Commentary / The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Getting everything I wanted

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

I had a dream
I got everything I wanted
Not what you’d think
And if I’m being honest
It might’ve been a nightmare

Those are the opening lyrics from Billie Eilish’s “everything i wanted.” They’ve been running through my head of late.

Flying high

Longtime listeners of the (ever-so-sporadic) All Three Points podcast will know that, when it comes to the Union, all I’ve ever really wanted was consistency. While drama and the unexpected are what fuels interest in sports, I’d be content to have my team give me the same thing, every time out. I don’t mean that I want them to be consistently bad or mediocre; I want a level of repeatable competence, and a team that doesn’t beat itself.

Since Ernst Tanner took over, that’s essentially what the Union have given me. There have been ups and downs, but more like the stock market, where the day-to-day blips give way to a continuous upward trend when you zoom out far enough. More points, more wins, fewer goals against, and now more goals scored—everything has moved steadily in a positive direction, defying the usual volatility of MLS.

The Union are breaking records now, flirting with historic levels of dominance, and they are inching toward my other, more secret wish, which is to be so good that they win it all without there being any real drama about it. I want a team that is so much better than the opposition that they walk through the playoffs and win MLS Cup without being seriously challenged—kind of like the 2017 Golden State Warriors of the NBA. That team went 16–1 in the playoffs on their way to winning the trophy; the outcome was never in doubt.

Who cares about overcoming adversity? Triumphing against the odds? Puh-lease. Give me a good-old-fashioned steamroller.

But beware the sun

Are the Union a steamroller? They’re doing a pretty good impression of one right now. And that’s got me nervous, because the higher you fly, the farther there is to fall. As much as I want the team to succeed, there’s always fear alongside the hope. Are they actually too good? Is this just a dream from which I’m about to be rudely awakened? Who can truly say?

Therefore, I’d never have the hubris to suggest that the Union are definitely going to win anything. My poor, scarred heart still remembers those years huddled atop the Cliff of Union Despair. Those memories will never go away, and I wouldn’t want them to. And so I start every game worried that these players, who have proven themselves time and again now, won’t show up, or will be exposed as frauds somehow—not because I believe they will/are, but because I don’t dare open my heart up too far to the possibility of good things.

Because we all know what happens to the prideful. Folktales are littered with examples of the dangers of getting what you think you want: Aladdin, Icarus, Atlanta United fans. Staying humble is imperative.

For instance, against Orlando, we fans had every reason to expect the Union to go out and dismantle them, which they did. But until that first goal went in, I was on edge. What if Orlando scored first? What if the Union sputtered? What if? What if? What if?

In hindsight, it was only an exercise in patience, because as soon as goal 1 went in, we all knew there would be a goal 2. And once goal 3 happened? We knew that more was on the table. This team is voracious. They are strong-minded and aggressive, but also smart and mature.

Finding a path to joy

So how can we reconcile the opposing forces of enjoying the consistent excellence the Union are giving us, while remaining mindful that these good days won’t always be here, that things will change, and that nothing is certain? That 2017 Warriors team was preceded by a team that won 73 regular season games, after all, the most in history, yet failed to win a title. Current performance guarantees nothing.

For some Union fans, it seems the key is to find something negative to focus on—not necessarily having to do with the team, but rather the things around the team, like the notion that media coverage of the team isn’t sufficient or is too skeptical or too biased toward bigger, flashier names. Surely, if our own belief in this squad is confirmed by enough pundits, we can feel secure in our happiness?

For me, I’m trying to be more of a spectator and less of an analyst. When it’s my turn to break down a match and how it happened for PSP, of course I do it, but otherwise, I’m trying to just take the games as they come, and enjoy the fruits of the team’s labor. Watching Dániel Gazdag flourish alongside Mikael Uhre and Julián Carranza. Seeing Jack McGlynn emerge as a breakout young player, producing a pass in every game that makes me sit up a little straighter and smile. Watching Jakob Glesnes calmly patrol the box, then surge forward past half-field with the ball at his feet, wondering when his next thunderbastard of a goal is going to come. Seeing Andre Blake absolutely gutted to lose a shutout, while his team is still up by three goals. By staying in the moment, I can ride the wave of good feelings without worrying too much about future woes.

