Fans' View

Fans’ view: Five reasons Philadelphia have failed to meet expectations

Photo: Earl Gardner

Back in February, I asked in my Fans’ View column “What should the Union’s new mission statement say?” At that time, a statement of vision, mission and goals that had hung in Talen’s exclusive club had been taken down, as (allegedly) a new statement was being worked on. Six months later and there has been no public announcement that I’m aware of.

Then yesterday, the PSP Daily Roundup linked to a piece by J. Sam Jones in titled, “The 5 reasons soccer exceeded all expectation when MLS came to Atlanta.” So I thought it might be worth comparing and contrasting what Atlanta United FC’s approach has been vs. the Union’s efforts to become relevant in the Philly sports market.

Reason #1: “A team of their own.”

Jones describes Atlanta as a city of transplants, with fans who care more about the teams they grew up with than Atlanta’s own. Jones argues that Atlanta United leveraged the fact that the relative newness of MLS meant that these transplants had little or no history with a hometown team. United parlayed pride in Atlanta into a team that would be distinctly Atlantan.

Here in Philadelphia, not only do we have a crowded pro sports market, but you either bleed “Iggles Green”, Phillies red, Flyers orange and the Sixers’ appropriately patriotic red, white and blue, or you are shunned from most established social circles. Sure, there are Giants and Yankees and Cowboys fans in the metro area, but we try to sequester them across the river. Besides, the Union are really in Chester, which is almost like saying the Harrison Scarlet Bovines are from New York. Don’t get me started.

Reason #2: “Arthur Blank loves a start-up (and his family).

United’s owner started Home Depot from scratch. He met his wife on a pitch and a number of his kids play the beautiful game. Jones says Blank is “… a leader with his vision and core values that he has across all his businesses…That commitment to being a success was there right from day one.”

The Union has Jay Sugarman, who runs REIT and the Union not so right. Sugarman’s vision and core values? Moneyball, youth development, leveraging MLS funny money, pleas for patience and knives to gunfights.

Reason #3: “Making moments multiply.”

Jones cites a foundational moment when owner Arthur Blank picked up Andrew Carleton, their first Homegrown, in Blank’s posh Mercedes to unveil him at an exclusive Atlanta night spot. Because of moments and publicity like that, United attracted a crowd of 2,000 for their first Academy game. Even United’s President Darren Eales has been pictured in costume “….in crowds around Atlanta preaching the gospel of Atlanta United.”

In this regard, Earnie Stewart was no Darren Eales. Shows of similar exuberance and proselytizing by any of the Union’s leadership team have been as rare as an Eric Ayuk sighting.

Reason #4: “El Tata.”

Atlanta’s leadership hired Gerardo Martino, former MNT head coach for Paraguay and Argentina. He also coached Barcelona. Let’s just leave it that no Union head coach has had a similar career path.

Reason #5: “Atlanta’s reputation as a ‘Bad Sports Town.”

Jones asserts that reasons “1 through 4 don’t happen without No. 5.” Atlanta lost the Thrashers. NHL teams have come and gone. You’d hear crickets at Atlanta’s MLB and NFL games if it weren’t for the opposition’s fans. The city has seen only one major sports championship since 1966. Philly says, “Ha Atlanta! Who’s your Daddy?” when it comes to being a real sports town.

United’s leadership took the “bad sports town” label as a challenge and devised a strategy that would flip the script. Union leadership, on the other hand, saw an opening in one of the greatest sports markets in the country, with a fan movement created by the Sons of Ben, and tried to leverage those ready-made assets into a rabid, dedicated, intensely loyal following, regardless of the quality of on-field leadership or talent.

United’s Academy came along before the first team was established.  The Union’s training facility only came along when it became apparent they couldn’t hang on to real pros if they trained in a public park. The Union’s comparable talent has both arrived and fled. Fans can only wish for leadership like we see in Atlanta.

Atlanta’s success story begs some questions. Can the Union learn from Atlanta? Is it too late to reboot the Union? Can this team be saved? And with the only qualified team architect in Union history leaving for the USMNT, does Union leadership have the talent, the wits and the wherewithal to flip their own script and become relevant in a league where teams like Atlanta thrive?


  1. Newsflash: Money buys success.

  2. Newsflash: Money buys success.

  3. Summary : Arthur Blank was committed to having a winner on the field Day 1. The Union not so much!

  4. Summary : Arthur Blank was committed to excellence Day 1. The Union not so much.

    Blank’s commitment to excellence on and off the field has resulted in a dynamic environment. The Union staff (operations, coaches, GM’s, etc) do a good job with the handcuffs they are shackled with but you can only go so far.

    If you compare the organizations both on and off the field the union are subpar. That starts at the top.

