The Union ship of Theseus

“I don’t know about 2014, I don’t know about 2015, apart from what I see in statistics and results. I can’t judge somebody on the fact that they lost games in 2014 when I was not here.”

Earnie Stewart said these words in mid-April of this year, referencing fan unrest and frustration resulting from the team having only two points through six matches and sitting last in the overall MLS table. His argument was a legitimate one from his perspective: during those seasons and for most of the Union’s existence, Stewart was in Holland playing international Moneyball and taking AZ Alkmaar to the Europa League several times, as well as winning a KNVB Cup.

Digging up the past

During the same period of time, Union fans were, among other things:

  1. Watching their team continue a dismantling of it’s core players by trading it’s talismanic goal-scorer
  2. Watching their head coach being fired and replaced by a truly likable assistant with no experience
  3. Watching their truly unlikable CEO spend his entire transfer budget on a player the team didn’t need at all
  4. Watching that transfer market decision, like a slow motion train wreck, blow up on the entire franchise
  5. Learning of the transgressions of a prior regime that was so egregious and nonsensical as to seem made up
  6. Watching their team miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six tries
  7. Watching their team lose their second consecutive U.S. Open Cup Final at home

On January 1st of 2016, Stewart became the Captain of The S.S. Philadelphia Union. This metaphor is purposeful both for his valid perspective, but equally as significantly the one fans have about a franchise that is now in its eighth season of mediocre existence.

The Theseus Paradox

First and second century Greek philosopher, Plutarch, posed this question in his work, “Parallel Lives:” If a ship leaves port and, while at sea, replaces all of the planks required to make that ship one at a time as they need to be replaced, is it the same ship when it returns back to port? This is called The Theseus Paradox, and it perfectly describes the disconnect between the Union front office and Union fans right now.

Union fans generally look at their franchise today as though it were the same one they started supporting, some as far back as 2009. In addition to the history mentioned above, it doesn’t matter to most fans that these other “boards” were also replaced:

  1. Midfield playmakers Roger Torres and Kleberson, one of them a team original the other a World Cup winner, never saw the field enough to shine except for fleeting moments of brilliance.
  2. Team leader Danny Califf was discarded to MLS purgatory for no reason at all, only to decide to retire altogether shortly thereafter.
  3. Face-of-the-franchise Union great Sebastien Le Toux was traded not once but twice, each representing perhaps the most significant of the replaced “boards” at the time.

What’s important to fans is that this remains “the same ship” they started supporting whenever it was that they got on board. Its name, stadium, crest, and jersey are all the same as they were when the ship set sail; its essence hasn’t changed at all. Sports fandom is this way in every city thanks to free agency and geographic ties, and perhaps the most identifiable modern description of this problem comes in the form of Jerry Seinfeld’s, “We cheer for clothes.”

Different players, different staff, and different front office? “Same old Union.”

O, Captain

Earnie Stewart believes that, having changed nearly all of the boards from the ship he inherited almost exactly eighteen months ago, very little of the essence of the previous ship affects the one he is captaining, if at all. For some context, from the roster that finished the season in October of 2015, only six players remain on the Union roster (with three others from that side being the injured Maurice Edu, and the Bethlehem Steel-bound Fred and Brian Carroll, and Steel FC have only existed since August of 2015 and didn’t play a match until 2016).

Almost all of the original boards are gone from Earnie’s ship.

In his recent podcast, Revisionist History, noted author Malcolm Gladwell presents a different spin on the nature of the boat in the Theseus Paradox that perfectly sums up Stewart’s view: what if the same boat were in a museum and, to avoid detection while attempting to move the entire boat out in one heist, thieves instead removed one board at a time from the ship and replaced each with a fake. Would the remaining boat still be the same one as before? In this case, the answer is clearly “no.”

This is Earnie Stewart’s perspective.

The long view

The Union may climb the table into the playoffs this season. They may also make another deep run into the U.S. Open Cup. They may bring in some players during the summer window that so perfectly fit their scheme as to be divinely inspired, and also ship some out who have always been square pegs in awkwardly round, “4-2-3-1” holes. They may also do none of these things, and it frankly doesn’t matter. Each of these things only matters if Union fans believe that they are on the same ship they boarded whenever their own maiden voyage took place.

