Union

The faces of the team

Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Union

During a commercial break in the Union’s weekend loss at Kansas City, PHL17 ran the team’s official commercial for their 10th Anniversary jersey. It’s a well done bit of marketing: Clean and crisp with fast cuts and lots of action.

(If you haven’t seen the video, here it is.)

However, this isn’t a commentary on the quality of this content, or even one about jerseys.

This is a conversation about who appears in the video, a team still sorely lacking an identity, and the process of failing to find a player (or lacking a player altogether) to be the face of the franchise.

Imagining the Eagles as the Union

Because Philadelphia will always be an American football city, consider a corollary.

In anticipation of the 2019 season, the Philadelphia Eagles create a hype video that showcases some subtle updates to their jersey. It’s still a green shirt, the naysayers will add, but it’s marketing content and a bit of buzz. There are four preseason games worth of tickets to sell, of course.

The first face in the frame? Retired quarterback Donovan McNabb. The next? Wide receiver Shelton Gibson, followed by linebacker Paul Worrilow, then defensive ends Bruce Hector and T.Y. McGill, and finally a close up of McNabb again.

No Carson Wentz (or Nick Foles for that matter, may that man who is a Golden God live forever). No Jason Kelce. No Brandon Graham. No Alshon Jeffrey. No Zach Ertz.

Heck, no Brian Dawkins.

If you’re scratching your head in confusion, that’s the point.

These players were chosen because (in order of appearance):

  1. One is a former and occasionally polarizing star, long since retired
  2. Two is an offensive weapon who was so unused that he ranked 5th from last in minutes played for the Birds in 2018
  3. Three is an off-season signing, potentially impactful but without a minute of playing time here to prove it
  4. Four and five are other little-used players, comfortably snuggled near the bottom of their respective minutes per match rankings

Each of these Eagles players has featured for the team in roughly the same measure as the chosen players in the Union video (relative percentage of appearances). For context, here are the Boys in Blue’s numbers from 2018.

This video would never leave the media desk at Lincoln Financial Field for one obvious reason: it doesn’t feature the players who are the heart and soul of the team.

The reason it left the Union’s media desk?

Neither in Chester nor wherever the reader finds this article, no one has identified who the heart and soul of the Union are.

Who is the chosen one?

Sebastien Le Toux became a Union legend for three important reasons: a hat-trick in the team’s first match, his unrelenting work rate thereafter (Philly Tough, and all that), and his disarming humility while in constant service to the Greater Philadelphia community.

That he married a local girl and stayed is notable too.

He’s one of us!

He was the perfect player at the perfect time for the Union and he capitalized on that serendipity to become the only person whose name is enshrined above Talen Energy Stadium’s field.

Since retiring as a player in 2016, the role he played as leader and figurehead is still unfilled and the void he left has continued to grow. Many players have checked some of the requisite boxes to take the Frenchman’s place, but none of have done so completely or with the effortless poise Le Toux exhibited.

  • Maurice Edu was close, but the injuries that cut his career short left him unable to produce enough moments on the field to memorialize his name above it.
  • Tranquillo Barnetta and Borek Dockal weren’t here long enough, despite their fire and quality.
  • CJ Sapong didn’t score quite enough, or perhaps not quite consistently enough (his team records notwithstanding).
  • Ray Gaddis was who he was and is who he is, and that will never be enough for many fans.
  • Current Captain Alejandro Bedoya will always be under-appreciated and unjustifiably maligned as a do-everything glue-guy. He is also the kind of player who doesn’t produce enough statistics upon which to easily hang a marketing hat — and frankly doesn’t seem interested in using a certain je ne sais quoi a true team-community liaison must have — and thus keeps him on the periphery.

In the end, there are only two real choices left.

Youth, or Marco Fabian.

Youth is a mirage, Marco is an unknown

Only a handful of teams gave more minutes to homegrown players in 2018 than did the Union. This figure is a bit misleading though. Once the cameos of Matt Real and Anthony Fontana are subtracted out (guys who put on the Union shirt briefly and then were firmly stuck in Bethlehem for the rest of the season), the team earned those minutes by frankly running two young defenders into the ground. One of these defenders, Austin Trusty, didn’t miss a minute of league action all year, despite his unit allowing more goals than all but one other playoff team.

In 2019, the same trend line has already begun. Against Sporting Kansas City, promoted Academy players like Brendan Aaronson, Derrick Jones, and Olivier Mbaizo all made the trip to the Blue Cauldron. Only one made as much as a substitute appearance in a match begging for midfield creativity and security, and one clearly lacking verve down the right side.

Each of these three players offer their own solution to these problems, however cannot do so while wearing only a warm-up pinny.

The face of the team is not yet youth.

Marco Fabian had a less-than-memorable moment in the Midwest too. Earning a yellow card, missing a penalty, and then earning a straight red is a hat trick that only a Philadelphia sports fan could love and loathe.

