Analysis / Commentary

Does anyone care about the Union right now?

Editor’s note: this piece was written before the allegations against Kai Wagner were announced.

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The Union handled a fading New England Revolution in classic style on Saturday night.

And yet, with the empty seats at the park and a bevy of Major League Soccer obituaries published last week (the next publication to bemoan how an expanded playoff makes the regular season less meaningful will be the thousandth, and good write-ups of what that litany of emotions means can be found here or here or here… or here, where it’s still not a meaningful competition but also Opposite Day), one might wonder if anyone at all actually cared the game was going on.

For this author, it was an aggregate of emotions entirely spot on.

And then the soccer started, and when it did, all those words coalesced into a clarified emotion.

Ugly is exhausting

There isn’t a pundit or fan alive who would call the Union’s brand of soccer beautiful.

Effective? Certainly – most points in the league for more than half a decade is effective, irrespective of any kind of aesthetics.

Elegant? Almost never.

The first ten minutes played on Saturday night were quintessential ugly Union. Prodding but little-more-than hopeful balls into space, chippy tackles in both necessary and unnecessary spots on the field, and endless remonstrations from disapproving opponents and disinterested but peacocking referees (who had a pretty good night, to be fair).

An A+ reaction to Jose Martinez’s gesturing from the official.

That’s classic Union – the kind of soccer that led one league General Manager, on the heels of the Boys in Blue nearly winning MLS Cup, to claim the team “weren’t even very good.”

Then, for about 30 minutes, classic Union turned into a different version of their vintage selves: the swarm of Murder Hornets that absolutely obliterates its higher-priced foes, one terrifying sting after another. The team did so on goals – of which there were three but could have been ten; and in physicality, pulling four yellow cards out of a frustrated Revolution side (and it could’ve been ten there too) and putting the visitor’s best player, Carles Gil, on the bench with a heavy challenge.

Mikael Uhre <shaking hands emoji> Chuck Bednarik.

While that tackle and the thumping others the Union are famous for may not be the most humane version of the game, anyone who’s ever played sports knows the adage: he who insists upon dancing often has his feet stepped on insistently (or something to that effect…).

All joking aside, the fact is the Union were ugly and good on Saturday, something fans haven’t seen enough of this season.

Wins are beautiful

And as the saying goes, both things can be true.

This time, much like it was true in 2022, the killers did enough during their cacophonous thrum to immobilize and neutralize their prey. Once that part was done, the remaining hour or so of soccer played out without much drama. Wounded bugs sometimes have a last scurry in them, as Gustavo Boy proved (clear the damn ball, Nate…), but eventually simply curl up and die.

The Revs obliged.

For most of 2023, the Union have been ugly and not winning. Sure, they won enough to be in the conversation for every domestic trophy that matters (sorry, US Open Cup – if you can’t see the writing on the wall at this point, I’m not sure who can help you…), but they never looked much more than resilient in the process. Resilient isn’t fun, it isn’t sexy, and – at least ahead of the match on Saturday night – it doesn’t sell tickets.

Winning does.

One more again

Fans have largely become frustrated and disengaged with the Union as this season has worn on for all of the reasons mentioned in the articles above. More than anything though, they’re frustrated that this team – built to win ugly – was just being ugly. No trophies, no Shield, and a whole bunch of hair-pulling draws will do that, sandwiched around a whole bunch of semifinal disappointments where “ugly” might’ve been the nicest word to say about the team.

Fans can only take so much.

If the Union are forced into a Game 3 in this absolutely inane first round playoff format, will fans fill the seats? If they go through without the need of a a second home match, they might not get another game at Subaru Park the rest of the way!

So… if that was it for 2023, then the Union went out in their own classic style: winning ugly.

Here’s to a few more before it’s over.


