Commentary / MLS / Union

The Union’s coverage conundrum

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The Philadelphia Union are a conundrum. 

Not on the field. On the field they’re a cohesive unit that dismantle any opposition put in their way.

But off the field, where the perception of the team outside of Philadelphia is a mixed bag consisting of radio silence, record setting power rankings, and everything in between. 

Starting from the bottom

Of course, this type of media treatment isn’t anything new for the Union. While the club received a bit of attention when they first entered the league, MLS, and the American soccer media has never really gone out of their way to cover the team. Within a year of the Union joining MLS, a majority of eyes had shifted to Portland as the new darlings of the league, with their unconventional stadium and rowdy supporters taking precedence over the year old Union.

The fact that the Union really weren’t doing much on the pitch didn’t help the situation either.  Major League Soccer and those covering the league could honestly be forgiven for giving minimal attention to the team in Chester for a good chunk of the teams first years in the league. Middle of the table finishes and first round playoff exits don’t exactly make the most compelling stories to promote a growing league, and U.S. Open Cup runs have always come second to those who cover the league. However, over the last five years or so, Philadelphia’s lack of recognition has in the eyes of some, morphed from a byproduct of less than stellar play, to an intentional slight against the team. 

To get ahead of things a bit, in reality, Major League Soccer likely has more interest in promoting the stars over in L.A. and the massive attendance numbers in Atlanta over a low budget, medium market team in Philadelphia. That’s just how these things work, especially for a smaller league looking to establish credibility.

No respect?

That doesn’t make it any less frustrating for those in Philly. 

Since 2019, and the Union’s run as one of the best clubs in the league, they’ve seemingly been usurped in media coverage by every big name brand in front of them. Constant talk of Chicharito and Vela in L.A., NYCFC’s dominance in the East, and the ever present Atlanta United seems to steal the spotlight from anything the Union are doing, especially on official MLS channels of communication. Many fans have griped vocally on twitter about the lack of Philadelphia coverage on the official MLS podcast “Extra Time”, with many pointing out that bottom of the league teams like Chicago often receive more airtime than Philly. 

Again, despite this being frustrating, MLS prioritizing high value markets makes perfect business sense. Outside of official league media however, the disrespect to Philadelphia comes in a slightly different form. Anyone who’s tied into the league knows how good Philly is. It’s impossible to read through an article on the league without at least some acknowledgement of this fact. Despite this, the national media seems to only care about the Union as a business, not the Union as a team. 

In the most recent Union feature published September 12 on The Athletic, league reporter Sam Stejskal focuses on how the Union built their current record setting squad. It’s a great bit of writing that highlights the shrewd financial moves that have made the club a force to be reckoned with in the league.

Despite this, little attention is given to how the Union actually play. It’s a piece chock-full of dollar signs and TransferMarkt values. It focuses on the money-ball approach the Union have applied to their signings, and for all the praise it gives the club, ends on a note of question about whether the Union can maintain their success without spending. Again, it’s a great piece, but for a team that’s dominating the east for the third year in a row, it reads as ever so slightly diminutive, especially when the other most recent feature on the U was published on May 30. 

Is it fair to critique a massive publication like The Athletic for focusing more on the Union’s acute financial dealings more than their direct success on the pitch? Maybe not, but when The Athletic publishes five features on Bale’s time at LAFC alone in the last four months, one begins to wonder. 

The numbers don’t lie

Then of course, there’s FiveThirtyEight. Despite being a bit of an outsider when compared to the likes of Extra Time and The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight has its own method of covering MLS teams that you may be familiar with, the Global Soccer Index. The Global Soccer Index is a table that ranks every club soccer team in the world, 1 through 643, based on FiveThirtyEight’s own complicated formula that you can read about here. But why bring them up when talking about the Union’s media coverage, or lack thereof?

Because, despite their lack of traditional media coverage, they actually respect the Union. In the latest SPI standings, the Philadelphia Union became the first team in MLS history to crack the top 100. The Union recently came in at 95 on the list, six spots behind Fulham, who sit middle of the table in the Prem, and roughly 40 spots ahead of AFC Bournemouth, also of the Premier League. Sure this ranking is based on analytics, expected goals, and all manner of data most people can only hope to understand, but it shows unequivocally that the Union are the best team in the league.

Not just because their front office can balance a checkbook and turn bargain bin players into behemoths, but because on the field, during games, when it counts, the Union are undeniably good.

It’s just a shame no one wants to talk about that. 