It will hurt if the Union lose in the playoffs. This team deserves the success they are getting, and having that excellence go unrewarded would sting. So all we can do is enjoy the winning as it happens, and worry about tomorrow when it comes.


  1. “Thunderbastard” – name confered to Jacob Gleses by whomever was on the receiving end of his shot into the wall last weekend. You could hear the meat slap on the TV coverage.
    Great wordsmithing Mr. Lane, love it

    • I can’t take credit for that turn of phrase. I heard it from Matthew Doyle at MLS dot com, but I don’t know if he coined it. I love it, though; it’s just so evocative.

  2. At the end of the day, we are all Philly fans and not used to having nice things. Even the years we win titles, it’s like our friend brought over their nice toy, forgot about it so we could play with it for a while, then showed back up a week later to reclaim it.
    My biggest fear is losing Tanner. I hope they have him locked in for a while. I have been watching Wrexham FC and Wrexham was able to pull a coach down 2-3 leagues for the right situation and money. I hope Tanner doesn’t get bored with success and look for another project.

    • That is the big worry, with losing Curtin just below it. This is such a finely balanced success they’ve built. It feels like a few bad decisions could really hurt.

      On the other hand, the academy is what is supposed to insulate the team from bad decisions in the transfer market, and by now we have to hope there is a degree of institutional knowledge when it comes to playing style and culture.

  3. I guess it is time to reevaluate the Ernie Stewart era. He really set up the infrastructure and professionalisation of the Union.

    His tenure was the growing pains that made this all possible.

    • That may be. He definitely made improvements, but his tenure also felt underwhelming. But perhaps that was as much a function of the structures going through change as much as any decision-making on his part.

      • His entire thing was “We aren’t trying to win now.”
        He set up the academy structure that plays the same style from top to bottom. Amoung other things behind the scenes
        The Nick Sak era was arbitrary and scattershot see the the Macmath, Rais, Blake fiasco.
        I legit not think Ernie was the one who tuerned the corner saving Ernst a lot of heavy lifting.

  4. From the introductory disclaimer to this week’s MLS Power Rankings:
    Besides, these don’t change the fact that in the end everyone just runs around for 90 minutes and then Philadelphia wins by five.

  5. Gazdag, Carannza and Uhre have 45 goals, together… 14 other teams in MLS have less. Just remarkable.

  6. “ … Aladdin, Icarus, Atlanta United fans.”
    Well put, sir. Well put.

  7. Thats a great read! As Sieve! says above it feels like Stewart set up Tanner a bit. This is certainly a fun ride. When the down turn in play does come,I hope the glow of all the positive improvement means the downturn will be short lived! I’d also like to add to the new words/phrases to describe the team. It may not compare to “Thunderbastard”. But the ole W.S.S.M. shall be We Score So Much. Just a thought.

    • Love the repurposing of WSSM! I had forgotten that phrase and how often it was used… not that long ago.

      • I kicked around “that’s so Union” but nothing stuck as well as W.S.S.M.!! I also realize that could be a one off. I hope it continues for another season but I also know how hard that is.

  8. I am with you, Jeremy. I am enjoying this ride–don’t look down because the Union are now in control of the race to the Supporter’s Shield. It is all the sweeter for having gone through some of the more forgettable moments. As few as 3 years ago, I used to cringe in fear when opponents took a corner because the Union defended so poorly. The Union now defend corners and set pieces extremely well (i.e. make a path for Elliott, Glesnes or Uhre to head the ball away). The Union are solid at every position on the field, and if anyone other than Andre Blake were to go down, the Union would still do well. And yes, the coaching, system and environment make a difference–should we ask Julian Carranza about that? The best thing about attending the games (that is easy to miss on TV) is how much fun the players are having playing with each other. They are relaxed and confident on the ball in a way I have never seen a US team play. I am happy to be able to enjoy it as Union fan.

