.

It’s not that people aren’t fans anymore. They just don’t care as much as they once did.

A trophy can change everything

Next week’s U.S. Open Cup final is a bigger game even than it normally would be because of this. Whether it sells out or not is somewhat relevant, but for more reasons than just the tourney itself, it is an absolute must-win game for the club. Many season ticket renewals will depend on it.

More than that, so will overall fan support.

A loss would reinforce a different message already out there, that this club just isn’t going anywhere good anytime soon.

A win, however, would do something else entirely. It would send a message to Union fans that it is worth maintaining some hope in this club, that they’re not the next Chivas USA or low-budget Toronto FC, not merely another Philadelphia sports punching bag over which fans should torment themselves, and that they’re still worth sticking with.

Sure, the playoffs remain theoretically in reach, but that’s a long shot.

A lot more than that is at stake for the Union on Sept. 30.

Miscellaneous Union notes
  • Here’s what to like about Tranquillo Barnetta. It’s not just that he’s a smart, unselfish player who seems to improve each game as he gets fitter. It’s that he gets righteously pissed off and defends his teammates when necessary. Leonel Miranda should have received multiple yellow cards for his dirty play, and you had to love watching Barnetta turn away from the ball to go after him after Miranda’s dirty tackle from behind on Vincent Nogueira. Regardless of who wears the armband, that is what a leader does.
  • Why is Andre Blake not starting? Give John McCarthy credit for some good play in the U.S. Open Cup, but he has stopped just 55 percent of the shots he has faced in the regular season and been consistently poor in his distribution. Andre Blake should be starting in goal. He surrendered just one goal in two matches, saved 9 of 10 shots, and controlled the crease very well. The most obvious explanation I can see is that the Union want to maintain his Generation adidas eligibility for another season, thereby keeping his salary off the team’s budget for another season. Otherwise, it’s not clear.
  • Cristian Maidana is so fun to watch sometimes. He was just toying with Houston’s defenders on Sunday. Toying with them.
  • The name, Bethlehem Steel FC, is a done deal. Others wrote about it, so I didn’t feel like repeating it in a full column, but it bears mentioning here. The poll to name the Union’s new USL affiliate in Bethlehem is obviously designed specifically to make Bethlehem Steel FC the only logical choice. Even if that’s the best name — I voted for it too — it’s a bad idea to hold what’s basically a rigged vote rather than a true one that might produce the same result anyway. Sure, Bethlehem Steel FC will probably sell more jerseys at first because of the history. But only true soccer junkies know that history. In the long run, names like Lehigh Valley United, Union, FC or SC might have resonated more broadly in a provincial region where people associate with one of three small cities, as opposed to everyone associating with the same large city (as in Philadelphia). There’s a reason why the region’s minor league baseball and hockey teams are called “Lehigh Valley.” A team called Bethlehem may come across as not representing Easton or Allentown, and most people — even soccer fans — will have no idea that the club’s name refers to an early 20th century club. Then again, Bethlehem Steel FC is a pretty damn cool concept.
  • By the way, anyone who votes for Lehigh Valley Blast as the team name is immediately disqualified from having future opinions at this site. Yes, that includes you. And you. And … oh, that’s it? Good.


  1. Just. Win.
    This is the milieu.
    This is the gestalt.
    This is the zeitgeist.
    This is dire.
    Just. Win.

  2. If that team is named Lehigh Valley Blast I will never root for the well being of the Union again.
    Sounds like a U15 travel team name. Good grief.
    They should name it Lehigh Valley Quarry FC…. ’cause that’s what it needs to be.

    • Just dropping the “Blast” makes it better. No need “Steel” either in the other voting option. Just Lehigh Valley Football Club (LVFC) works for me.

      • I don’t understand why they just didn’t call it LVU…..like the club already there. They are clearly the best club outside the academy in our area……just makes sense to give them a first team. Lehigh Valley United….sounds good to me.

      • Considering the close proximity to DC, I’m against having “United” in the name.

    • For some reason “Blast” and “Lehigh Valley” evoked blast furnaces in my mind, hence the juvenile club comparison did not come to mind.
      My own preference was Bethlehem Steel FC 2, as it draws attention to The historical Bethlem Steel FC 1. But it wasn’t a choice.

      It also continues the resonances already in place with the old champions, like the current 3rd kit Jersey.

      • I actually thought of the blast furnaces too, but it’s still a stretch that sounds like the bad team names of the 90s. You know, San Jose Clash, Orlando Magic, that sort of thing.

      • I also had that connection in mind when I first saw it. And I also also agree that it’s still a terrible name. 🙂

    • I wrote in “Lehigh Valley Local”, which I’m sure finished with one vote.

