A more perfect Philadelphia Union is possible. How can it happen? Just learn from the past, not just soccer but all of Philadelphia’s sports teams.
So I’m sure you might have heard of how the Union came into existence and a little group named the Sons of Ben. If not, you can read about it here.
"“Philadelphia was awarded Major League Soccer’s 16th team on February 28, 2008. Led by the ownership group of Keystone Sports and Entertainment, LLC, the club operated under the name MLS Philadelphia 2010 for most of 2008 and the early portion of 2009. The combination of extensive grassroots support spearheaded by the Sons of Ben and a public/private partnership between Philadelphia Union, the State of Pennsylvania, Delaware County and the City of Chester enabled the construction of a state-of-the-art soccer stadium and convinced MLS that the Philadelphia region deserved a soccer team. After thorough historical and fan research, the club announced its name,crest and colors on May 11, 2009 at Philadelphia’s City Hall. Philadelphia Union alludes to the Union of the Thirteen Colonies, of which Philadelphia was the first capital. The club’s name and crest incorporate Philadelphia’s rich colonial history and vital role in the creation of our nation – the Union. The team’s name was chosen following a ‘Fan Vote’ held between January 19, 2009 and February 6, 2009.”"
It seems like just yesterday that I was on Bigsoccer.com and found this group of fans. For every person that tells me that an expansion team must follow a certain formula and should never come from scratch; well, I give you the Union.
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Now its six years later and the team that started from scratch is starting to spin its wheels like so many other Philadelphia teams. You see as any Philadelphian will tell you, we know what each team should do and most the time it falls on deaf ears. For years we told the Eagles to get a real wide receiver so Number 5 can have somebody to throw the ball too. You do that and off to the Super Bowl the Birds will go.
Next thing you know, along comes T.O. and what do you know. The fans are very knowledgeable about sports and their teams. That acquisition changed how people in Philadelphia looked at the Eagles. It started in preseason with unheard amounts of fans going to training camp and the team had our attention all the way till XXXIX came to an end. The next year the team went back to being smarter than the fans and down in the standings.
Next up was the Philadelphia Phillies and GM Ed Wade. This team is the oldest continuous, one-name, one-city franchise in all of professional American sports, dating to 1883. They have two championships to their name. The first coming in 1980, just shy of 100 years from when the club was started.
You hear a lot of hate for Philadelphia across national media sometimes because we are considered a tough town and you’ll never hear someone from Philly who doesn’t take pride in that. We call that PASSION! But America also must love losers as well, because when the Phillies had a chance to win it all for the first time, America watched. To this day game 6 is significant because it stands as the “most-watched game in World Series history” with a television audience of 54.9 million viewers.
The Phillies and the Eagles at the turn of the millennium played at Veterans Stadium in South Philadelphia. Ed Wade was one of the first heads of a sports team to label Philadelphia as a small market. Imagine the number four media market in the United States with one of the biggest cable media giants, Comcast, headquartered in Philadelphia being past off as a small market.
Although the team had some nice players to make a run at a championship, Wade would never pull the trigger to get the team over the top. He cried about the stadium and that they couldn’t compete with the big baseball markets so they had to be conservative. In 2005 after moving into Citizens Bank Park the fans had enough of his small market mentality. Wade was let go and the team started spending some money. It happened in the front office as they brought in a man with a plan.
The Phillies hired Pat Gillick and he started making trades for players that helped take this team to its second championship in 2008. The team started spending on players and was rewarded with 257 sellouts as the Phillies went 154-103 during those games with Citizens Bank Park averaging 45,082 fans per game for a total draw of 11,585,952. They also signed the biggest local TV contract in their history. Small market?
Philadelphia right now is primed for a winner and it doesn’t look like any of the teams have much of a chance to provide that. In the early Seventies the Philadelphia sports landscape was quite similar. A new team playing a sport from Canada came to Philadelphia as an expansion team. I can remember people telling me it would never make it in Philadelphia. But the team adapted a style that this city just loved and won two Stanley Cups. They sold out that building for ten years and that team not only made it but the Flyers have one of the most loyal following to this day.
The Union can make a huge push in the market but I see them making the same mistakes that other teams have. You see we love a winner and hate to lose even though we have had a lot of practice at it. We appreciate when the team listens to the fans or at least acts like they care. But it starts at the top with the owner or the person that is in charge of the franchise. Right now they want us to believe that the Union are in a small market but they aren’t.