The Mexican international clearly offers something on the field that few Union players can replicate. Given his mercurial start, it’s unclear what that “something” will be so far. Moreover, because of his booking Union fans will have to wait even longer to find out.

Part of the narrative for acquiring Fabian was his potential to be the kind of player that could link a club to a community: More fans at games, more merchandise sales, and more goodwill across all different platforms and demographics.

Perhaps all of those things will come to pass.

This screen capture from the moment before the first kick of the team’s season opening loss to Toronto FC suggests such a day has not yet arrived.

Juxtaposed against the crowd from the Union’s season opener in 2012, there is real reason to believe that day is a much longer way away than any team supporter might want to believe.

Summary

The Union have a lot of soul-searching to do.

They have the same problems scoring goals that they had last year, an obvious need to rediscover their identity as a soccer team, and in the process find their passion on the field. The Union look lost and angry, consistently out of position and spinning around to cover for their equally lost teammates, squandering goal-scoring opportunities at a league-worst rate, and making life harder on themselves with their unforced errors at seemingly every turn.

They need a leader to help them affect this change. Two matches into the season despite a roster with relatively little turnover, no one seems ready to step into that role.

The Union will have to keep searching.

11 Comments

  1. “The Union will have to keep searching.”

    .

    Respectfully, this is their identity. They’re a bad team, with a bad manager, operating under an awful organization. Heck, the team’s initials are P.U.

    • PhilinWilmington says:

      It works for the Cleveland Browns… a closed system means as long as it’s not a catastrophic financial loss, mediocrity is the cost of doing business. Recent SuperBowl aside, the Eagles have long been criticized for spending “just enough” to compete. And lord knows what the Phillies are up to. But the have a history of winning to bank on. Hazy memories of that one time we remember Dad and Grandpa being really happy when we were seven. Nostalgia. That’s what other Philly teams have. You can’t hot-house that. But you have to make following the Union – up or down – and home games – memorable. And it hasn’t really been. I’d rather see a team like this “go down” and compete at a USL level and create real memories…

      Tell me again why pro-rel is a bad idea?

  2. Well argued. Good data from thorough and thoughtful research. The point about goals allowed by playoff teams is especially well taken.
    .
    If the article retains its force June 1st, then we truly are stuck in my favorite Yogi Berra quote, “Deja vu all over again.”

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    Win. Just win games. Play well and win. And the marketing takes care of itself.
    .
    Excellent points raised in the article, though. Well written.

    • to be fair to winning, they’ve had a pretty decent home record these past couple seasons. mind you, most of those wins i haven’t witnessed in my increasingly irregular trips to Chester (lots of losses and a few ugly ties). Winning doesn’t seem to be the problem, outside of winning big games like US Open Cup, or a playoff match.

      funny that you show that 2012 pic. my first home opener. it was an impressive place. optimism abound. i misread the line “there is real reason to believe that day is a much longer way away” as “juxtaposed to 2012, we’ve reached (the new) bottom.” but that still applies. Once the Phils get going, attention by the casual fan will have stiff competition. “do i see this 25 year old savior of a player this franchise spent ‘stupid money’ on, or do i drive my car to Chester to see — who do they have these days?”

      • What struck me most about the picture from 2012 was that opening match was the first game after the team’s most successful season ever (until last year). 2012, when it ended, was actually a complete disaster of a season, but the first kick was celebrated the way it ought to be: with a sold-out stadium.

      • totally. i recall the pains of that campaign and the hope for a better (and largely forgettable) 2013 campaign.
        now, most successful season, can’t make a dent in fan interest.

    • +1

      Who wants to go to Chester in 40 degree weather to see a team who’s best finish was in 2011, a third place eastern conference finish that was good enough for 8th out of an 18-team league? Besides that one “good” year, the best they’ve done is 6th in the conference and 11th in the shield race (both last year). That’s not good – it’s barely even average, and that’s the second best season in our entire history.

      Expansion teams since 2010 have:

      – Won an MLS cup in 2015 (Portland), won and lost one in 2018 (Atlanta & Portland)
      – Been runners up in CCL in 2015 (Montreal’s fluky run)
      – Had extremely marketable world renown players that made more than our entire rosters have (David Villa for NYCFC and Kaka for Orlando)
      – Played gorgeous attacking soccer, in amazing atmospheres, in beautiful stadiums (LAFC and Atlanta)

      The Red Bulls, they of the “17 years no Cups chant!” have been shield winners 3 of the last 6 seasons. And if their fans cared enough, will be starting the same chant at us.

      Win, and the stadium gets full, The River End gets back to rocking, and the face of the franchise will be picked from his play on the field. Maybe it’s Fabian, maybe it’s Trusty, Aaronson, or some unknown, but a face will emerge.

  4. The guy who should be face of the team now lives in Colorado.

    Local, talented, All Star starter; obviously had to go…

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