Commentary

What makes the Union different this year?

Photo credit Brad Youtz

After a disappointing season, the Philadelphia Union used the offseason to make some surprising roster changes. Promising players were traded away, contracts of dubious value were renewed, and players have been brought in to give Union fans a reason to believe this might be the year. Of course, you know this. Not because you’ve been hanging on every piece of MLS news you could find for the past several months. You know it because in ten seasons, this is the ninth time the Union have put on the same predictable production.

That isn’t to say there’s no reason to pay attention this season, far from it. Marco Fabián is the most exciting player the Union have ever signed, if not on the field than from a marketing and outreach standpoint. And the young talent being forged at YSC academy and honed with Bethlehem Steel FC, looks ready to finally start making an impact on the first team. The Union’s training facilities, opened a few years ago, and stadium are more than adequate if not league-leading. Sporting Director Ernst Tanner appears to be combining the structure and strategy of his predecessor with a pragmatic adaptability that all corners of the Union universe had been screaming for.  This is without a doubt the most promising the Union have ever looked at the tail end of preseason.

And yet the negative-Philadelphian trope persists. Fan engagement is always tenuous in preseason, but this season feels more tepid than any before it. A massive foreign signing garnered interest but not fanfare, and the departure of promising young talent in the form of Keegan Rosenberry was met with consternation but never outrage. Without a doubt the biggest danger facing the Union isn’t big-money teams like Atlanta, or smart money teams like the Red Bulls. It’s the apathy and disinterest festering along the banks of their own stretch of the Delaware River.

They’re hardly the first Philadelphia team to face this challenge. The Phillies have been a famously mediocre team as long as I can remember, a few outlier seasons above or below that expectation notwithstanding. And a little over a year ago the Eagles were a team where success was longer gone than the kelly green uniforms they used to wear. The Sixers and Flyers, even as Philadelphia’s most successful teams, have had long and recent bouts of unremarkability.

The key difference is that those other four Philadelphia teams have at least a half century of history each. So even when the Phillies are eleven and a half games behind in June, the conversation in the stands can still harken back to the “good old days” of 2008, 1993, or even 1980. That success, whether earned, discovered, or stumbled upon quite accidentally, goes a long way and can sustain a fanbase for literal decades.

But the Union haven’t found that success yet. Granted they’ve had a fraction of the time those other teams have had, so the comparison can never be apples to apples. But until they do find that success, they’re not only going to have a hard time holding fan attention through the season, but they’ll never really find their place in the Philadelphia sports landscape.

18 Comments

  1. My excitement for this season revolves around certain players and finding out if the new SD and his philosophy can translate here. My expectations for the team as a whole are quite muted. There still seem to be ill fitting pieces and how things will mesh together under a manager who notoriously runs players into the ground and is reluctant to rotate, is anyone’s guess. It’s just another year in Union land.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    flogged
    &
    flayed
    .
    faithful
    .
    Bond

  3. I think I make the same mistake every year. But I can’t help it. My expectations always slightly outpace reality. I’m excited to see Fabian play. And I think the new tactical outlook for the club will suit its roster better.

    But for things to go well — and meet my expectations — Fabian has to stay healthy and put this team on his back in a way that may be completely unfair for me to expect. The young guys all have to be very good and the Curtin needs to demonstrate a command of the formation and his roster that he hasn’t always demonstrated.

    We’ll see. Win some games and I think apathy will disappear pretty quickly. Drop lots of points in the first few months and it’s going to be a quiet summer at Talen.

  4. Aside from having an elite striker, I am cautiously optimistic about the team.
    I would feel a little better though if I got the sense that Curtin will be managed more by our new sporting director. I think Curtin is a good guy with good intentions, but he is still a young manager with not a ton of top level experience.
    Managers still need to be managed by executives, and executives by boards. People need to be both coached and held accountable.
    I understand why the Union need the academy to be successful and that Tanner will help with that, but I also hope he takes an active role in coaching Curtin and holding him responsible for his decisions. While we will probably never see behind the Curtin (pun intended) and know for sure, I hope that Tanner will take a more active role than it seems like Earnie did.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      my guess is, there are no free rides with Ernst Tanner.
      .
      produce. results.
      .
      the one year deal is an enormous statement.
      .
      I’d argue there is a chance the manager doesn’t see Gold Cup if a Union typical season start– unfolds, as has in the past.

      • Ernst seems full of the German pragmatism. If Curtin doesn’t get the job done, he’ll be gone.

      • Tanner himself has said the new system is going to take time.
        .
        I would guess Jim Curtin gets the full year unless he loses his locker room.
        .
        Tanner knows the players have to see his treatment of the coach as fair in order to accept it and move on.

    • Curtin took us to the playoffs last year with a cheap team that had big money busts that a cheap team cant afford (Accam, Simpson). Not sure why he is hated on so much still. Our ownership really really sucks.

      • He started Sapong game after game after game when it was clear he wasn’t getting the job done. He cost this team a home playoff game by doing that. He’s lost three Open Cup finals. He started 3 30 year old midfielders every game during 3 game a week stretches, after which ALL of them flagged down the stretch run of the season. That’s pretty much enough for me to doubt his quality as a manager.

      • All4U summed that up nicely +1

      • While I agree that Sapong offensively was unproductive, any type of pressing defensive system requires two-way play. Sapong defends.
        .
        I do not trust David Accam to do so. I am willing to be proven wrong, but … .
        .
        the Union have doubled down on defensive pressure. that will govern roster choices.
        .
        Final thought. Assess carefully when starting-lineup decisions come from.
        .
        I assert with full confidence that the Bethlehem head coach does not hold final say over his lineup. why should Curtin?

      • Sure Tim, but two way play indicates scoring also. I’d rather have the scoring and lack of pressure than just pressure, as that IS the main part of a strikers job. Which Burke does Both more than adequately.

      • The Sapong thing drives me crazy as well, but literally none of that refuted anything that I said. We have a cheap owner and Earnie busted on some high wage players. That’s a recipe for disaster. Yet we still punched above our weight. Jim was clearly forced to play Earnies system and had us playing some pretty good soccer for long stretches last year while working in some really young players.

  5. My view is always glass half full! I do worry that Curtin will make a mess of the season. Buy always hope I’m wrong. I really want to see success with this squad. So with my glass half full of the Koolaid, my rose eyewear in place, and heart on the sleeve of my Jersey….Come on the U!!

  6. Don’t know if I’ll be at any Sat. night games this season because the 7:30 start time means I’ll miss the 10 PM train back to Philly, but I will check out it on TV . . . kinda curious how they’ll fare against a weak East,

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