From the Captain’s chair, however, this just isn’t the same ship.


For more on this, check out this week’s All Three Points podcast, where Chris and Jeremy discuss the matter.


  1. I’ve read it twice and I’m still not sure what to make of it. .
    Earnie’s perspective is valid, to Earnie.
    The fans’ perspective is valid, to the fans.
    We suck at shipbuilding.
    Sailing is also apparently not our thing.
    Otherwise, yeah, I liked it. Had a good beat and I can dance to it.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      In an odd way I agree with you. I read it twice myself and I am also confused. I feel like ES has a valid point in saying, “I didn’t do those things before I got here, don’t blame me.” Fair. But we as fans of this team for a very long time have been completely accustomed to failure, so – hey ES – stop giving us failure and when the team does fail, with pieces you have put into place, have a little sympathy with the fans.
      Good article though. Enjoyed it and enjoyed the podcast too.

  2. Adam Schorr says:

    If Earnie wants the fans to see this as a new ship, he needs to make it a new ship:
    1. Bad trades. Sold Le Toux (wouldn’t he look good on the RW right now?). Gave away our first for a player who doesn’t play.
    2. Head coach. Nowak, who was moderately successful but fired on other grounds, was replaced by Hackworth, who was less successful. Hack has been replaced by Curtin, who was less successful.
    3. Spent entire transfer budget on players the team doesn’t need. 500K on Ilsinho, a 4-4-2 midfielder. 400K on Alberg, a second striker in a one striker system. 500K on Simpson, another second striker in a one striker system.
    4. Bad signings going bad. Well, none of these are as bad as the Rais situation, but that 1.4M would look pretty good spent on players who fit the formation and start.
    5. Hey, there’s been none of this for years. Go Union!
    6. Playoffs. Well, we backed into the playoffs as the 13th best team of 20 and got immediately eliminated in a fairly non-competitive game, but we made it!
    7. But we only made the QF of the USOC.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t want to see the S.S. Union fitted with new planks. I want a new, modern ship. Right now, this looks like the Same Old (S.S.) Union with a new crew and a paint job. It still runs poorly and inefficiently. When Earnie starts making moves that are clearly in sync with what the team is trying to do, and those moves start leading to results, the fans will stop looking back. But as we sit in 9th place as a poor team with little to look forward to, it’s really hard to see anything other than the same ship.

    • No, Le Toux would not look good on RW. Great guy, great hustle, serious lack of quality and vision. I saw several things from him Saturday that I do not miss at all.
      It was great that they got anything for him as a player.
      Love to have him back in the FO/PR realm someday.

      • I have a very hard time imagining that LeToux wouldn’t have been more helpful to the team than Charlie Davies has been.

      • Kevin, for the most part I agree. But what if LeToux still being here blocked playing time for Fafa or eventually Epps? I’d rather see either one over LeToux any day.

  3. Nick Fishman says:

    Keeping with the metaphor, maybe Stewart is harvesting the lumber to build new planks.

    He has proven to adept at drafting young talent: Elliott, Epps, Yaro, Rosenberry, and Herbers.

    The academy looks equally well stocked: Jones, Trusty, Najem, Fontana, Real, and McKenzie.

    Every team is going to miss on some acquisitions. The key is to make sure you hit on most. Bedoya is the team’s best player. Onyewu, Picault, and Wijnaldum look like key pieces. Without Alberg and Pontius, the Union would not have broken their playoff drought last season.

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    Fabhino, Blake, Creavalle, Gaddis, Marquez, McCarthy, Sapong. I believe that’s 7 who were in Philly before Earnie.

  5. Well if you replace all the boards with holes in them with other boards that still have holes in them, and the captain of said ship can’t get out of the harbor, does it matter if you call the ship the same or not?
    Sorry, but this is a bad analogy for me.

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    It is way too early to say this in anything but a whisper, because five games are only 16 2/3% of a 30 game season, but the Steel seem improved, especially recently. 4-0-1
    That’s a change for the positive at the halfway point of the second season.
    They will never start strong because their first games will always see a wave of first-team players coming down for game minutes, but this year and last once the wave recedes, better play as a team happened.
    That is a new plank with a hole that is smaller.