  9. John P. O'Donnell says:

    Maybe it’s because we don’t think we deserve it is the reason. So many times its been ingrained that this isn’t how you play the worlds game. First we participate in a league without pro/rel and that is a sin among some that’s unforgivable. But once you get past that it’s the status of your city and how you build a team as Los Angeles Galaxy, Toronto FC, Seattle & Atlanta has taught everyone. You buy championships in the worlds game but it is called investment in the team and how the world does it. The Union just don’t do this because the owner is (insert your favorite word here) and treats the team like a small market team. The Phillies and Sixers did this and we as a city revolted, much like we did before Tanner. Problem is those teams now spend but also haven’t won anything.
    Then Sugarman met Richie Graham and they realized that something that works in US Skiing, might translate to MLS. Yes it’s a grand experiment but it’s happening in a league that is also a league that goes against the grain. A salary budget isn’t sexy but it is reality. Teams in the past could sign a DP or three and as long as they stayed healthy you had a great chance of winning. Then they added more cash to the budget in GAM & TAM. But the big change from ten years ago was the amount of talent that cost little against the budget in homegrown players and if you sell them you keep everything. The short term result last year was more top spending teams missed the playoffs than made if. Can it be in the future the Union created a tipping point? Was Richie Graham a genius (He did recruit Tanner)? Did they get lucky when they stayed with Curtin and do we feel a little guilty about having little patience that they actually had a competent plan? In a way we did steal the Pink Cows plan but unlike them this year we did go out and address the position that needed the biggest upgrade.
    Most of all is it possible to be fans of a team that seems like the Warriors in 2014?
    What’s happening now is unbelievable. We went from a team that practiced in a public park to a team that has sold players that have made it to USMNT and transferred to the EPL. Somehow every week after they just dismantle another team andI see the meme from the Office in my great as they panic and scream It’s happening…. it’s happening.

    • Great commentary.
      It is wild to plot the progress. Credit to all involved.
      The fly wheel is reaching momentum stage, to reference the Jim Collins “Good to Great” book.

  10. There has been a sea change in soccer in the USA that has affected MLS and the mindset of most of the teams. We have finally recognized the most talented USA players need to be trained and nurtured as teenagers with even more talented players. This fact conflicts with those players attending college, for sure, and even with attending high school–hence most teams’ youth academies and protection of “homegrowns” to the teams whose academies the kids attended.

    Six years ago, the Union drafted Andre Blake from U. Conn. Alejandro Bedoya attended college before plying his trade in Europe. The present number of USA players/homegrowns on this roster (excepting the Captain because he had no Youth Academy to attend) who have attended college is now one, Chris Donovan. This is not only to the benefit of MLS, it is going to improve the national team, as well, the results of which we probably won’t see until 2026.

  11. LAFC tied last night – Union now in sole possession of 1st place for supporters shield on equal games!

    • But it would have been nice if Ford had issued the second yellow card to the LAFC player who kicked the ball away after an offsides call in the first half.
      Union have no real margin for error since they have two road games and LAFC only have one (at Portland on October 2).

  12. Yes, 100 times yes. I wish my 2010-2019 self knew that 2020-2022 was coming. I too am just a wee bit nervous about all this winning/scoring. Pinch me please.

  13. el Pachyderm says:

    In this day and age of uncertainty, constant pressure and mounting anxiety which makes Kid A seem all the more prophetic I come back to a line of thinking with my children to help them learn to live ‘comfortably’…
    Bad news. Your falling through the sky without a parachute.
    The good news is… there is no ground.
    I think about this often as it pertains to our Union.

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