The mountain, Messi, and beyond

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

An untraveled precipice in the ascent of soccer in the greater Philadelphia area will be reached Tuesday night.

At this point, the reader is well-aware: Lionel Messi, the renowned greatest footballer of all time, is coming to Philadelphia.

Well, actually ,*pushes glasses up nose*, a few miles south of the city of Brotherly Love. Playing in a semifinal of a major competition against the Union in Chester, Pa.

The climb

An obvious truth be told, as a club, the Philadelphia Union have come a long way since inception. With the chips perennially stacked against them for a multitude of reasons, the team have successfully built a respectable brand.

Oh, the places this Club has been.

From hosting the likes of David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Gonzalo Higuain at the Soob, to now hosting the actual G.O.A.T.  – in a semi-final – with the attention of a global audience.

Oh, the places this Club could go.

Tonight, when Messi comes to town, the flavor will be slightly different. It will mark a moment in the “climb” over the last fifteen years where the Club and those close to it can momentarily enjoy the fruit of their labor.

The climb to this point may not have always seemed upward. Yet thus far, it has been an ascent filled with resolve and perseverance, one that has somehow thrust the Boys in Blue into a moment unlike any member of the organization has experienced before.

The irony of success

Prior to the stadium in Chester being finished during the Union’s inaugural season, the team played MLS games at Lincoln Financial Field – out of necessity.

There were even friendlies between The U and formidable Real Madrid and Manchester United sides played at the Linc, just to have the whites and the reds in the stands far outweigh the number of navy blue shirts.

At that time, it was about the money.

This past week, there were loud whispers regarding the Eagles organization’s interest in moving Tuesday night’s matchup vs. Messi’s Inter Miami to Lincoln Financial Field. The Linc’s capacity of 67,594 triples that of Subaru Park, and then some.

Sure, more seats means more opportunity to make coin. It also would mean sharing the revenue of ticket sales and likely other tranches of money with Philadelphia’s most fabled sporting franchise. More than money, moving the game would also be at the expense of the Union’s storied home-field advantage.

Juxtaposing the bleak days of early Union soccer with the idea of the Eagles wanting in on the fun of the Messi train reeks of irony.

With the Union ultimately deciding to keep the Tuesday night match in Chester – it simply highlights and exudes the olfactory of progress. It emits the aura that the Union “don’t need the help” like they once did to manage such a moment.

This time, it isn’t about the money.

It is about the opportunity to show the world what this Club has built.

The setting

In the shadow of the Covanta Incinerator, a place where 400,000 tons of trash is burned every year. In a city that is facing potential disincorporation. Coming off a game where the kickoff was delayed for an hour due to a power outage.

Philly tough, etc…

The way in which Lionel Messi will experience Philadelphia for the first time will be on the banks of the Delaware in Chester, to the unrelenting jeers that he “sucks” from a man with a megaphone, accompanied by about 18,000 more voices.

Hardly akin to the Camp Nou or Bernabeu.

So Union.

Aapropos, an essential milestone to be noted on the climb.

From Talen Energy, to PPL, to Subaru, the sponsors and brand have grown alike. With this, the setting of Tuesday’s match is its own metaphor marking the headway of the franchise’s resolute trajectory.

What once was a plot of grass under a bridge that the Union called “home,” is now a fortress of organic and unbridled raucousness ready to welcome the G.O.A.T. with boos and expletives.

Chester will be electric.

The stronghold the Union have established at the Soob will be ever-present, providing every “break” for the Union to “shock” Messi’s Inter Miami – or however the national media would like to spin it.

Because it will be spun.

Beyond the scoreboard

Interpreting the result from the match on Tuesday will require looking beyond the scoreboard. No matter the tallies to each side when the dust settles in on Tuesday night, the moment is much more than that.

Looking past the fact the Union’s defense is the most stout that Messi and company will have faced, that exact notion must be tempered. The trite expectation that Glesnes, Elliott, and Martinez are somehow going to keep Messi, Busquets, and Alba at bay for a full ninety might just be utterly unreasonable.

The Union’s defense has been leaky of late, against inferior competition to boot. Not to mention injuries to key pieces that could inhibit the Union’s chances to advance – and this game is a knock out game of course – to the League’s Cup final. The inconsistencies that run throughout the Union’s lineup will create every opportunity for the gathered Barca boys to pounce.

Yet, the amount of goals scored and conceded will not matter. Not nearly as much as the enthusiasm for this sport, in this city, that will be shared with the rest of the planet on the night. A spectacle that will be etched in the timeline of Union-lore forever.

It is part of the journey.

And the climb doesn’t end at the final whistle. In fact, the peak is nowhere in sight.

Nevertheless, at this point in the Club’s climb, an overlook with a nice vista has been attained. It is important to take it all in and enjoy the sights and sounds on Tuesday night for what they are worth.


  1. First, the GOAT will not be there tonight. Pele passed away last year.
    As far as tonight being part of the journey, I think it is part of the journey into the abyss. We are going to see a bunch of people in the stands willing to pay $500+ for a ticket who will never bother to go to another Union game. Meanwhile, those STH who opted out of the Leagues Cup for whatever reason (such as going on vacation during the tournament) were not able to get their seats or any others unless they paid a huge upcharge which many were not willing to do. Some of these may see this as a snub by the club and not bother to renew, especially given the increase in price for next year. These are the people who actually go to game after game and support the club who may now be lost. Based on what happened in Dallas last week, I’d expect the same there. And, if the Union are playing Monterrey Saturday, we’ll likely see a similar situation in Nashville.
    Add this to the way the league is built on a pyramid scheme where much of the money comes from new franchises but sooner or later they are going to run out of room to add franchises, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the league sees a major collapse, if not complete failure in the next 5-10 years (and the only reason I would give it more than 5 years is the World Cup coming in 2026). Wouldn’t it be ironic if 1994 gave rise to MLS while 2026 sees it fold within a few years?

