Featured / Union

One player away

Photo by Paul Rudderow

It was the kind of soaking Tuesday night in Northern Liberties that feels like the tightly-packed row homes are leaning over their respective sidewalks, blotting out even the yellowed street lamps.

A gathering was underway. Some Philly Soccer Page originals, some newbies, a photographer, a filmmaker or two, a contributor, and an out-of-town editor were deep in discussion in the smokey back room of a Mexican restaurant, at a table full of sweating drinks and sweat-inducing chorizo tacos. There were 5 o’clock shadows and the varied, creative iterations of facial hair fitting for this type of group in this type of place. There was even an empty chair for a particular midfielder-turned-tactician-turned-television superstar who was an 11th hour scratch.

The conversation bounced from the pleasantries of catching up to each attendee’s own on-pitch hero story, including “the one about the Uruguayan and the elbowed-out tooth” and “the one about the lovely-weighted through ball and the blown Achillies.” There was also the one about the missing midfielder’s uncanny ability to pick up fouls by the handful but never a red card, his off-brand mismatched socks, and the wouldashouldacouldabeen title of his recurring column that sadly never was.

Eventually, the topics of conversation coalesced around the juicy bits of inside “football” that can only truly marinate amongst one group who has been covering a club for the better part of a decade. From the best players to interview to the ones who never seemed to stay in the locker room long enough for a microphone to arrive, from the disabling impossibilities of Chester Park and the Nowak regime to the warm and personal humanity of John Hackworth and Jim Curtin, from the rumors which shall not be verified to the ones that everyone knows and loves, from Rainbow FC to Jay Sugerman, not a story was left untold.

The stone walls and tin ceiling kept the decibel level buoyant and bright, as did the continually flowing weeknight drinks and bottomless tortilla chips.

A mariachi song was marking time in the dimly lit room when the record scratched to a halt. The editor said, with all honesty and clarity, “I really think the Union are one player away from being a genuinely good team.”


The pause and accompanying group nod-and-uniform-drink-sip was more in support of the proclamations of an old friend than it was one of complete agreement. But the din of chatter picked up quickly where it left off with this hypothesis, a trope that seemed as old as the Boys in Blue themselves.

“It’s Sapong,” said someone quickly. An obvious answer, he of the expected goals number with a depth akin to the Mariana Trench.

“No, it’s Accam,” said someone else, a player whose contribution to his new team has been teasing the squad’s underwhelming new jersey, a single league goal, and an ever-lengthening series of might-have-been moments and touches to forget.

“It doesn’t matter which one it is, no one is spending actual money on a difference-maker for this team,” said a third, deriding the Chuck-e-Cheese token and Monopoly Money strategy the Union have employed in their recent big-money transfers.

There was no mention of goalkeepers or defenders, knowing that Andre Blake has seemingly found his forever home between the Talen Energy Stadium pipes, and if ever there were a place wherein the proverbial process might be McTrusted, defender is it.

It wasn’t in the central midfield either, where the trio of Bedoya, Medujnanin, and Dockal were roundly considered the team’s highest quality players on the field and its most engaging personalities off of it. It wasn’t on the left wing, where the ever-charging Fafa Picault has done nothing short of leave everything on the field despite leaving several goals there too.

Was it really one guy? Maybe. Maybe?


If it was one guy and it was one position, was he really the third division French winger rumored to be Snapchatting from Philadelphie? Well…

“He fits the, ‘If you’ve heard of him, they spent too much,’ theory of Moneyball,” said the filmmaker, “but that’s about it.”

“I’ve certainly never heard of him,” chimed the photographer, “and he’s apparently free…”

“That’s in our price range!” joked the empty chair.

“He’s got a hell of a beard,” said the contributor. “My wife will appreciate that.”

“It has to be a striker,” said the original, definitively. “Everybody else is good enough for this league, even if they’re not doing their job… but the team can’t score. That falls on one guy.”

He was right. Or, at least he wasn’t wrong.

The striker was good once, even great for a fleeting few months. Whatever black magic had befallen him had done so with a vengeance though, and he had become a shell of his former self. Sluggish and always a step late, it had become unbearable to watch.