  1. Last Saturday was the 28th Union game at Subaru Park this year. That’s a lot more than fans are used to. They did hold a ceremony at midfield at halftime for those forty or so fans who’ve been to all of them. (I was invited but given that I would have had to walk 3/4 of the way around the stadium while the game was in progress, I just let my wife clap for me from the seat next to me.)
    I realize that baseball, hockey, and basketball all play more games, but they are not spread out over 8-10 months including outdoor games in February and potentially December.
    Sustaining fan enthusiasm for that is not easy.

    • That’s an impressive achievement, Andy. Well done!

      Being a STH who also opted in for Leagues Cup, it’s been far too many matches for me to attend.

      I feel an apathy that I haven’t felt for the club in quite awhile. While we could go on a playoff run to get back to MLS Cup, I don’t expect us to given the current state of the roster and how good Cincy, ORL and Columbus are at home.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Congrats, that’s awesome.

  2. The fatigue, I think, comes from the league gleefully treating the game as a product first and a competitive sporting enterprise second. There’s really no defense for this best of three series nonsense. More games means each individual match is less important. The fans will care if the Union make it to the conference semifinals which will give them a shot at knocking out Cinci (most likely) and opening a pretty clear shot at the Cup Final again. If the do beat Cinci and make it to the conference final I think people will be back in 100%.

    • so far from these comments, this is how i articulate my apathy. i was invested in Phils too so the coinciding with the awful end of season play made the disengagement feel justified. i’ll pay attention whenever they play again. and that i say that is telling that i really don’t know when it is because this playoff structure is junk.

  3. I hear ya… I can’t believe I’m going to say this.. but there was just too much soccer this year… too many tournaments and too many stops and starts (why the f! do we need to wait 10 days for the next playoff game)…
    Ugly can be beautiful… but I feel like I have been waiting all season for the “real” Union to show up… and all they have done is tease us with a 20 min, maybe even a half here or there, of something fun to watch… but…
    I’ll be there for whenever they show up at the SOOB, joy comes with suffering…
    Also, I am a Jim fan, but he has taken this team as far as it will go… not much will change till there is a change there…

    • Coaches can lose games.
      Only players can win them.
      Union management chose to give the 2022 squad as close to a second chance as the same team ever gets in sports, but they hit on only one of their three additional depth pieces. And all the extra games may have contributed something to the first series of non-trivial and unusual soft tissue injuries they have suffered since Ernst Tanner took over supervising the team’s scientific sports management.
      Now this roster will experience more turnover, as it must, given the realities of Wagner, Bedoya, and Mbaizo.
      A coach can enable success. But no coach wins games, in any sport. Only players can do that.

      • Well said, Tim. One thing to add is that coaches can put teams in a position to win games and Curtin has done that more than anyone else in MLS over the last 6 years.
        While another coach MIGHT be able to get them over the hump in the big games, there is probably better than a 50% chance that another coach guides the team back to the days of 2010-2017.

      • Disagree. Let Cory Burke walk, didn’t replace him (after trading Santos and didn’t replace him). No backup strikers. Traded Matt Freeze. Lost or tied 4-5 games because they didn’t have MLS capable backup Goalie. Both Orlando games and Montreal come to mind immediately. Didn’t replace Paxten as backup to Gazdag.

        Should have 2nd most points in MLS behind Cincinnati.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        They didn’t let Burke walk, they got a million dollars for a guy who was always hurt and barely played.

        Paxten barely played too, and he wasn’t pushing for Gazdag’s spot the way his brother pushed Fabian out.

        Freese wanted out and what other up and coming keeper us interested in coming into a spot where he’ll never win the starting job? A backup like Bendik is all that’s required of that spot and all that’s available.

    • @SteveG, 100% agree about Curtin. I like him too but I do feel like he has done all he is capable of doing for the team. A change might be worse for the team at first but, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I would think Ernst has a back pocket coach in mind..

  4. I agree with all of the above. My apathy is less about the team (though the insane amount of draws over the end of summer was pretty boring), than it is about the league just cramming in so many games and competitions. There is definitely such a thing as too much of something.