  1. I know that fans in this city won’t like the comparison, but really the team to look and compare with is FC Dallas. They’ve used the same model as the Union of lots of homegrowns rather than bringing in big names. They have had some quality seasons using that model including a Supporters Shield in 2016, but they have never received the media coverage that teams with big name players.

    • FC Dallas spends more money on its signings than the Union has done.
      And the Union organization has Ernst Tanner.
      Otherwise the comparison is spot on.

      • Allan Stevens says:

        Tim, Tanner is clearly a difference maker. He consistently finds and brings in very good talent. Guys that apparently under most others radar.

  2. What’s the saying: “Nobody likes us, everyone hates us, we don’t care.”

    And we don’t.

  3. I think we also need to address the local coverage in Philly itself being far from where it should be. Many times, on too many sports media outlets in and around the city, the Union are treated as an afterthought if they’re treated at all. Radio talk shows, Philly sports TV talk shows, etc talk about the Union in many instances about as much as they talk about the Wings or the Soul which is borderline embarrassing for a league as large in size and monetary investment as MLS is. It’s frustrating and oftentimes feels like intentional neglect to me.

  4. Chris Gibbons says:

    The sea change will come when these national writers start putting together content critiquing owners that foolishly spend on stars while ignoring the greater team. These guys read the press clippings – start calling them fools and watch their habits change. Keep running features on their high-priced but otherwise unimpactful signings, they’ll keep thinking they’re geniuses.

  5. The annoying part of it is that the Union are doing what MLS says it wants to do. Be a selling league, grow the talent and sell it on to the major European leagues. Moving away from the “retirement league” stigma from the days of Beckham. But it amazes me how much more hype a team like LAFC (who brought in a 37 / 38 year old center back who hadn’t played a full season in how long, and a 32 year old winger who hasn’t had personal success playing for a club team in a very long time) gets from the league media. I understand that the league is just trying to get more eyeballs, but are people who don’t already pay attention going to know who Bale and Chiellini are and will they move the needle when they probably won’t play on turf, or play more then 45min a game?

  6. Another way to look at this is that the legacy media are just that – an outdated, obsolete and mostly irrelevant corporate bunch who live in their own echo chambers. How many people actually wait until the get home from work and turn on the evening news to get their info?
    What could change it is huge numbers for the North American World Cup. If millions watch domestically the corporations may pay attention to the marketing dollar opportunity.
    Until then, they will probably just keep fighting over market share of a smaller and smaller pie, ignoring that soccer as a whole is the 3rd or 4th most watched sport in the USA.

  7. Wonderful article! One point not covered is the lack of respect the Union get even within their own local media market. Granted, I’ve been too cheap to subscribe to the online Inky which runs U pieces, but it irks me that one of my primary online sources is NBC Sports Philly and they are insistent on only covering the “Big Four.” And of course the link to email them with my concerns is non-functional. Its also frustrating that my media market in Central PA is dropping the ball despite the amazing success this team has been having. Its tough to get good press far away when even the press close to home stinks.

  8. I… don’t really much care how much national media coverage the Union get. What’s it to me?

    I want 2 things: 1. I want them to win; 2. I want there to be lots of fans in the stands.

    Having local media coverage is, to me, more important that national media coverage. I’m grateful for Tannenwald and Tansey and their coverage of the Union (and the rest of soccer) for the Inquirer.

  9. Don’t worry… We’ll all be on Apple TV soon

  10. PaulContinuum22 says:

    What are the Supporters Shield scenarios the next 2 weekends?

    • If the Union gets more points than LAFC in the last 2 games, Union win the shield. If they get the same or LAFC get more, LAFC wins. Only exception is if LAFC gets 0 points AND the Union get 0 or 1 AND Montreal gets 6, then Montreal wins it (If LAFC gets 1 and Montreal gets 6 AND makes up an 18 goal differential, they would also win it).

  11. About time someone said it, not that non-Union people see, read, or hear much about us anyway. The MLS app itself shamefully gives us short shrift, even on our own team page. Prematch coverage sometimes shows after the match if at all where I have to go to the opponent’s page to get it. Home page stories are rare.

  12. Tim Herring says:

    The main problem is the owner. Most, at least some, of our home matches of our team that has mostly been at 2nd place or tied for 1st place in the MLS for most of this season should should have been played in front of 45,000 to 65,000 fans in a stadium instead of the paltry 18,500. That 3x higher number would have generated more buzz/coverage, especially if in the house called the Linc. This is totally due to poor business acumen/creativity. But why lift a finger to be more creative when the money keeps rolling in?

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