A recent CBS poll asked readers which Philly sporting event in April they were most excited about. There were five choices. None of them involved the Philadelphia Union.
Most sports fans from town describe themselves as “four for four” fans: they are fans of what they consider to be the city’s four teams, the Phillies, Flyers, Sixers, and Eagles. None of that involves the Philadelphia Union, either.
What do the Philadelphia Union have to do to get into the conversation, to get into the big picture in Philly? Firstly, they have to win, and second, they have to win in the manner Philadelphia loves, with defense and effort and grit.
The people of Philadelphia are starving for a winner. We are a town so desperate for a winner that we attached our hopes to a horse, Smarty Jones, who (naturally) failed us. To paraphrase Jimmy Rollins, if you win, fans will love you, and it’s been proven time and again, from packed Phillies games when they contended to Flyers sellouts as they made the playoffs year after year.
They say those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but this is a case where the Union as an organization does well to know history so they CAN repeat it. In the late 60s and early 70s, a bunch of French-Canadians no other teams wanted laced up the skates for an upstart hockey club known as the Philadelphia Flyers. To hear it told here, the Philadelphia sports scene was such a mess that people had turned to harness racing for fun. The Flyers got pushed around, made some changes, got tough, beat some people up, and most importantly, started winning. Two Stanley Cups later, they had gathered a rabid fan base maybe no one outside of Ed Snider would have predicted could have existed, and which exists to this day.
Fast forward to 2016. The Phillies are rebuilding to the point the books think they’re capable of losing 100 games. The Sixers are threatening to break the record for fewest wins in a season. The Eagles just fired their head coach after missing the playoffs. Only the Flyers remain watchable, and even that’s in a rebuilding year for them. There’s plenty of room for the Union to win some games, stay up in the standings, score some goals, and turn some heads. There’s a chance here to wedge themselves into the dialogue of the town’s teams, but they have to win.
Soccer hasn’t cracked the general consciousness of this city and doesn’t get a lot of respect because frankly, the town’s soccer team hasn’t done a lot to earn it. Here’s what the Union has accomplished from 2010 to present: played for two Open Cups (lost in the finals both times) and went to the playoffs in 2011. That’s it. That’s the whole list. That’s just not enough for people to hang their hat on. People in this town are tired of being emotionally trampled by their teams; they’re not going to sign up for yet another team from a major sports league (sorry Soul, that doesn’t include you) that’s just going to stomp on their feelings some more. They have to be shown something first, given some incentive to hop on board.
Union manager Jim Curtin knows this. He often references playing defense and doing the dirty work as something this town holds in high regard as well as winning. He’s modeling his team in that image, the image of the Broad Street Bullies and ’93 Phillies. He knows the value of putting in a good shift (having made over 200 appearances in all competitions as a defender for the Chicago Fire), and of sticking up for your teammates. He grew up just north of the city and went to Villanova. Jim knows what his team has to do to capture the heart of the city. They just have to do it.
The Union already have a strong fan base who goes to the games. Attendance last year was at 94 percent capacity (18,500 for soccer), and that’s after years of mostly nothing happening. Support is high in the stadium, but the breakthrough in town is still lacking.
The formula is simple. Win some games. Do the dirty work and play some defense. Put the effort in and make some noise in the league. Force the local media to notice you. Go onto WIP and other channels and shows so many times you aren’t mistakenly referred to as “the Soul” anymore. Give people hope; give them something to believe in. Then and only then will the good citizens of Philadelphia consider giving you their heart. Then and only then will you be respected and turn four into five.