  5. The vibe in the stadium was… off. Or tame? Meh? It was noticeable the number of seats empty. I’m still hopeful for more home games, but so far, Cincy and Orl are taking care of their opponents. I hate say I was rooting for the Red Bulls there, but it was totally selfishly.
    I watched the Orlando game on FS1 last night and Tony Meola said “I won’t judge the new playoff format until I see how it plays out, whether there is a sense of desperation in game 2..” I think that’s reasonable. I’m trying to keep that guiding light, but man, I judged the hell out of it when they announced it.
    The biggest issue for me is the number of games has taken a clear toll on quality. Really, across the whole league. Cincy has played less. Is it any wonder they are more consistent than Philly or LAFC?
    If we pull off a deep run, people will get excited again, for sure.

  6. Nice Andy – congrats.
    Think I hit 26 with 2 travel conflicts.
    For this size roster there are too many games.
    Honestly there are also too many teams. MLS ought to add 3 more teams then relegate the bottom 16 to a lower division. MLS Cup can be home and away matches with top 6 teams. Top 2 get a bye.

  7. BTW, the Forbes article has an interesting take.

  8. Chris.
    In the health care sector this is called ‘compassion fatigue’.

  9. OneManWolfpack says:

    How can we not be fatigued a season after being so close to winning it all and setting records along the way… is followed up by the most games we’ve ever played, a club legend being told “see ya later”, overall good, but inconsistent play all over the field, and arguably our best player (albeit this whole racism thing not-withstading – strictly speaking about his play on the field) – being locked in and then losing, a contract dispute with a notoriously cheap front office?!? It’s been a long 12 months in Union land.
    This time last year, I was out of my mind excited about flying to LA in a couple days to watch my team play a Final. Now I am waiting about 8 MORE days for my team to play it’s 2nd game of a 3 game series in the first round of the playoffs that still won’t be over a MONTH from now.
    Again… it’s been a long 12 months in Union land.

  10. I think the lack of enthusiasm for the Union is a convergence of a lot of factors all kind of hitting at once.
    Competition fatigue may be a factor but I doubt it is a primary problem. Largely because fans can just… choose to ignore competitions. During lean years and good years, fans have pretty much chosen to ignore the US Open Cup until such time as we are in the championship.
    I seriously doubt the fans chose to ignore the first game of the playoffs because they were burned out by competitions they chose to ignore or half pay attention to.
    Team play is a better argument.
    Between Injuries, schedule, signings not panning out, and players regressing to the mean they look a lot less exciting this year.
    As someone who was at the first game of the season and the last game we had the dirty little secret is that there were a fair number of empty seats for the first game of the season too.
    This brings me to another problem that caused diminished fan excitement and attendance. The Apple deal.
    The Apple deal mandated that the Union home opener be at 7 PM on a February. It turned a slam dunk sell out into a very well attended game with noticeably empty seats.
    Also, I think they overestimated the amount of people who would follow the Union to Apple.
    If you didn’t If you were a hardcore fan you got demoted to a casual. If you were a casual they fell off your radar.

    In many ways Hardcore fans are the engine that drives excitement to casual fans (That and Winning of course)And cutting off the hardcore fans and hoping to replace them with Messi bandwagoners will probably be a mistake in the long run.
    And lastly, my eternal gripe is that It is just too hard to get to games if you don’t have a car. The lack of reliable public transit to and from the stadium cuts off access fans might have to the team.
    If you cut off access to the team by putting the games behind a paywall of negligible value and if you cut off access to the team by making it physically difficult to get to the stadium these things will affect both enthusiasm and attendance.
    When the Union are playing like they were last year the wave that creates might be enough to plaster over these cracks but when they aren’t playing like that the stress begins to show like it is now.

    • Chris Gibbons says:


    • Yes, that’s true.

      Loved this article and all comments. It feels good to have my 2023 ennui validated by others. Well said. I’ve been all in since 2007. This year is just so….long.

    • Excellent points. Agree with them all.