    • santo bevacqua says:

      The league is not a ponzi scheme, i understand you are bitter about option for ST hoders and dont blame you, but its soccer not football.

      • I’m not bitter about ST options, given that I didn’t opt out and have my tickets for the same price as the last 4 games.
        Regardless of whether it is soccer or football, the league has over expanded and can’t keep relying on new franchise fees. They need to make sure that people not only come to games where Messi is playing but to all of the games, and this is not the way to go about that.

      • santo bevacqua says:

        Andy not a good point Brady draws full houses, Messi is literally a magnet and opposed to Ronaldo, He is a next door type of guy, refused i billion for two years from Arabia to play here.

      • Santo, I’m not sure how Brady has any relevance. Gridiron football is established here and was selling out most games long before he started playing. And he didn’t come here from another league a year or two before he was ready to retire. And ticket prices didn’t go up across the league just because of him.
        And I hope Messi is not a next door neighbor type of guy. I don’t want my next door neighbor to be found guilty of tax fraud like he was.

      • santo bevacqua says:

        good point Andy.

    • I have a lot of reservations about this tournament and the way the league has expanded, but I think Messi is a net positive. Is it mostly about making money. Yes. But it has also gotten people otherwise not interested in watching the league. If the Union do knock out Messi and Co. tonight, that will be big for the team and the league. It’ll depress eyeballs for the final, but make a statement that the league isn’t entirely made up of Washington Generals for Messi’s Globetrotters.

      The trick is to keep that momentum going. This is where the APple deal can help. Sky is what made the Premiere League what it is today.

      • Are they watching the league or watching him? Will they still be watching the league in a year or two when he’s gone? If the answer to the second question is no, then he hasn’t helped and may have turned off some fans who were shutout from getting tickets to the games he has played.
        If the league is going to lure superstars over, they need to be 26 year old stars who will be here for several years, not 36 year old stars who are gone in a year and a half.

      • Agree, but you gotta get there somehow. I think the league is better off with Messi than without.

    • Eric Boyle says:

      I don’t believe the club controlled the upcharge. My understanding that was the LC organizers. even with the upcharge my guess is that STH who got those tickets could turn around and sell them for double. I am prepared for a sea of Messi jerseys and probably not many in Miami pink, tonight. We need a good SoB turnout tonight!

      On a side note, didn’t Dallas did take Messi and his henchmen to PKs?

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Dallas did take Inter Messi to PK’s. Hoping that most of the STH, especially those of us who’ve been to the rest of the games will show up tonight (I considered trying to sell but ultimately didn’t think it was right to stay home and watch the Union on TV unless I was physically unable to go).
        It would have been nice if there was a way to keep the upcharge down, but also make sure that the person who actually bought the tickets went and attended the game (and if they couldn’t make it they could sell them back to the team). But I do know of a few people who have been to earlier games in the tournament but are on vacation now, so they did of course sell their tickets to pay for vacation.

    • Wracked Opinion says:

      Unfortunately, sadly I must agree Andy!

      Hopefully I’m wrong, but I saw the MIA match as the beginning of a likely death spiral for the Union’s league competitiveness, plus MLS’s economic health.

      Too many are caught up in the Messi hype to realize the damage being done to the competitive, plus economic structure of this league.

      I’m old enough to recall when the N.A.S.L. NY Cosmos bought Pele and Chinalia.

      This exacerbated the competitive, plus economic imbalance in the league: and caused a race that lead to the implosion of it.

      Besides the odious promotion and positioning of MIA as “America’s (Soccer) Team, the fact remains that MLS will not survive trying to compete for the world’s best players.

      The economy… the increased revenue needed for such inflated salaries… is just not there!

      The most expensive / best seated ticket price for the Union’s upcoming match would not have come close to buying a standing room for the MIA match.

      Lastly the financial operandi of the Union is to sell.

      They sell their best young players to the top leagues and have been miraculously competitive with this model.

      Those days have ended with Messi in MLS.

      For the Union… and the rest of the league teams… to be competitive they must become buyers on the uber expensive international market.

      Whether they do, or not: it surely seems that the death spiral has begun.

      A sad day!

  2. Messi driving the MLS Backwards……Messi has done nothing to improve any respectability for the MLS. Its been a total cash grab for Apple, Garber and Messi. I hope every team including the Union do all in their power to negate him on the field along with Busquets and Alba. This is a lose lose for the leagues status around the world. If Miami succeeds in the leagues cup and MLS playoffs It will only prove to the world that MLS is an inferior league that cant beat old men. If Miami loses the tournament and fails to make Miami respectable for the rest of the season the soccer world will will just think Messi and company showed their age and their surrounding teammates from Miami were so hopeless and inferior they could not be helped. Either way these crazy ticket price are driving home MLS fans away. I for see season ticket sale plummeting in the future Garber is PT Barnum and the Messi Apple Circus comes to town when Messi plays but the tents may fold for good when he leaves.

  3. Deez Nuggs says:

    I really liked this article. Well done.

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