  3. With all due respect…. there was very little aesthetically pleasing with that game and…
    ….I absolutely disagree. Apathy is the number one reason those seats have no asses in them and that rests squarely on the shoulders of ownership. When the Phillies had 7 pm games in September on Eagles football away game days the stadium was filled with 43K. Know why? For the opposite reason the stadium is now empty…they suck. Please…put the ownerships damn fingers on the stove make them feel responsibility- it is not the fans responsibility. This is theirs and they need to own it.
    Once again…Sunday at 7pm is prime time. Prime time. I’ll even say it again…it was a prime time game – hell…Brad Friedel was even there…so bollox to the excuses of school and small kids and wine with your wife.
    A.P.A.T.H.Y. #1.

    • I agree. If the Union were in 2nd place, putting on a show every weekend, winning games, you’d find a way to be there. As it stands now, the open cup is the only remaining game this season that matters.

    • OK, El Pachyderm, let’s not be that guy who posts the first three comments on a post and singlehandedly dominates the Comments section, shall we? 😉

    • El P, again with greatest respect, the combination play in the midfield based around Nogueira, Maidana and Barnetta with Lahoud and Le Toux as the primary supporting complements was very nice in its own right.
      It was also very nice to see it neutralize some players for Houston who have done that sort of thing to the Union in the past.
      No it was not Brazil v West Germany in the 1993 Confederations cup match at RFK Vin DC, nor was it Barcelona vs Manchester United in the inaugural event at the Linc back when Diego Forlan was trying to mark Ronaldhino.
      We are not Barca, I will be dead long before any team in North America can ever hope to be Barca.

      I am grateful for the chance to watch a brand of soccer that is growing so fast in skill and sophistication that plans to improve a team against the standard of the just completed season will be rendered obsolescent before they are executed by the beginning of the next. The union jumped forward from 2014 to 2015; the rest of the league jumped forward farther and faster.

      The leader with the vision and experience to see that trend and respond to it has to be found, and you are a consistent, dogged advocate for the search’s execution. We stand together on the point as do most who read this blog. Never give up, or whatever it is that the sign hanging on the river end’s wall actually says.

      • Well said and I know I’m a bit rough regarding the play… I just wish we weren’t so damn spread out.
        My angst is a spatial one. Your reasoning is sound…as usual.

    • I, for one, was not at the game because the Customs line at PHL took my parents hostage for about two hours Sunday evening.

  4. I have a real bad feeling about the Union’s chances against Sporting KC. I really hope the Union finds a way to win, but I can smell disaster (or is that just the Philly sports fan default position?). I might not even have the confidence and/or stamina to watch.
    Only advantage I see for Philly is that Sporting isn’t in a position to throw a B team out against Houston tomorrow night or Seattle on Sunday. I never wish anyone harm, but boy now would be a great time for an Feilhaber or Dwyer injury. Nothing major — just something that takes them out of the game for a week or two.

    • Bubble wrap everyone in sight and put a mostly B team out there against NE. I’d put Blake in goal though – get him tuned up. Our first choice starting group has a shot against KC, especially at home. We’ve had a pretty good time handling KC in recent years and the game is at home. We can do this.

      • This is one thing that makes me cringe…. Not starting Blake in the OC and McCarthy makes some sort of blunder to blow the game. The fear and loathing that would follow that moment would be scary. God I hope I’m wrong.

    • Agreed. We will need something celestial or supernatural or in the AA creed… whatever you choose to call a power greater than yourself.
      From my point of view … we seem to play well against Sporting for whatever reason…and
      …my best hope is for a nil – nil 72nd minute goal from The Striker at which point we ‘make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves’ and hold on for dear life to the end becoming a better club than we have been before.
      For ours is the kingdom…

  5. I am not one to use excuses (or blame) for losing (I really hate losing). I also know every team has had referee issues, again no excuse because we should never be in the situation to begin with, but still I believe there were 3-4 games at least where we got hosed out of 1-3 points (first 2 games for sure). Add 9 to 12 points to our 33 and it’s a totally different season and probably discussions (and yeah i know there are other issues discussed ad nauseam and will continue to be). It may be a blessing in disguise though as the FO may have stayed blasé in the offseason. Though we may want to be in the playoffs every year, I personally get tired of hearing it. Win one game at a time, the playoffs will take care of themselves.
    on a side note the game was also on FS1 though i don’t know what if any impact that had.
    ad finem fidelis

  6. “Many season ticket renewals will depend on it.”

    No truer statement than that. Without a doubt, it’s the biggest game in the club’s history.