Maybe it wasn’t his fault, maybe. Maybe it was. The fact of the matter was it wasn’t working for him. Something had changed for the worse and wasn’t changing back.

If you can’t change people, change people…

Was it really one guy? Maybe.

As the gathering began to splinter into the still soupy Philadelphia night, the question lingered.

“Sometimes,” said the original,”it feels like the same stories every year.”

The group looked up from their arriving Uber maps for a brief moment.

“They wait too long to prepare, start slow, get hot for a few matches, make a Cup run but fail, and ultimately either fall short by a match or make the playoffs by a match. Either way they’re back home the following weekend to do it all over again a few months later.”

There was a collective grunt before phone screens and arriving drivers were the focus again.

“It’s the same story every year,” he reiterated to no one in particular.

Every year, one player away.


  1. This is fantastic stuff.

  2. Very nicely-written piece.

    I have dissent on the central midfield though. I think Bedoya is clearly the team’s glue — and often in unheralded ways — and Dockal is clearly very talented but has also been quite inconsistent for us. Unfortunately, much as I love the guy, Medunjanin has been a problem. He just doesn’t play enough defense for his position on the pitch.

  3. You did not discuss the coach?! Better coach could have gotten much more out of the players. Why is Ayuk not playing?! With Ayuk and Picault on the wings we could have had a lot more points this season.

    • LOL, Are you serious??? What has Ayuk shown in the past two seasons to suggest he should be in the 18, let alone the starting 11?

  4. Zizouisgod says:

    Great piece. The virtual sameness of each Union season is what gets me. Sure, there are slight variations or nuances to each, but the overriding results are always the same.

    The Union control play for the 1st half against a better, more talented team, but either fail to score or only get one goal…CHECK

    Opposition comes back out after half-time with a different mindset/tactical approach and equalize before going ahead.
    Union huff and puff to try to get back into the match, but ultimately fail to make it happen. Fans dejectedly exit the stadium to the Strawbs blaring over the PA…CHECK.

    (FWIW – I now equate that Strawbs chorus to utter disappointment. I’m sure if I heard it right now, it would bring me down.)

    The Union fade from the pack during Aug and Sept when other MLS teams start to gather steam in their play-off push…CHECK

    I’m sure that people can come up with several other consistent themes that run across each Union season.

  5. Nice piece!
    “There was no mention of goalkeepers or defenders, knowing that Andre Blake has seemingly found his forever home between the Talen Energy Stadium pipes, and if ever there were a place wherein the proverbial process might be McTrusted, defender is it.”
    This is actually something I’ve been on about. I understand the youth movement, but CB and GK are the positions that tend to trend at an older peak age. If I was to try to move youth forward, CB is the last position I’d do that with.
    Nearly every single game there’s a goal because one of the 19 year olds got burned.
    Will this help them? Maybe, but I doubt it.

  6. el Pachyderm says:

    This article gets 2 Thumbs Up for using language beautifully…..but with respect, the only intersection of great and striker this team has ever seen at any time was the little fish who conjured standing still shadows which made defenders uncomfortable with full knowledge they were being put to sleep. The amble. The total disinterest in anything soccer that lullabied a central defender to purposely only to turn when it was too late screaming themselves awake.
    I always loved the banal comments about what Carlos Ruiz wasn’t. What he was….was a lethal striker. Capable of 15 seconds of game changing brilliance…. not hold up play, pressing or the dead end of god awful end state maintenance route 1 soccer.

  7. Wonderful work Chris. Just brilliant.

  8. John Harris says:

    Well written. It’s like our Waiting for Gadot. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waiting_for_Godot.
    I think by and large the organization has been waiting for these characters over the years: a striker, a coach, and an owner that cares. In reality, the lack of a striker and coach are not the essential problem but symptoms – it’s the ownership group. It’s always been the ownership group.
    Unlike the play named above, the fans seem to be leaving the park bench as Gadot will never come so long as the current ownership is in place.

  9. Bravo! This is one of the best written and composed stories PSP has put out.

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