A View from Afar

What happened to the incompetent Union?

Photo: Tifo from New York Red Bulls supporters at Red Bull Arena in October. Photo by Paul Rudderow.

We have entered a strange time. Dysfunctional has become functional. Wrong has become right. Philadelphia Union are doing smart things. 

Really, it’s like a world turned upside down.

As one PSP contributor put it, “What the hell is going on, and what happened to the incompetent team we’ve been covering for the last six years?”

The last week has been all about shock and awe. Union fans are shocked by how smart the decisions have been and awed by the prospect of their team being more than garbage in the future. Here’s a sample of Union fans’ responses just on the PSP boards: 

  • “The good Union news just keeps on coming! What kind of alternate universe have we entered???”scottso
  • “I am in awe of how these 3 days of off season have [been so] good. 3 days, 3 big moves.”Kingkowboys
  • “I am so stoked about current developments I feel like jumping for joy and screaming.”700 Chopper
  • “After this last month I’m not sure how to describe how happy/optimistic I feel about this team. So…this…CPfeif
  • “It’s almost like some invisible tether had been cut two or three weeks ago, allowing the Union to soar free like a DARPA Blimp over north-central Pennsylvania. Seriously, though, firing Sak will be widely considered the turning point in the history of the Union.”Rob
  • “All good things here – and not a single ounce of condescending arrogance on the dais…woohoo the dark days are over!”Wendy

The paradigm has changed. Perhaps the sourest fan base in the league — and mind you, they earned the right to be that sour — is suddenly awash in optimism and cheer barely a week after their club closed the season with the second worst record in MLS. How does that happen?

Obviously it started with the firing of deeply unpopular Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz, but that was likely to resonate in the long run only insofar as it led to significant positive change. And it has, as last week’s developments confirmed.

First, the Union hired former U.S. international and proven Moneyball practitioner Earnie Stewart away from AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands to take over as sporting director.

The announcement of Bethlehem Steel FC’s team name was a given, but it’s still been well-received.

The clincher has to be the return to the fold of former Union assistant and Reading United head coach Brendan Burke to coach the new Bethlehem squad. Burke was the right man available for the job. His phenomenal track record with Reading spoke for itself, demonstrating his proven ability to network throughout the American college soccer scene and recruit quality young players to play for him, a good skill to have when starting up a new USL club. His alumni at Reading United include current Union players C.J. Sapong, Ray Gaddis, Andrew Wenger and Leo Fernandes, among numerous others throughout MLS. He also had a good reputation within Union circles. The technical staff never wanted to lose him in the first place.

What’s remarkable is that these two hirings may not have happened had the Union not fired Sakiewicz. Stewart wasn’t even among the finalists for the sporting director job during Sakiewicz’s 10-month search to fill it. Burke was a finalist for his post, but an internal struggle within the Union organization had ensued, with the technical staff advocating for Burke over a competing candidate but failing to get definitive resolution on that until after Sakiewicz’s departure.

Now we have to do away with many of the assessments we have had about the club. The change is evident.

Yes, a lot more still has to happen, but key people are in place, in Stewart and Burke, who have proved capable of enacting positive change at other clubs. Union head coach Jim Curtin’s support network just improved vastly. Now we’ll see what he can do without Sakiewicz in the way.

Union 2.0 has most certainly begun.


  1. easy boys……..proof of change will come in March, thats the litmus test.

  2. The last few weeks reinforce the assertion of many fans and commentators that Sakiewicz, and specifically his ego, was the primary source of the organization’s dysfunction. The rocky relationship with fans and the media has been replaced with refreshing candor and some laughs from Sugarman and Graham. Candidates for positions seem to be selected based on their qualifications and not how Sakiewicz’s power/control would be impacted. It’s no coincidence that NYCFC, Chicago, and the Union are at the bottom of the Eastern Conference – all suffer from completely dysfunctional FO’s. At the moment, it seems like next year will be different. There is finally a reason to believe things have changed for the better and that success is within reach.

    • The headline asks a question. The simplest form of the answer is: “He got fired.” The new boss gives every indication of not being the same as the old boss. Now he gets to prove the optimism as justified – we hope.