  7. ” Second, it competed with a Philadelphia Eagles game that was still going on when the Union game kicked off, and if there is something that league schedulers should avoid, it’s that.”
    I’ve been thinking a bit on this. I would need to go check, but I don’t think the league’s schedule makers had a say in this. Unless I’m way off base, the MLS schedule for 2015 came out well before the NFL schedule. Don can beg his counterparts not to do that again, but other than that I don’t think MLS has any say in the matter.

    • I think the more meta point is that the schedulers know that come September, they will be competing with the NFL on Sundays, not just the Eagles.
      That being said, the MLS schedule is absurd. For some reason the EPL is able to handle more teams involved in more competitions with numerous international breaks, and still not have teams playing 3 games in 9 days multiple times in the fist few months. Why is it so hard for the MLS schedulers to figure out?

      • See, I think MLS made the right decision by deciding to have set times – Sunday at 5 and 7 – for nationally televised games. Yes, the fact that the NFL scheduled an Eagles – Cowboys game at the same time didn’t help attendance. If the Union don’t like that, they can put together a better team and try to compete for the fans that cheer for both teams.

      • Fixed times is good, and it had to be Sunday because ESPN and FS1 have college football on Saturday in the fall. What MLS needs to avoid having its home team in those games be in the same city as the late NFL game.

        Orlando, Columbus, Portland all become prime candidates to be the home team once NFL starts. And if there is an obvious conflict like Sunday night MLS should switch the game.

  8. Already know I can’t make the Final on the 30th. Last year, didn’t they televise the final? Are they televising the Final this year? Streaming? Anyone?

    • Pretty sure that it will be on FS1 or FS2 as they bought the rights to the Final this year.

      • Last year’s Cup final was on like the Outdoor Channel or something that wasn’t on any cable package available in America. I paid for the streaming option of the channel, and watched lime green blurs stutter across my laptop for two hours. Glad to hear the final is on a real channel this year.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      There is one written mention on something called World Soccer Talk by a Daniel Feuerstein that the Final is on “Fox Sports”. A cursory, incompetent search of us soccer’s site and Fox sports revealed nothing.
      I’ll keep trying.

  9. Atomic Spartan says:

    The Union are about to open a gift – the USOC Final. USOC – the only “win or go home” tournament in US professional sports that I know of. And the oldest pro tournament in the country as well. If you win this game, you have metaphorically beaten every team in the country!

    So does the Union really know what to do with this free publicity gift? Aside from the Iggles crisis, at this moment, this is the most significant sports story around. And if we examine the entrails of the chickens killed to predict the immediate futures of the Iggles, Phils, Sixers, Flyers, and even the Union itself, the USOC Final is likely to be the most significant pro sports game played near Chester’s big brother for some time to come.

    So I repeat: does the Union really know what to do with this gift of free publicity? Are there interviews ramping up on the nightly sports segments on broadcast TV? Is there buildup in the Daily or the Inky? Are the troglodyte sports bloviators being challenged for their chauvinistic and xenophobic sports bigotry? In other words, is the Union PR machine opportunistic and strong enough to carpe diem and put butts in the seats on 9/30?
    I hope they can rise to the challenge. But knowing this FO, I have my doubts. So consider the gauntlet thrown. I wanna see my season ticket money spent on a serious PR campaign over the next week, before it’s too late.
    Screw the obstacles, the whining and the excuses. I sympathize but do not empathize with those who ponder their attendance. The chance to see excellent athletes put to an ultimate physical and mental test for 90 to 120 minutes – this kind of thing doesn’t come around every year.
    I gotta drive 4 hours to get to my job after the final whistle, but I’ll be there next Wednesday. Will you? And will the Union, as an entire organization, rise to the challenge?

    • I can not wait for the ‘FINAL’… I hope to see the stadium filled with the same buzz going that we had against Seattle last year, cause the place was rockin’. What a great effort to be back in the FINAL… what a shot of good fortune to have it @ our stadium!!! It’s been a long season for this founding member, and I hope to see one less post hit this time, (great shot Nogs) and our club hoist the Open Cup Trophy for their jubilant deserving fans… “God’s Speed Boys” make us proud, UNION UNION UNION UNION UNION UNION !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. With whom are the fans losing patience? The “front office” aka Nick? Those likely to lose interest or be turned off by Nick have likely already made their decisions or become apathetic. The play on the field is improving if still inconsistent and the roster management looks better.
    If you are charting progress (which I know you do Dan), the team has made some overdue salary dumps in Valdes and MBohli and is overpaying Vitoria regardless of his recent form. Id be very surprised to see that contract purchased. We swung and missed (for now) on Bedoya and our record has been midtable since the abysmal start you highlighted. The Barnetta acquisition looks like smart business and a real addition in midfield.
    I can’t quite tell what they will do with the Ayuk or Nando loans but neither player has made the decision to buy easy which doesn’t help them. Id suspect they are no’s. And there are several assets still on loan (Cruz, Berry, Fernandes, MacMath) that will add depth or bring a return in trade. Hackworth had to clear the Nowak mess and now Curtin and Albright are clearing up a messy roster (though both situations have come through with Nick at the helm…).
    I see the Cup as important not because its their “last chance” but because its “a chance” to show they are on the upswing despite missing the playoffs. Theres a flurry of moves coming this winter not because the roster is a mess but because they are closing in on getting it right.
    I think a dynamic addition at forward in the off-season pushing Sapong to #2, a settled goalkeeping situation, and a streamlined roster that is hinting at real depth and we are a competitive team in 2016. Then again, I’m charting that against the current eastern conference and the target will keep moving (as you said).
    Maybe Im just perennially optimistic.

