Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Earning your stripes

Photo credit Marjorie Elzay

Like many people my age (which is to say, that gray area between Generation X and Millenial), my adult life has been marked by perambulation. That’s a very fancy word for moving around. After college, I moved to Philly for grad school. While living in Philly, I moved apartments nine times in ten years, and also took a two-year time-out in Syracuse while my wife got her grad degree. I returned to Philly, but then moved again, this time to Rochester, NY.

What does any of this have to do with soccer? Well, as an avid rec soccer player, it means that I’ve been forced to find a new team a bunch of times. Sometimes it’s been easy. My first place in Philly was at 9th and Fitzwater, where all I needed to do was look out my window and see folks playing pick-up in Palumbo Park, which led me to joining up with the venerable FC Stun crew for many happy years. That association eventually led to West Philly FC, an association I still share, though long-distance. But when I lived in Syracuse, and then moved back to Rochester, where I grew up but hadn’t lived for many years, I had to do that awkward thing of literally asking if some team would let me play with them.

Here in Rochester, I’ve had to do it multiple times. First you send emails asking a team captain if they need somebody. Then you go and play with them—it’s not exactly a try-out, but it’s also totally a try-out. Then, if you get the nod, you have to earn your playing time; earn the right to get the ball passed to you under pressure; earn the right not to be the new guy, who gets cut when an old friend returns to the squad, or some younger guy turns 30 and can play with the old men. You keep having to earn your stripes, again and again and again.

The analogy is imperfect, but this is what I kept thinking about, watching the Union in the first leg of their Concacaf Champions League match against Saprissa. The Union, like all MLS teams, face an uphill climb in the CCL. For one thing, it is preseason—for the Union, lest we forget, this was their first competitive game since last season’s disappointing playoff washout. And newcomers to this sort of party don’t tend to run before they can walk. So, while the tone of pregame coverage was by no means dismissive, few people—even fans—were confident that the team Philly rolled out could win in Costa Rica. But there the Union were, no Brenden Aaronson, no Mark McKenzie, and only one fit striker, still playing like the team from 2020. The team that was the best in MLS in the regular season. The press was there, the defensive rotations were there, the swift vertical attacking was there. The team that earned its domestic stripes, playing in a new league, showing they belonged on the international stage. They were doing that thing, showing up to a new spot and earning their place.

How many times will the Union be asked to prove themselves? There’s still time for it to go wrong. Lose the return leg tomorrow and the narrative becomes one of chokes and false dawns, the Union back to square one, yet again. Maybe the Union, with it’s history of mediocrity, with its team-first, no-big-DPs, next-man-up ethos, will always be forced to re-earn its stripes, like a soccering Sisyphus. But I hope not. This time, I think those stripes might stick.


Speaking of new guys on the block, I thought Leon Flach looked like he’d been a Union player for a heck of a lot longer than two weeks. If that’s the level of play we can expect from him, Ernst Tanner has found another keeper.

Olivier Mbaizo showed how very much not Ray Gaddis he is, both in his ability to cross effectively and his less secure passing. Here’s hoping he grows in confidence in the passing patterns so he loses the ball less often and has more opportunities to create goals like last week’s.

José Martinez is a stud. He bossed that game and didn’t get ruffled or riled by the Concacaffiness of it all. He’s the Union’s most important player.


  1. Yeah if that is the way Martinez is going to play this season, then we are going to start talking about what PL team is going to buy him. He is that good. Just dominate at the 6. It’s beautiful to watch.

  2. Jeremy Lane says:

    You’re not wrong.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    Good to see you contributing a bit more lately. Appreciate the content.
    I have a young footballer. He’s 11. And plays at a pretty high level. We talk often about the rotational quality of a good CM. I love to watch el Brujo because the rotation in his hips and ability to turn out of pressure is effective —but also very aesthetic.
    For me, there is the game… of which the outcome matters on the margins, and there is the Art of Likemindedness & the Art of Beautiful Movement which matters all the more. el Brujo plays an aesthetic game.

  4. concafiness! lol. and a great descriptive adjective, I know what you meant.

  5. Two players I am most excited about watching this match – Is Flach the real deal or did he have some ‘beginners luck’ last game. If he can improve than our diamond is solid.

    Martinez – Will he be able to restrain his emotions and avoid dumb retaliation fouls?

    also im pretty bummed that we are the only group that has two MLS teams and if we win we play ATL next…lame.

  6. Jeremy Lane says:

    Yeah, I’m not jazzed about playing an MLS opponent so soon, but at least the logistics of it would be easier. Less travel, and presumably a better knowledge of the opponent, though ATL have a new coach.

  7. Jeremy Lane says:

    Martinez really played within himself, but he definitely has a certain level of artistry to what he does, even in his role as “destroyer.” He’s more than that, of course, but he is also that, and so to see him be deft and distribute well, is a real pleasure.

  8. “soccering Sisyphus”…OH my…that’s a genius analogy. And “Concacaffiness” Well played.

    Thanks for your article.

  9. I sincerely appreciate the “soccering Sisyphus” reference to the Union, but let’s also keep in mind the “Union fanning Tantalus” that we supporters have been made. We have been voluntarily tied to a team that seems to be always just a short distance away from success. Even adjusting for the Concaffiness, which is the only way to explain the inability of the referee and AR to see Wagner’s impression of a helicopter rotor, I will be disappointed if there is not at least a taste of success from this tournament.

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