Philadelphia Union have no shortage of heart but club's vision is lacking
At various points last weekend at PPL Park, and again at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night, I found myself listening to Philadelphia's Sons of Ben supporters group bellowing out their adapted version of Millwall's anthem "No one likes us, we don't care."
Based on their overall record, the anthem might be more apt as "No one hates us, we don't care." Since the club's arrival in the league in 2010, various potential rivals have been tried on for size, only for said rivals to refuse the prospect of mutual enmity and offer the calculated insult of indifference instead.
In particular, New York Red Bulls and D.C. United fans have suggested that they don't have room for a third party. Thus, the Sons of Ben seem like a ball of animosity looking for somewhere to land. In some ways, the origin myth of the group, one that had them turning up to MLS games to boo both teams before the Union existed, still seems to characterize the culture around Philadelphia to this day.
So might a recent home-and-home series against league new boys New York City FC ignite something? In an ironic twist, might these two games turn the Yankees-owned NYCFC into the Mets to the Union's Phillies?
Frankly, no -- though not for want of enthusiasm by the hardcore fans. New York City took an impressive contingent to Philadelphia last weekend, and despite a midweek return, a vocal Sons of Ben group were there to boo and curse cheerfully as their side rallied to take a point in Yankee Stadium.
They weren't given a lot to cheer about, though. Long stretches of both games were ugly and marked by the presence of two teams who still appear very indistinct at this stage of the season, and in Philadelphia's case, arguably at this stage of their history.
New York have the excuse of being an expansion side that is showing many of the signs of coming together, except the where it matters most. Right now their club motto could be "the final ball was lacking," so pronounced has the fall off been after their pretty approach play. They've been slow to start games, better in the opening minutes of second halves but cramp-ridden and lacking concentration in the closing stages, which cost them against a willing but very limited Union side in both matches.
The Union also appear guilty of having few focal points for their willing running and attacks. When I ask a long-term beat writer for the team who the ideal signing for the Union would be, he doesn't hesitate before saying "someone like Jozy Altidore," for both symbolic and technical reasons.
The fact is that historically, the Union has lacked that type of obvious spearhead to capture the imagination and build an attack around. There have been forwards, sure -- Sebastien Le Toux and Jack McInerney, for example -- but no one to set the pulse racing. Too many Union games have drifted by with results that they seem to inherit rather than initiate.
If that seems unfair -- after all, Philadelphia took four points from an Eastern rival, with late goals in each game and all in the wake of that traumatic Sporting KC collapse -- in the broader picture there's a general sense of malaise around the Union that doesn't quite add up.
In some ways, each successive iteration of the Union team has at times masked a broader problem with the organization. There's been plenty of midfield endeavour at times, but they've also resembled the conspicuous effort of a team of unmotivated office workers who've just seen the boss stick his head out of his office. It looks like work, but production's not the focus.
That's a shame, because there's a real appetite and need for a team in the fourth largest media market in the country to start punching its weight -- a 1-3-3 start, frankly, isn't good enough. That goalkeeper John McCarthy, once a fan in the stands, could be so visibly moved by his debut in the win over New York City last weekend was a suggestion of what could be if the Union could get its act together amid the under-performing Philadelphia sports scene.
MORE FROM GRAHAM PARKER
- Kaka and Villa inspire all-stars vs. Tottenham
- Donovan reflects on retirement, looks forward
- NYCFC's Pirlo ready to make an MLS impact
- Contrasting early days for Gerrard, Lampard
- Diminishing returns for U.S. in Gold Cup play
- Inside New York City's big soccer weekend
Manager Jim Curtin has shown signs of fighting the good fight on the field at least, in his strong interim stint and run to the Open Cup final last year, and willingness to take responsibility for the start this year. He's an affable and honest footballing man, but so was former boss John Hackworth.
Curtin's decisiveness in cutting goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi, who was paraded proudly by CEO Nick Sakiewicz last summer with comments about "a little tournament in Brazil" he'd just played in, was a good sign for the manager's autonomy. Curtin is his own man, and the appetite and enthusiasm of the young players he's trying to bring through is unmistakable.
It's certainly more heartening to watch Erik Ayuk backflip or homegrown player Zach Pfeffer play his way into the U.S. U20 squad than to try and make sense of the glut of goalkeepers that eventually saw the still raw but exponentially improving Zac MacMath shipped out to accommodate the short-lived Mbolhi era. At least the former suggests some kind of strategy, whereas the time spent in nurturing MacMath only to loan him to another MLS side is less easy to account for.
The knock in effect is that watching the Union this season it's been hard to see where they were going to gain true traction, because nothing seems built for the long term. Let's see where Pfeffer is playing his soccer in two years time, for example, before he gets chalked up as a success story. Meanwhile, it's not as if the Union are making a splash as a selling club -- players just seem to cycle through while the incumbent coach tries to build a working team with whoever happens to be at hand.
It makes you feel for Curtin, who must motivate and organize with limited expectation that short term success can be translated into deposits in the institutional memory. After the two results against New York City the complexion of his team's start looks a little more positive, but the confidence in Philadelphia looks very brittle and appears to have to be reassembled for each game. Curtin's repeatedly tasked with hauling his team uphill.
Heading into another audition for potential rivals against New England this weekend (Sunday, 5:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and WatchESPN), the Revolution offer a pointed reminder that MLS is changing rapidly and the Union need to step up or risk falling further behind.
In recent times, small-market teams in Portland, Salt Lake and Kansas City have thrived with smart moves on and off the field. In response, certain league originals have found themselves adapting (maybe belatedly, but definitely) to the changing times in the league. The Red Bulls have finally embraced the uniqueness of MLS with all its implications for squad-building and style. Columbus have become re-animated under new ownership and this weekend's opponents at PPL Park have arrested their own drift on the field by finally building a well-augmented young team under Jay Heaps.
After New York City took the lead on Thursday night, the enthusiastic coordinated singing from the Sons of Ben eventually tailed off a little. The most spirited chanting before their late equalizer came when they taunted their hosts with "At least we've got a home." That's true, even if it's hard to see where the hearth is at times. Credit is due to the Union fans; many have become actively involved in community initiatives in Chester, the struggling city that houses PPL Park. For all their studied obnoxiousness in the stands, the Sons of Ben have turned out to be good neighbors.
Watching the last couple of games and adding up my experiences over the years encountering various Philadelphia fans, or their wonderfully cantankerous but truly engaged local press corps or positive impressions of Curtin's leadership, I can't question the heart in Philadelphia. Yet it's becoming a lot harder to see the vision.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.