    • Tim I like it….no, I love it.

    • The Little Fish says:

      Great post Tim. With the money now freed up, the loanees (assets) returning, and the emergence of a stronger core, I like where the Union are now headed. I also agree with you that improvement becomes obsolete very quickly in MLS these days. Glass half full though for me.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Thoughtful, appreciated.
      Every negotiation has the player, his current club, his new club AND MLS; that’s four parties involved, four. Most European transactions you read about have three. MLB, NFL etc. have two.
      How many air traffic control specialists do the Union have to support multiple simultaneous on-going negotiations?

    • Tim – those are all great points. I share your optimism, but until the FO proves that they can successfully execute this roster upgrade and resist the urge to make an impulsive/quick-fix type of move that they’ve done in the past, I remain a skeptic.

      They have a great opportunity with M’Bolhi & Valdes now both gone and off the books, I really hope that they don’t blow it.

    • Is Ayuk on loan? I thought he was a signing?

    • Based on the salaries just released, Ayuk is making $50k. I don’t know if there is other compensation involved in keeping here, but I cannot see letting a promising young winger with his technical ability walk away at that price tag. He should be a nice depth option to keep grooming. I agree with you on Vitoria. There is probably a more cost effective alternative.

  11. So here’s a very, very important question re: if the Union mgmt and front office are serious about seizing the benefit of an appearance in the US Open Cup Final…

    Have they negotiated a deal with the US Soccer to broadcast the game locally on television?

    • Why would they do that when they still have tickets available for sale and the match is already available elsewhere? And even if they did, what local channel would they be able to show it on?

      • The match is only available via YouTube, correct? It should be broadcast via either CSN, TCN, or 6-ABC to get the widest possible exposure in the area. That’s how you take an existing medium-sized fan base and grow it.

      • This is a no brainer. One of the major news networks should have been trumpeting this for a month and then air it live. Seems simple.

      • I thought that Fox has the rights.

        There’s no way a major local channel would preempt 2 hrs of weekday primetime TV to show the USOC Final. CSN probably has the Phillies or Flyers to show that night. Maybe TCN, but not everyone has that channel either (I don’t).

        The Final should be on a weekend when you’ll get a better crowd as well as have more TV viewers.

  12. ThePhiladelphia Union’s 2016 USL Team WRITE IN “UNION STEEL FC”
    The name JOINS the two regions honors both old and new without trying to be something it will never be “Bethlehem Steel FC” that WON the OPEN CUP and what happen if the team moves or plays in a town other than Bethlehem, PA.

  13. What worries me the most about the Open Cup final? Not the opponent although a better lineup. Not the skill level of players or our lack of organization. Not who is put in goal on game day. What worries me the most is Curtin and his selection of lineup for the day and his tactics. How do you go in to Houston get a 2-0 lead and make 1 sub. Especially with Miranda gunning for Nogs. Maidana still on the field? I mean yes I know their our best players but season is over coach get them out of the lineup after 65 minutes. I hate to say this, but I forsee injuries to key players coming up at New England. If I were him Barnetta Maidana Nogs Edu Carroll Le toux Fabinho Gaddis Marquez and Sapong would not see the starting 18. My lineup for the next game Nando Hoppenot Ayuk Pfeffer Mclaughlin Lahoud creavalle White Vitoria wenger Sylvestre/Blake(as it is unfortunate but Blake will not be in the open cup). Bench Sylvestre/ Blake Casey Catic bird and fred. I just don’t see it game after game I think Curtin is in above his head even when he wins he is out coached and I believe it is part of what starts many of the comments here of the lack of interesting play. Now the FO is the biggest problem, but not seeing improvement on the coaching front throughout the year is another. Biggest worry before Open Cup final = Curtin (let’s hope he can get things right or get lucky)

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