    • Apple TV contract makes union games unable to be watched . I do not know my apple ID. Can’t get it. Tried 2 times and I went from never missing a game and selling out 18k a night (more than sixers for a while) to nobody knowing they are on TV. If MLS keeps contract with local games unable to be watched unless bought as season pass thru trash apple TV they will fold in time bc the market just shrunk by 44% minimum

      • Your Apple ID – if you have an iPhone, go to settings and click on your name, it should be the first thing listed. Your email below your name is your Apple ID. If you don’t have an Apple product, then you can just create a new Apple ID.
        Every regular season game was sold out, or at least reported as sold out. If people stopped watching, it didn’t stop the from buying tickets to regular season games. Playoffs and League Cup was a different story, but that’s always been the case throughout the Union’s history.

    • similarly, regarding the TV deal, i was casual NWSL fan. if they were on, i was watching. purchased paramount for the “Is Back” tournament and watched it all during the pandemic? Yup. once they went to Paramount full time, they were off my radar. i even had P+ for a year. rarely tuned in.
      fast forward to Apple deal. if not included as a free item from TMo, i wouldn’t have purchased. i tune i for Union matches (watched about 80% of them, went to others) then turn it off. My non-U MLS matche viewing has dropped off 95%. i get a handful of notifications on my phone during this desert between R1 playoff games about the other matches. i’m not watching them. it’s not that i wouldn’t but they are off my radar.
      Apple deal has really cooled my interest in the league.

      • Just curious: how did you watch other (non-Union) MLS games last season?
        Playoff games have been on FS1 so far during the playoffs as well.

      • I had ESPN+ and the fox matches. Once ESPN lost the deal I stopped tuning in. You should’ve seen me some nights: I’d be chasing USL west coast matches just to watch any live soccer at 12:30am or later.

        Re: playoffs. This round one format is so unnecessary in my eyes that I just haven’t cared about game 1 of 3. I’ll jump back in with eliminations next round

  11. PaulContinuum22 says:

    Self-inflicted, this ennui toward the Union. Winning only 2 of your last 9 games doesn’t do anything but drive home the belief this team is out of gas, with no legit scoring threat. Terrible personnel decisions and maybe Ernst Tanner ISN’T all that. We keep trying to nickel and dime our way to a title, and that simply does. not. work. in. real. life. /
    Cincinnati will have their way with us if we even get past NE, the team will be blown up and we’ll return to the middle of the pack. Unless there’s a new owner, new director of soccer ops, new coach, all united in one purpose; to spend, spend, spend to get elite talent here. Until that happens, prepare to be heartbroken every year.

  12. To answer the question: no. Looking back, I still can’t believe how the Miami match completely blew away my interest in this team. Like a lot of supporters, we were ready to show Miami how we roll. “Look at Tanner playing moneyball. Look at our Academy. Look how much we sell guys for. We don’t need high priced talent like Messi. We’re doing it a different way.”
    Lasted about four minutes into that match, and I’ve never really come back. Logically, I’m supposed to support the locals, yadda, yadda, but it’s getting harder and harder to care.
    I’m not going to use the term “smoke and mirrors,” but the U are what they are . . . and it just bores me to tears. That match on Saturday was just boring, especially the second half. And, yes, this playoff format is also a joke. Is it the case of a crap, money grubbing league or a meh team? Not sure. Even if they beat the Revs, there’s no way in hades they’re getting out of this conference.
    I can then turn to the EPL where guys can actually do something with the ball after running 60 yards (looking at you, Chris Donovan), especially in the final third.
    Yawn all around.

    • +1
      I am yet to recover from that Miami game too and 100% agree– took the wind for this team and the manager right out of my sails.

      • Give yourself some time and credit. A lot of teams flopped in their first meeting with the Pink Messis. We wanted more. Expected more. But we tripped. It hurts to trip. But you will heal.

      • el Pachyderm says:


        I’d be curious how many of those teams that tripped did so abandoning everything they do well— out of fear including defending aggressively.
        Its not that they tripped- it’s that they tripped over their own laces of the shoes tied together.

