I’ll be honest– I follow the Union from afar. I enjoy soccer, and have really come around to appreciate the game this past year, but I have a hard time going from high-level English Premier League and Champions League soccer, which is easily accessible on FOX Soccer and ESPN, to the volleyfest that is the MLS. That said, I’ll watch the Union if I have nothing better going on.
Here’s what I know, though: They’re doing something wrong. Through the first two years of their existence, the Union quickly won over many folks by hitting all the points on the new franchise checklist: Great team name and logo? Check. Kick-ass new stadium, positioned perfectly on the water, with outstanding views and the ability to expand? Check. Early success? Check. A small yet passionate group of ardent supporters? Check. Positive community involvement and marketing? Check.
It was all there.
Now something seems like it’s changing.
For the Union, at this point, it’s still all about perception, and perception was all positive for the first two seasons. But the last few months have been rough.
It seemed like a smart move when the Union signed Freddy Adu late last year. He is one of the most recognizable American soccer players. The move, however, had the scent of an attention-grab. Even my untrained eye can tell that Adu, once a phenom, is not very good at soccer, relatively speaking. He has many tools, yet looks like he has no idea how to put them all together. You can’t help but wonder if the move was more about creating buzz than it was about winning. That said, we’ll give the Union a pass here. It’s hard to argue with a team for bringing on one of the most well-known players in the game (a player who, oddly enough, was once at odds with head coach Peter Nowak when the two were in D.C.).
What happened this offseason, however, was inexcusable.
The Union had one player that 95% of casual fans could identifty: Sebastien Le Toux. He’s a Frenchman, and was the team’s best and most popular player. Think about that for a second: they got a bunch of hardened Philadelphians to like a Frenchman. And not just like– love. Union fans adored Le Toux. He had his own song. And was even given a heartwarming sendoff at Kildare’s when he was sold to Vancouver.
Ah yes, the sale.
A young franchise sold their best, most popular, marketable, likable and recognizable player for cash. Why? To be honest, I’m not sure. But here’s how Le Toux took it, speaking to Delco Times Reporter Chris Vito just days after the trade-sale:
“The only thing they wanted is the money,” Le Toux said. “Being with this team and being a guy, not to build around, but to help this team, was what I wanted. … They must have wanted to sell me for money because they needed money. We don’t have a nice practice facility and that is something they promised since I am here. It’s terrible.”
“I asked Peter (Monday at YSC) what was going on and he didn’t let me talk,” Le Toux said. “He started to get mad at me, telling me that I was very not respectful to leave Bolton early. I told him, ‘First, I respect myself.’ But I always did everything they asked me to do. I came from vacation in the Dominican Republic for the Bimbo (sponsorship) announcement. I always was respectful. … It was like he was saying, ‘I don’t know if I can trust you on this team.’”
When he refers to “Bolton,” he’s talking about a sale, two weeks earlier, to Bolton of the English Premier League. After a few days of tryouts (of sorts), Bolton declined to accept Le Toux, who would later say that he was out-of-shape. So that’s when the Union shipped him off to soccer purgatory in Vancouver.
Needless to say, the relationship between Le Toux and Nowak now seems, um, fractured.
On Saturday, Le Toux will return to PPL Park, and he will no doubt be warmly welcomed by fans. The buzz surrounding the match is akin to Mike Richards returning to play the Flyers in October. So, one would think that Nowak would expect to be asked some questions about his former star’s return, no?
Here’s what he said during a press conference yesterday when asked about it:
"Are you being serious or are you joking?" Nowak asked. "Because I could look [at the question of how the atmosphere will be] from two different perspectives. I don't know, maybe confetti, maybe banners, maybe a parade? Who knows? I have no idea what the [atmosphere] is going to be. I am focused on our responsibilities."
"I am sick of this 'face of the franchise' crap," Nowak said. "You know who is the face of the franchise? Our fans who come every week to support us, the team. They are the face of this franchise. That's who we play for. Not some individual player. I'm not dumb, I know fans loved [Le Toux] and will cheer him, but at the end of the day, it's about the team, our team, and that's where the focus should be."
What a genuine asshole. Nowak is known for his surly demeanor, but this seems entirely out-of-line.
Speaking to some of the Sons of Ben, I can tell you that they feel the same way about Nowak in general.
Danny Califf, the captain, is another fan favorite and one of the original members of the team. A few weeks ago he was left off the home opener roster againt Colorado. Nowak said Califf was still bothered by offseason surgery. But that was news to Califf: [CSN Philly]
“Supposedly, I have a knee injury,” he said, in an attempt to explain his benching.
As such, this Saturday the Sons of Ben are planning Operation 4 – Love and Support for Our Captain. Here’s what they wrote on a Facebook page for the event:
Call all Brigade, SoB, Creep, Illegitimates, Bridge Crew, and all Philadelphia Union fans. It is time to step up and show some love for our Captain, and one of the few remaining Union original players, Danny Califf. Here is what we need you to do. For the match on the 31st, make 2 poles showing our love and support of our Captain. You can keep it simple with blue material with a white 4, or get creative, maybe it is a number 4 that says Captain Califf, maybe it is a Captain's armband with a 4 on it, all we ask is that you make it in two pole form, and keep it appropriate (nothing lewd or vulgar). Bring it with you EARLY on the 31st, as it needs to be brought into the stadium with the other tifo (usually 2 hours before match time). We will take them in and pile them up on the yellow drum capo stand. Once we march into the stadium, come on down and grab your two pole. When the match clock hits the 4 minute mark (that is 4:00 on the match clock, not the 4th minute) we will all hold our two pole up for at least a minute in support of our captain.
In you need some advice as to what kind of material to use, contact our two pole specialist, Kevin Leonowich via FB or @twopolekevin on twitter. Justin of the Brigade has already started this project, making two new Captain Califf banners to debut on 3/31, but now we need your help. Have fun, be creative, and show positive support for OUR captain, a man that has been there for us, the fans. Danny's hard work, determination, and leadership make him an important part of our club and someone we never want to leave us. Please feel free to contact us directly at BearfightBrigade4@gmail.com if you have any questions.
Let's all work together and make a sea of Captain Califf 2 poles to show our love an support of our captain. Have fun, be creative! We will see you on the 31st at the tailgate.
'Where the weak are killed and eaten'
OK, that’s a little weird, I’ll admit, but you get a sense of how the most loyal fans feel. And those feelings are compounded by the fact that the mostly revamped (purged?) Union roster hasn’t had much success thus far. The team is 0-3 and has been outscored 6-2 in its first three matches.
So, you have to ask yourself: Are the Union making foolish decisions… or is the coach just an asshole? I think it’s a little bit of both. But Nowak certainly seems like an asshole, especially considering he's managed to get into with three of his best players and former players (Adu, Le Toux and Califf).
Here’s video of his presser from Philly.com. The Union have some video too, but, as you can see, they cut out the parts about Le Toux.