Fans' View

Fans’ View: A lingering unease

Photo by Earl Gardner

There is a lot to be positive about right now if you’re a fan of the Philadelphia Union.

The team is in first place in the Eastern Conference. This is the latest in the season they have held that honor since 2011. They are winning the praises of pundits, both local and national. They are, for the most part, playing fun and entertaining soccer that passes the eye test. And of course Ilsinho is embarrassing opposing defenders with ridiculous regularity.

So why is it that I can’t seem to fully enjoy it? Why do I keep waiting for the streak to end, for the other boot to drop?

I spent the long Gold Cup break thinking about my feeling of unease and trying to figure it out, and I’ve come up with several potential reasons.

Team history

“That’s so Union” didn’t become the unofficial catchphrase of many fans without reason. For practically their entire existence, the Philadelphia Union have been prone to late collapses, disappointing finishes, and particularly heartbreaking losses in Open Cup Finals.

There have been a couple seasons that stand out as particularly disappointing, because at this time during each of these years, the Union were in good position. In 2016, the Union led the Eastern Conference well into late June, but the sudden departure of Vincent Nogueira threw the rhythm of the team off for the rest of the year. They ended up backing their way into a first round playoff loss. In 2013, Philadelphia rose as high as second in the East before Jack McInerney lost his mojo and the team fell out of the playoff picture entirely. And in 2011, even though the indomitable defense led by Faryd Mondragon, Danny Califf, and Carlos Valdes pushed them to a third place finish, the franchise still fell in just the first round of the playoffs. There are enough old scars and bad memories to justify some level of skepticism during this latest hot start.

League history

Doesn’t it sometimes feel like the first half of the Major League Soccer Season doesn’t really matter? When teams like Seattle or D.C. can seemingly take the start of the season off, turn it on for the second half, and end up in as good a position as anyone, it’s hard not to feel this way. Getting hot at the right time is everything in MLS, and I have a pointed fear that the Union may have peaked too soon.

Lack of elite talent?

Consensus around MLS circles seems to be that you need players of an elite caliber in order to truly compete for MLS Cup.

Giovinco in Toronto, Lodeiro in Seattle, or Almiron in Atlanta come to mind as players that have led their teams to championships. This year, Vela looks to be doing the same with LAFC. The Union’s team-focused philosophy and by-committee approach to goal-scoring is admirable. And players like Monteiro and Medunjanin are certainly talented. However, there can be no denying the fact that they are a step below the level of some of the top players in the league.

Even so…

Thinking these things over initially made me more worried for the future of this promising Philadelphia Union season.

However, when I looked back on the concerns I had written down, I realized that none of my fears were based on the team I was actually watching on the field every week. My fears didn’t have anything to do with how the team is currently playing, any tactical deficiencies or disturbing trends I had seen in their actual play. They had more to do with old wounds, biased assumptions, and plain overthinking.

Unlike previous editions of the Union, I think this team is really, truly good. They deserve their current place in the standings. They aren’t perfect, but without a true disaster, they should comfortably finish out the season in a playoff spot.

Knowing this, I’ve decided to stop worrying about what might happen, and simply enjoy that my team is playing well. It will be a tough task, as I am a born-and-raised Negadelphian.

But if I can’t do that, then what’s the point of being a fan at all?



  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    This is dating after you’ve just been dumped. Trust is an impossibly hard thing to rebuild.

  2. pragmatist says:

    I’m most concerned about the number of times we have required the heroics of Ilsinho to determine an outcome. That is unsustainable. However, if Wooten can prove to be a more consistent scorer, we likely won’t need the heroics as much.
    But there have already been number of stories talking about how Union teams of the past “wouldn’t have gotten a result in a game like that.” When you take a step back, you have to ask: Why were they in the situation that made a statement like that necessary? Can it be prevented going forward?
    Plus, does the league have enough film on them now to defend our forwards and midfielders, and did teams use the break to learn how to break down our defense better? Trusty has been below expected standards, even if Elliot has been above them.
    Those 2 paragraphs sounded negative, but they are legitimate questions. Even with those topics, I think this team is still likely to be a top 4 team by the end the season.
    – MTL has a -6 GD, so are they artificially inflated in the standings?
    – Can Rooney and Acosta carry DC through a full season?
    – Without Almiron and Tata, are ATL just pretty good, instead of great?
    Everyone in the conference has questions about their team. Where the Union hold an edge is in depth. And if Fabian ever sees the field again, he will be like a 2nd mid-season signing, and at a DP level.
    We’re positioned well, but our Sports-related PTSD as Philly (especially Union) fans will keep us waiting for the other shoe to drop until the games are done.

    • I’m so in the opposite position. I see the things you point to, and I acknowledge they are concerns. But I say despite those things the Union are still in first place. They still find ways to get results. How many games has Jim had the full squad available for selection? This team isn’t totally gelling and are still in first place. Reinforcements are on the way….
      I just can’t see it that way anymore. If the “other shoe drops” it will have to be of catastrophic proportions to totally ruin this season. I don’t see that happening.
      Let go of the past. It feels good. The missteps and fumbles at this point will have nothing to do with ghosts of yore.

  3. My reason for unease is the schedule. We have to have 1 of the 3 hardest schedules left in the league with 2 extra road games to play.

    • I’m feeling positive in that Curtin has been going at a lot of our away games and not holding back too much. That made a difference last year, and I think it will give us an edge down the stretch – of course good teams get points on the road, so it will certainly determine our character and probably mood going into the playoffs.

  4. still optimistic with the potential players that can still contribute in Fabian and now Wooten. would like some squad rotation to rest players. would it be a better to go into the playoffs leading the conference but gassed or make them well-rested and carrying momentum? i’d like to see that rotation start tomorrow.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    I’m in the “F it!! Let’s just ride it out!” camp. I’m not gonna stress about how they might fall apart. We get a good season on average, what… every 4 seasons?!? To hell with it. If they can host a playoff game, I’ll be happy. Sounds pathetic but it’s real progress. With Tanner I feel like we’ve turned the corner as an organization… so getting that home game and hopefully winning it is real progress you can build on… with the confidence that short comings will be addressed and the team will hopefully keep getting better.

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