      • I’d argue that the fans of all those teams felt that way. (Whether an observer would agree, I don’t know.) But do you think Atlanta felt like they should get knocked out in the group stage? Or Orlando, who finished 2nd in the East, should lose heartily? Even Charlotte who went on to beat Miami twice to end the season. How did they feel about dropping the quarterfinal game after winning the group over Dallas and taking out Houston?
        My point, if I have managed to make one at all, is don’t beat yourself up or get too down about it. We were all disgusted. We were overawed and failed to meet the moment. It happens and we will get over it, and more likely use it to feed us the next time out.

  13. The biggest problem with Union fans this year is that we’re trying to compare this year’s team with last year’s team, and even that is plagued by recency bias. As much as we like to think that the 2022 Union just ran roughshod over their opponents, they really only did that from July through October. However, before the July 7th 7-0 win over D.C., the Union had 7 wins and 9 draws (seriously, do none of you remember this??), with only 22 goals scored in 18 matches. Those numbers look eerily similar to the way this season ended – an abundance of draws. It’s great to think that we could continue 2022 right into 2023, but this year’s team played pretty closely to how they played for half of the 2022 season, just not the half that everyone wants. And despite all that, despite our complaining and moaning about coaching, lacking the killer instinct, lack of spending, etc., we were still the 5th best team in MLS this year, and we have a Champion’s Cup berth for next season. We are now at the point as a fan base where, despite the team’s commitment to homegrowns and knowledge that we won’t open the bank for a truly high-priced player, we’re now bored with beating 24 of the 28 other teams in the league; heck, we’re bored with the second half of a playoff game where we’re just trying to close out the game with a 3 goal lead. That’s 24 teams that would kill to be in our position (ok, maybe not Miami, I’m sure they’re happy with their future prospects). But hey, our style of play isn’t pretty enough or something, so let’s all whine about it. Or our coaching sucks, despite being 5th best in the league with our best player being a (soon-to-be-suspended) left back, of all positions. Show me another coach who can get an MLS team to 5th overall being led by a left back.
    I would also argue that our fans haven’t necessarily become disengaged, it’s that -hot take- they have never been truly engaged to begin with. I say this as someone who has had season tickets every season and was also at every game this season (and like Andy, declined the participation trophy that the team offered, I’m not interested in perks for simply showing up). But we really don’t have enough diehard fans for this to be a meaningful conversation. The bulk of the fan base is, and always was, casuals. Our most important games this year were arguably the playoff game and the semis and 3rd place of Leagues Cup because of the Champion’s Cup berth. In two of those three games, we had probably our lowest attendances of the season, and it wasn’t the diehards driving attendance at the third. We’re also the team who only drew 15,256 and 14,463 fans to the 2014 and 2015 U.S. Open Cup finals respectively, significantly below the average attendances for those seasons. In seasons where there was nothing else to play for, we couldn’t even get an average attendance to the cup finals because we really don’t have that committed of a fan base. We have a bunch of casuals who show up whenever, but there’s no real distinction between a meaningless April game against SKC and a game against Monterrey where we clinch a CCC berth. I know we were all disappointed after the Miami game, but something was still on the line, and we didn’t show up.
    Another thought…Cincinnati. Their existence is driving the apathy of the diehards. Look no further than LAFC, they’ve played as many games as we have, and had fewer points and haven’t even clinched a CCC berth (and won’t unless they win MLS Cup), but their supporters still care because they think they have a chance since the west was so weak. Realistically, it’s not that we’re playing poorly that’s driving the apathy, it’s that Cincinnati stands in our way and we don’t feel like we can beat them. And even if we do, we surely won’t beat Columbus, right? We’ve somehow developed a win or stop caring mentality, which is a dangerous mindset to hold because it will invariably lead to consistent disappointment.

    • I was at both home Open Cup finals and the stadium was rocking. In your place as a dedicated fan, I would be less eager to diminish the enthusiasm of your fellow Union fans. Can’t blame too many games, a cheap owner, and a sub-par roster on the fans!

