It’s Time for the Philadelphia Union to Start Acting Like a Big Market Team

Photo Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The scariest thing about Halloween night was the Philadelphia Union’s ghastly performance in the Bronx.

In predictable fashion, the Union came up small again, this time falling to New York City 3-1 and crashing out of the playoffs in the very first round, which is what they did in 2016 and 2011.

They have never won a playoff game.

The U looked outmatched and outsmarted from the jump, playing on a shitty and embarrassing patchwork assembly of sod laid down over a baseball field. NYC’s ridiculous excuse of a pitch hamstrings possession teams like the Union and kills any semblance of a passing game. What you watched on Sunday and Wednesday was a bullshit version of magnet ball, rather than anything resembling soccer.

That said, they didn’t do themselves any favors. They never do.

As an example, here’s the 33-year-old veteran midfielder, a guy who played in a World Cup, letting his man run right by him, leaving the burden on the 19-year-old rookie to defend two players at once:

Pathetic plays like that are the reason the Union have compiled this record in meaningful matches:

  • 2011 playoffs, leg 1: loss
  • 2011 playoffs, leg 2: loss
  • 2014 USOC final: loss
  • 2015 USOC final: loss
  • 2016 playoffs: loss
  • 2018 USOC final: loss
  • 2018 playoffs: loss

The Philadelphia Union are now 0-7 all time in cup finals and playoff games.

And the confounding thing is that the best Union team of all time was also the most disappointing. This club finished with 50 points and 15 wins, which were both club records. They advanced to the U.S. Open Cup final for the third time in five years. There was so much potential for this team to turn a corner, win a trophy, and maybe gain some respect among casual fans in a traditional “4 for 4” sports town.

But they didn’t. They choked when it mattered. They were run off the field in the two games that actually meant something.

So I don’t think 50 points and 15 wins means much in the end, because this team didn’t advance any further than they did in 2016 or 2015. They lost another cup final and again lost in the first round of the playoffs. You could argue that the #3 seeded 2011 playoff team is still the best squad in Union history, because even though they only won 11 games, they didn’t lose 14, which is how this year’s club finished.

You tell me which team is better:

  • 2011 Union: 11 wins, 8 losses, 15 draws, 48 points, 44 goals scored, 36 goals conceded, +8 goal differential
  • 2018 Union: 15 wins, 14 losses, 5 draws, 50 points, 49 goals scored, 50 goals conceded, -1 goal differential

I guess it comes down to how you value defense and draws vs. total wins. How difficult was the Eastern Conference back in 2011?

Either way, the fact that both of those teams barely finished over .500 shows you how much this franchise has underachieved since the 2010 expansion year.

Say what you will about head coach Jim Curtin, but I don’t know if Pep Guardiola would have coached this team to a much better record. Yeah, he probably could have squeezed 2-3 more points out of them, and that gets you a home playoff game, but this squad was never beating Atlanta or New York in a two-leg series. The ceiling was not very high to begin with.

They are what they are, which is a group of overachievers with deficiencies across the board. The left back is a right back. The center backs are teenagers. The defensive midfielder doesn’t defend. The captain is a Robert Covington-styled glue guy who can’t influence a big game. The strikers aren’t good enough and the million dollar winger played the entire season with a sports hernia.

That’s not to say that Jim gets a free pass, because he doesn’t. The over-reliance on players like C.J. Sapong, the banishment of Derrick Jones, and the limited flexibility with the formation and tactical approach are just three things you could point to as areas of questionable decision making. And his teams continually came up short when it mattered most, which may or may not speak to his ability as a motivator and game-planner. I personally think that any self-respecting professional athlete should be able to motivate themselves before a cup final or playoff game, and if not, they shouldn’t be playing sports, especially not in Philadelphia. I can’t speak for any semblance of a game plan, since I’m not in the locker room.

Curtin is out of a contract and likely does not return to the sidelines next season, which is a kind of a shame since he’s a great dude and local guy to boot. He was very easy to cheer for and he was great with fans and media.

But when you don’t get the results, this is what happens. You know it, I know it, and he knows it, so whatever. A coaching change at least re-energizes the fan base and keeps the players on their toes, and if you don’t go that route, you’re jeopardizing season ticket renewals and just adding to the apathy and general malaise hanging over Talen Energy Stadium.

However, you also know that the problem starts at the very top with Jay Sugarman and ownership, an unambitious group that operates a major market team like a small market team instead.

You can say the Union’s pay roll is in the middle of the MLS pack, and that’s technically true, but this club does not spend RELATIVE TO THE SIZE OF THE MARKET THAT THEY PLAY IN. Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York City are willing to spend $10+ million dollars on superstar players and transfer fees while the Union continue to play moneyball and roll out teenagers instead. The top-end talent on the Union, guys like Borek Dockal and Alejandro Bedoya, simply does not match the top-end talent of a team like Atlanta, which rolls out Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, or LAFC, which signed Carlos Vela to their expansion squad.

And listen, the academy push and “play your kids” stuff is feel-good fun. It’s really cool to see a kid from Delaware County playing for his hometown soccer team. Everybody says they are “doing things the right way” by promoting domestic talent and showing their belief in the American player. However, the goal is not to develop players for the United States national team, it’s to win MLS games. The goal is to become relevant in your own city and earn the respect and trust of Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, and Sixers fans. You want to win trophies and playoff games and establish a culture of success in a top-five American sports market.