  3. You just have to be impressed by the swift decisiveness of the moves, and the wisdom of the decisions. I’m not expecting us to compete for the Supporter’s Shield next season — both the development piece (Academy, Bethlehem Steel) and the anticipated Moneyball piece (Stewart) will take longer than a year to bear full fruit. But we may well get a franchise that will be competitive for years, and that will be well worth it.

    • +1
      I’m looking at next year as something like Year Two of the building of a new organization, after an expansion team season this year. The Moneyball player-development focus and having academy players getting good minutes in USL as part of a fully integrated club structure will be huge, but we won’t see the full first team impact of that for a few years.
      If the Union bring in any big DP (or even just smart, cheaper) signings over the off-season, even if they mesh perfectly with a somewhat half-decent core already in place, they are likely going to struggle in that first season here. A January transfer from anywhere else in the world is in mid-season form when they come here, and their season would normally be over by May. Instead they somehow have to grind through the summer and fall, too. We’ve seen this happen before all over the league — big off-season signings from abroad tend to run out of steam during their first season, and it’s understandable why that’s the case.
      The ship is turning around for sure, but it will take time and patience to get it fully going in the new direction.

  4. Also, being quoted in a Dan Walsh column just made my day!

  5. We can still grasp shittiness from the jaws of competence.

  6. All of the Bethlehem moves would have still happened with Sak still around. There would have been far less optimism if those same moves were made and he was the face at the press conference,

    Sak’s departure is a reason for optimism. He cast a pall over the entire organization. The Stewart move is a reason for optimism. However. I thought Nowak was a smart move too. Time will tell.

    • Brendan Burke likely would not have been hired if Sak was still here. And don’t underestimate Burke’s importance to the franchise as a whole.

  7. some of the moves have to have been cooking for a while and some quick – they just happened to snowball at the end of the season. In some ways, the apparent speed of recent actions may correlate to the dire need for action/change. like multiple emergency procedures on a crash victim, except the crash was a long, slow-motion spectacle. Changes to the rosters and more importantly their play at both levels can be the only determinants. I too will withhold judgment – look at how many times the Birds “won” the offseason. I don’t pay any attention to them until the first regular season game.

  8. The Union can now accurately be described, using the following – it’s sfw – https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=JmzuRXLzqKk&safe=active

  9. Lucky Striker says:

    It’s all about the end product.

    The changes and background noise certainly appear to be helpful, but undercurrents closer to the field of play yet remain.

    March……..Who are U in March ?

  10. And, the team’s books are as clear as they’ve ever been, with Rais and Valdez permanently gone and others likely being let go. A real chance to improve the squad.

  11. “Union head coach Jim Curtin’s support network just improved vastly.”

    This is key, in less-than-expert opinion

  12. Excellence.
    The only acceptable outcome.
    I believe this organization is on the right track. The changes have been swift. As an RN I have been taught to assess, diagnose, plan, intervene, evaluate. This process informs every part of my life…from work to play to parenting to my football club.
    Kudos to Jay Sugarman…. as it is apparent the assessments and diagnosis have been made and are correct. The proper Plan and interventions seem to be under way. Now we will evaluate and adjust where necessary.
    This cycle continues over and over and over again.
    I expect only excellence form this club. I expect this club to be front runners in developing the first US born Homegrown World Class talent.
    Excellence and World Class player(s).

  13. 700 Chopper says:

    I am flattered to be in this article. That being said everything about this team seems to have turned the corner with just a few key moves. Sak being sacked significantly lifted some of the dark cloud hovering over this club and Stewart was a badass grab as Sporting Director. The 2016 season will see us losing a bit but I feel the sinking ship has stabilized and I at least am excited about the future versus the dread I have felt for the last 3 years. Go Union!!!! Go Philly Soccer Page ,great job Dan,Ed,Mike,Eli and anyone I might have missed

  14. Even the team holding a lead and getting a result would be a leap forward. I’m hoping for that level of commitment and discipline for next year. Far to many points given up! Come on the U!!

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