  5. THE REASON: No results. ALmost all problems the Union have, from attendance to significance in the crowded market, would be greatly addressed by consistent results. Stewart may have done a lot of stuff behind the scenes, but the way he’s conducted business — stoic, professional and close to the vest — has done very little for those of us whose direct relationship with the club is the results. This club has been completely inert when it comes to results. I’d welcome a relegation battle if for no other reason than to make things interesting again. It’s just tedium. Perhaps it’s unfair to have expected Stewart to solve that given the limited resources and woeful state of this club when he arrived, but we’re not wrong for being disappointed and disgusted by the whole thing.

    • Completely agree. But since results honestly are going to be hard to maintain with our payroll (and this is true in all sports), they really should be building the experience and growing the fanbase. To this I have argued and still agree that we should be out there with the most attack heavy lineup/philosophy possible. People will come to the park to see you scoring goals and having some blowouts more than coming to see you barely win or lose 1-0. Americans like offense.

      • For the record, I would totally get behind a team like that. Even the most stalwart Italian has to admit it’s good fun when goals pile up. You echo what they always say: “Defense wins championships but Offense sells tickets”

  6. Sons of Ben should’ve turned down the charter until they knew they’d have a stadium in the City of Philadelphia. Ten years on I’m now hoping a USL/PDL side springs up that I turn my allegiance over to. I wouldn’t be saying that if the Union started with Arthur Blank money. Then again, Arthur Blank money wouldn’t have had a stadium built in Chester.
    Edit: Can the be saved? Yes. The answers are named Josh Haris and Comcast.

  7. Sell the Fing Team NOW says:

    1. Ownership.
    2. Ownership.
    3. Nowak.
    4. Ownership.
    5. Ownership.

  8. This Jay Sugarman organization has done nothing but underwhelm from practically day 1. all of this cloak and dagger BS is typical of the feckless ownership.Stewart was not the one the parent club needed since all he did was keeo the club mediocre and Jim Curtin employed. Anyone they bring in will keep the out of touch and outdated Sugarman money ball philosophy going. The only thing that will save this franchise is new competent and financially competitive ownership. If that happens the first order of business should be to clean out all upper management and coaching. Then build a professional level scouting department with the connections to bring in the 2-3 DP’s needed while building up the academy and Bethlehem Steel FC fan base. Of course that’s wishful thinking on my part.

  9. John O'Donnell Jr says:

    I have a different point of view about this team and the five reasons it doesn’t succeed.
    5.) The Sons of Ben.
    I thought after the first few seasons they became irreverent and lost the momentum they had when they created the group. I was hoping they would have embraced Chester more and set up shop at a local bar instead of doing a tail gate. There are a few on second street and the march would have taken ten minutes from there.
    4.) Piotr Nowak
    The first coach did everything right to start a team and once the team looked like it was ready to compete, he lost his mind. From trying to sell Le Toux to not trying to improve that team.
    3.) Sak
    Goalies….enough said.
    2.) Ernie Stewart
    Ernie took this job to get the job he has now, plain and simple. Yes,he brought in a more professional attitude but he doesn’t understand the Philadelphia fan base.
    He keeps everything a secret and doesn’t bring in players till the last second. It left the fan base more bitter than hopeful each year and you can tell by the dwindling attendance.
    1.) Jay Sugarman
    Let’s face it, if he was trying to get an expansion team today it probably wouldn’t happen for him. He’s not a billionaire which most new teams have multiple partners who are.
    The recession killed him and the project that was suppose to surround the stadium.
    This team is run like the Bill Giles Phillies, a lot of young talent but never taking the risk to get the final pieces.
    Lastly when all the other Philly teams were losing, he didn’t try to grab the market. There was a two year window when they should have made a big DP signing but they sat on Mo who never came back from injury.
    Now he’s competing against owner operators way out of his economic status and it’s time tree sell the team.

  10. Atlanta. Just. Spends. More. Money.

    Also, it drives me crazy when people whine about the stadium in Chester. I grew up in NYC, where you have to schlep an hour in traffic across the river (maybe 2 rivers, depending on which borough you live in) to see either of the NFL franchises. Doesn’t seem to hurt them whatsoever.

    The only reason we got state funding to build a stadium at all is because they agreed to put it in an economically distressed neighborhood. Meanwhile it’s a beautiful stadium with a gorgeous view of the bridge and river. If the Union were a well-run franchise who were getting results, the Chester location would be a non-issue.

    • Atomic Spartan says:

      No one is going to invest in ancillary attractions in Chester (Union-oriented sports bars, restaurants, etc.) until there are signs of gentrification near Talen. While I like the Chesterites who run the family-friendly remote parking lot, there are no real signs of the long promised development along the river.
      We were so eager to get a team that we wound up with an underfunded owner and a tax boondoggle that’s going nowhere. Camden would have made a better choice

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