If you do that, the other things will come. Auston Trusty will get USMNT call-ups. Mark McKenzie will get his shot. But the Union are trying to run this thing with an academy-first model when everybody knows that you need to surround those 19 year olds with veteran studs who can pull everything together. You can’t win with 3-4 home grown kids on the field and a bunch of peripheral pieces running around out there. You need to nail your DP signings, your TAM signings, draft smartly, and explore every avenue of player-personnel that is available to you.

That’s where Jay Sugarman comes into play. He has to start acting like a major market owner. You can’t Billy Beane your way to a trophy. There’s no magical analytical bullet in soccer. I appreciate the fact that he’s been open and honest about the approach. He’s basically admitted that they don’t have the resources to line up against other teams and just out-talent them.

But if you can’t out-talent other teams, then what the fuck are we actually doing here? Just building the value of our investment? Sugarman sits on the MLS expansion committee and his team continues to gain value when new clubs enter the league, so basically he doesn’t have to do shit except wait and watch his portfolio improve, or whatever New York City businessmen do in the morning while sipping coffee and reading The Wall Street Journal.

I’ve said this a million times on the “It’s Always Soccer in Philadelphia Podcast,” but this Union franchise reminds me of the Chris Rock skit where he’s talking about.. certain kinds of people. Rock says, “(people) always want credit for shit they’re supposed to do,” and that’s the Union. Ownership talks about having an academy and a structure and a process and that they are now on the right path to getting where they need to be.

Yeah?

Well… YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO HAVE AN ACADEMY AND A PROCESS AND A PRACTICE FACILITY! You’re a professional sports franchise in Philadelphia!

You are asking us to give you credit for shit you’re supposed to do. You are not an expansion team anymore. You have played nine full seasons of Major League Soccer and have nothing to show for it.

The only thing left for this team to do is actually win. Win a game that matters, because right now you are 0-7 in four playoff games and three cup finals, and I can’t sell that shit. I can’t convince Eagles fans to watch the Union, because the product isn’t good enough. It’s not worth their time. You cannot build your franchise or earn respect in Philadelphia when you cannot win anything that actually matters.

You have to start acting like a major market franchise, because this is a major market.

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11 Responses

  1. Well said Kevin. Just another year of trying to punch above their weight… all the while knowing they weren’t going to actually win shit. Next year will probably be similar to this year unless Tanner can pull some serious strings or Sugarman opens up his wallet. The stock market is doing better right, Jay? Maybe you can actually spend a little to genuinely improve the club, instead of throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. Oh and Curtin HAS TO GO. Nice enough guy, but that doesn’t win you games.

  2. Well at least we have an exciting Fulham team to root to stay in the EPL and not be relegated.
    It is worth a trip to London to see a game at Craven Cottage, amazing venue.
    C’mon you Whites!

  3. A few things:

    1. Kinker you are correct, although this is not some revelatory point
    2. Referencing a comedy bit that involves an in-context racial slur where you have to dance around the use of the slur? Yea, just no. Find another reference point.
    3. I was walked around SOUF FEELEY last night and passed by a bunch of bars. None had the game on. The bar I wound up at didn’t have it on, they had a horror movie on. I asked them to put it on. The bartender said “who’s playing?” The Union gave up like 2 goals 20 minutes later.
    4. There was very litter chatter about this game. Perhaps it was big in niche soccer circles, but there was no Philly Twitter/Reddit buzz about this. What is the point of this team if they are perhaps their best season ever, are playing in a playoff game and nobody really knows that it’s even happening? Why would even the diehards invest in this?

    1. 1. yep
      2. please
      3. the games are never on, you can go to any bar in the summer and the Phillies will be on 27 televisions, but you have to ask them to put the Union game on
      4. one of the problems is that every time someone like me tries to push the team or encourage people to watch, they shit the bed, which has the opposite effect and pushes casuals even further away from the team

  4. I had season tickets for 4 seasons until 2 years ago. (Putting that stupid red card on my seat for the final game of the season really swayed me toward not renewing.) I went to one game last year. I think the Cup final was the only game I watched from start to finish this year. I watched about a half hour last night. I rarely check to see if a game is on TV. It takes an effort to remember they even exist. I imagine most 4 for 4 fans don’t even know the Union exist. I doubt most can even name a player. It has been 9 seasons. The novelty of going to a game has worn off. The stadium is still fantastic. But the location stinks. The parking lot continues to be a disaster. (The last time I went to a game, about a thousand fans missed the start of a game because there was a train crossing.) They missed out on really connecting with fans who don’t really follow soccer.

    They play Union Soccer. They are totally content with a bunch of draws and a few wins for 5th or 6th in the East. They have no big names on the team. They have no fan favorites. If I wanted to buy a jersey with a name on the back, I have no idea who to get. They have improved their team play. But it doesn’t really make them interesting . The set pieces still look improvised.

    They are like the Flyers, but without all of the history.

  5. 99% Agree. Chance they keep Curtin still a possibility…best record in team history has to count for something.

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