Commentary / Season Review

The Union and how they fit into the Philadelphia sports narrative

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Being a Philadelphia sports fan, one can sometimes feel like a walking cliché.

Loud, obnoxious, boorish. We boo Santa Claus, pick fights with opposing fans and have a courtroom in the stadium. On that rare occasion we actually win, the city greases the poles and we eat horse crap off the pavement.

The recounting of these clichés is as much a cliché as the stock footage of the ubiquitous cheesesteak sizzling on the grill at commercial breaks.

But the biggest (and truest) cliché is the abject mediocrity and organizational dysfunction of the teams we blindly support.

The Eagles finally win a Super Bowl followed by promises of dynastic hegemony. Well, it didn’t take long to revert to the mean. The Sixers have not won a championship since 1983 and recently lost in straight games in the first round of the playoffs. The Flyers are still living in their mid 70’s glory days of the Broad Street Bullies. The Phillies are… the Phillies.

Long suffering Philadelphia fans yearn for a team with consistency both on and off the field. With disciplined quality players, strong and insightful coaching and wise choices when it comes to picking personnel and allocating dollars. Even if the team is having an off year in the standings, it is only a blip and better times are ahead.

So where do the Union fit into this narrative?

Well, there has certainly been mediocrity. With middling annual results it took a decade before they won their first playoff game against the Red Bulls last year. Three times they made it to the Open Cup finals and three times they walked away empty handed.

But this year, the clouds parted, the sun shined through and the team hoisted the Supporters’ Shield (or a reasonable facsimile anyway). Was this a one shot deal? Will the fans be grousing over their Shortis next season as the Union try to back their way into the playoffs? Or will they reach the promised land of consistency and success?

This season could have been a typical Philadelphia-like season. Expectations were high following a good season, ending up high in the table and winning the aforementioned playoff game. There was quality and depth at every position – the only real question mark was at the defensive midfield in the post-Medunjanin era. So when they went to Dallas for the opening match and dropped a dog, those deeply ingrained feelings of dread started to seep in. But then they met LAFC, the team with the best roster in the MLS and presumed league champion and earned a hard fought draw. In that game we were introduced to Jakob Glesnes, who scored his now trademark goal, and Jose Martinez, angry and bloodied, channeling Gritty’s nihilism. We started to feel better again.

Cut to the MLS is Back Tournament. The team didn’t play particularly well, but they played hard, gutting their way to the semi-finals where, despite coming out flat, still had the opportunity to tie the game up with a PK. In a classic Philly move, Sergio Santos skied the shot into the ionosphere. And as the game ended and the Union squandered another opportunity to win that elusive trophy the ennui settled in as comfortably as an old pair of slippers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to futility. As the regular season resumed, The Union played their way into first place culminating in the big deciding matchup against Toronto. My Philly-spidey-sense kicked in expecting either a bad Union performance or a Toronto winning goal in the 92nd minute – pick your poison. But the Union came out and dominated Toronto FC in one of the most lopsided games you’ll ever see. I cannot recall a Philadelphia team coming into a huge, competitive game and just destroying their opponent like this. It was a revelation.

In the end, the Union finally won some silverware. Compared to the long, fruitless stretches other Philadelphia teams have suffered, the club’s dry spell really wasn’t that bad within that context. And, the future appears to look bright (any true Philadelphia fan will qualify that statement). They’ll return most of their roster to the pitch in 2021 and compliment it with some new talent. including perhaps a top #10. The fact that we feel comfortable in their ability to scout out and acquire this talent is a new sensation. On top of all that, the Union have put together perhaps the best academy in the MLS which looks to parade fresh talent through the organization into the foreseeable future. And they’ll be led by the Coach of the Year.

Maybe the Union will be the team that breaks the narrative. With consistent winning seasons, the various cups and shields always within reach. Smart and competent leadership with a watchful eye on the present but always with a gaze into the future.

It’s hard not to be cynical when your sports hopes and dreams have been consistently smashed – but maybe, just maybe, this will be the team to do it.

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