      • Correct, those Open Cup were some of the best atmospheres at the stadium because the people who attended knew what was at stake. Doesn’t change the fact that there were 3-4 thousand empty seats at each game (and that’s just tickets sold, not actual attendance). Which is pathetic for a cup final, especially since we have one of the smallest stadiums in the league to begin with.
        The whole point of this article diminished the enthusiasm of the fans. The fact that the fans can’t seem to recognize that a cheap owner and sub-par roster shouldn’t equal a competitive team, and yet we are competitive anyway despite those challenges, is where I have qualms with our fan base. Without Curtin and Tanner, we are essentially Chicago, and it boggles my mind that more people don’t recognize this.

    • “But what is happiness? It’s that moment before you need more happiness”

      -Don Draper

    • Respectfully Eric the fandom isn’t the fandoms’ fault. The league functions “exactly as it has been designed to function.”
      The target demographic IS casuals.

  14. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Basically running into a perfect storm following the absolute high water mark versus LAFC last season.
    2023 Season started in February and the firehose of games hardly ever stopped for 9 months, so yes fatigue is an absolute factor for players and fans alike. Eagles losing Super Bowl, Sixers flaming out in playoffs, Union losses in Cup competitions, Phillies coming up short a week ago saps some of the energy out of the fan base too.
    I do 100% agree that the Apple TV deal knee capped growing fan interest at the worst possible time for the Union. As mentioned above, the Union’s 2022 run was contagious and absolutely brought new eyes and asses into seats to watch them play. Losing the local “free” TV option on PHL17 definitely came at the cost of the novice Philadelphia generic sports fan who had begun to take notice last season who now is just wandering away.
    That all said, a few more wins and people will be sucked back in again.

  15. I am probably in the minority here. I watch near every game but I have only ever been a partial season ticket holder. I have upgraded to full season for next year. I admit to fatigue this year (and a certain nihilism about my expectations on playoff results) but I love me some soccer, and I love the team. I’ve had great moments watching them. Rough times too. But I am still an enthusiastic fan.
    You ask if I care.
    I do.

  16. I expect a good collective effort from the players I think Bedoya will get the team motivated. If they are able to play against Cinncinati, I think the players will give their best efforts. I also think Martinez and Wagner will push the team to their limits. This is last time many of these guys will ever play together. I am trying to be optimistic even if I am a native Philadelphian. The Phillies were expected to win. They didn’t. The Eagles played their best when Foles was the QB. I think many of you are forgetting the underdog fight in Philadelphia sports teams

  17. in a yes or no answer, my immediate response is “no, i don’t.” I’m still shellshocked (and literally will be paying for it) from the Phils run. the past two months, as we turned in mostly unwatchable performances, i invested my fanaticism there.
    As for the U’s Saturday playoff game, i even had free parking and tix thrown at me and said no. what a meaningless exercise this first round.
    a followup question “will i care about the Union right?” yes. i’ll watch. i’ll forgo a 3rd home game in person, if necessary, but willwatch those matches if they are to follow. that IF is telling of my expected diminished return for this year’s team. as many have said, paying for the Messi game and seeing what we had to combat was telling. it’s been lackluster since.

  18. I don’t see why anyone would care about the Union or any of the other teams who made the playoffs. After all, if you look at the league website, the headline is about a friendly between two teams not good enough to make the playoffs.

  19. Yes. Of course I care about the team. I sat through almost a decade of crappy teams and they finally (still) have a chance to win a championship.

    That being said, I have noticed a lack of energy both in the stands and on the pitch the back end of the season.

    As others have said, it’s likely due to the sheer amount of games played causing physical fatigue to the player and perhaps a certain amount of mental fatigue to the fans.

    I’m also gonna echo the point that the Miami game was the bringer of bad vibes. There were many games last year, and this year, where the atmosphere in the stadium was incredible. But since that game it has been lacking a bit. Saturday was a step in the right direction but this cruddy playoff format and the unnerving news about Kai might put us back down.

    I hope everything works out and the boys can sweep up @ NER this Wednesday so we can deal with the fallout from the first game over the intl break.

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