  7. “Talismanic goal-scorer”…Jack McInerney?
    Might as well start pining away for that “sparkplug” Danny Cruz too.
    A LOT of dead weight (with a little more to go) has been tossed overboard and I like what I see from the re-fitting so far. Keep going Earnie.

  8. That’s interesting, I started reading this and thought “Funny, Malcom Gladwell just talked about the Theseus Paradox on a recent podcast of Revisionist History….oh. Guess we’re both fans.”
    But the interesting part is where Gladwell and the philosopher he discussed the paradox with landed. From a certain point of view, with regards to different situations, both perspectives were valid. Likewise with the fans view of the Union vs. Stewart’s view.
    But what I want to know is this: to what degree have the ingrained and unconscious habits and practices, culture, attitudes, etc. (i.e., “the way things are done”) continued in the mid-level front office and coaching staff from the way things started out under Sakowicz, Nowak and to a lesser extent, Sugarman? Yes, replacing the top-level positions in any organization can change the tenor and direction, but often might not result in very different end-results if the mid-level employees continue employment and don’t significantly change the way they do things. This problem can be exacerbated in an organization that promotes from within, as the Union have done twice with regards to head coach (and probably other positions).
    Now I’m not saying that Curtin is secretly just like Nowak, or anything crazy. That’s obviously not the case. But, for example, if Stewart came in last year and is relying on the same Union scouting staff, and they’re still doing things in more or less the same way as they’ve always done it, I wouldn’t expect to see hugely significant changes in the kinds of players that the Union end up recruiting. They might say they’re looking for “moneyball” players now, but if they don’t actually know how to identify those traits in players, they’re going to end up intuitively falling back on what they know. Different kinds of players just aren’t going to show up on the list of potential acquisitions that Stewart gets from the people under him, before he starts looking at which of those players and that list deserve a closer look.
    Now, this is an actual question I’m asking – I have no idea and I’m not trying to argue one way or another. This example might also be a poor understanding of how Stewart works. But it’s just an example. I don’t think you’re going be able to get a good answer to this from people inside – you’d need a business anthropologist or something to come in as a consultant to get at this question. But to me, it could be an explanation for why the Union always seem to be the “Same Old Union” – i.e., keep basically having the same results, achieved in the same kind of inept ways – despite significant turnover in personnel since the organization began.
    Sorry for the long digression.

    • First their “scouting” department is/was basically Albright. Having been a player for the Union right before he got the position, I doubt any tendencies have actually been ingrained. He had the job for only a year or two before Stewart came. Also Sugarman’s directive to Stewart this year was basically get yourself a scouting staff. So again, no real continuity from the previous regime. You could point to the coaching staff, Curtin, Sorber, etc., but they have all been claimed to be on the same page as Stewart since before he even arrived. So honestly, I myself have a hard time trying to understand why things have gone the same way (results wise) as under Sak. If anything, I’d venture it was Stewart’s MLS learning curve that is causing the similarities.

  9. We may have a new ship builder and planks, but the captain is the same. He’s also the former first mate and former deckhand.
    If you have the same captain and same thought processes, then new planks had better be significantly better than the old, or there won’t be progress.

  10. John Harris says:

    Stewart seems like he knows what he is doing, to me at least. The Union seem 2 deep at all four defensive positions. They play a defensive formation. Seems like a cogent theory here – build from the back. Maybe in the coming months or year, a legitimate center attacking mid and better wings and striker… ie. new offense to go with the new defense / midfield.
    Here is another analogy… Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it had good engineers.
    I get frustrated with the parsimony of the ownership but I think there is a clear plan here and the organization is headed in the right direction.

    • This is Phil says:

      I agree that I can see progress and a foundation being built, but I’ll feel really excited about things once Alberg, Simpson, and Edu are off the payroll and that money is put toward a better backup for Sapong and a true #10.

      Which is to say, I’ll still root for the boys in blue, but I’m already looking forward to next season.

  11. Benjaminho says:

    Earnie will be judged on his body of work from January 2016. Just as Sak the Charlatan was judged on his.

    I just wrote the same article in 2 sentences.

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