If you think that we will ever believe that this is a small market in the United States, well you’re kidding yourself. Already I see it starting to happen as PPL is starting to look like the Vet in the Ed Wade years; mostly diehards.
So what should they do to turn it around you ask? The answer is simple in Philadelphia; spend some money.
The Union have a nice foundation for a team in MLS right now. Soccer Specific Stadium on the banks of the Delaware river in Chester. Youth Academy run by Tommy Wilson who has a very credible resume. New practice fields right next to PPL Park.
So they built the infrastructure of the team, but they have failed to build a team that captures the imagination of Philadelphia.
Maybe it’s time to ask that consultant who he would hire as a GM, because this team needs a direction. Last year they kept Curtin on a string and never hired him as head coach until November 7, 2014. Maybe if they would have bitten the bullet and either told him yes or no earlier, he would have played all those backup players in the final few games and got a true look at personal before they made the decision to protect Fábinho.
They acquired GK Rais Mbolhi last year after the World Cup when they already had two goalies playing for them who were both taken in the first round of a MLS Draft. In a league with a tight cap and a backup goalie who was the the first goalie to be taken No. 1 overall, it baffled many.
Jay Sugarman started the season with a press conference that was quite promising. Nick Sackiewicz was pushed to the side to deal with the business side of the operations. René Meulensteen, a candidate for GM was announced as a consultant for the search for the GM. Does this sound familiar to Philadelphia fans? Another team spinning it’s wheels instead of making a hard decision. Andy Reid, Ed Wade, Rubén Amaro, Jr., Bob Clarke, Joe Banner and the list could go on. You got rid of Nick Sackiewicz, but you still haven’t replaced him.
Name a GM and stop with the procrastinating already. Let Curtin hire some assistance to get the technical staff on par with the rest of MLS. Pick a direction with the youth that you build around and stop playing journeymen players instead of promising youth. There is no reason Fred, who is 35-year-old player on the end of his carreer, should be taking minutes from Jimmy McLaughlin- a homegrown player that needs minutes to develop. This happens because Curtin feels he needs to win to keep his job. He stated that he must make the playoffs this year. But if they had a GM who felt comfortable with the plan to build for the future, Curtin might make some decisions that will pay dividends later in the season.
The Union don’t have a player who is the face of the franchise and the youth that they tried to develop to be that face they keep letting go of. Right now Orlando is developing three Philadelphia first round picks. Imagine that, will you? A team that has been in existence since 2010 and didn’t have a first round pick in the last draft, has three players it drafted in the first round playing for Orlando City. Meanwhile Kaka and Pedro Ribeiro put on a show Saturday as they got a tie in Montreal. Oh and by the way Montreal had another first round pick for the Union score a highlight goal in that game.
Philadelphia can understand building a team and being patient, but it won’t last long when the team keeps constantly changing the plan. They failed to pay Okugo and they gave Ribeiro away in the expansion draft so that they could hold onto Fábinho. Hello! A first round pick for 30-year-old backup player. This is where the GM can help a young coach and technical director. Not a consultant that has very little future with the club.
Looking at the Eagles they went out and got the final piece of the puzzle and rode it to the Super Bowl. The next year they nickel and dimed that player right out-of-town and once again the team started to decline.
I won’t say Okugo was a key part of the team, but I find it funny that a player that was headed for Europe is now playing for an expansion team.
It’s time to get a plan and let the fans in on it. Curtin has done a good job being transparent, but he could use some help. Last year on a Tuesday night in September PPL park was as loud as it has ever been as the Union played for the 2014 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Fans showed that they have passion for this team. Now it’s time for the owners to show they have passion for the fans.
Get a front office in place, one that can help a young coach. While you’re at it, it’s time to start the second phase of the project that was supposed to happen with PPL Park. Six years of unpaved parking lots is a joke and Chester was supposed to benefit with new development around the stadium.
Run the team like a big market team and you’ll see support for the team like a big market team. But take a look at the past and see what happens when you don’t and remember that soccer is in no way in the same league as those other two franchises. They made mistakes that fans forgave; but the Union might not get that opportunity if they keep going down this same path.