Photo: Paul Rudderow
As of now, the good people of the Delaware Valley are recovering from two disasters. One was a devastating event that left in its mighty wake a trail of destruction, loss, and questions about the powers that be. The other was a hurricane.
The Philadelphia Union’s third season, if it were a weather event, would leave Glen Schwartz sobbing into his bowtie organizer and John Bolaris seeking the comfort of whatever working girls made it out of Atlantic City with their ball gags intact. It tested the resolve of the Blue and Gold’s faithful in ways that can’t be explained in the simple terms of games lost and goals allowed and playoffs unqualified for. It was an existential blow to the people who’ve worked hard to bring the club from nonexistence to the fringe of Philadelphia sportsdom, and finally to something close to the mainstream.
For lack of a better phrase, it hurt.
Enter the silver lining. Now is the time, as we sift through the rubble, to not only weigh our losses but to take heart in what has survived, and what nothing—neither the whims of nature nor the wrath of Superstorm Nowak—can ever take away.
Not all was lost
Many of us are still feeling the pain of loss, and not just of games. An inspiring if technically imperfect captain betrayed, a franchise striker shipped unceremoniously to the frozen North, a young up-and-comer denied his chance to up and come; we carry their ghosts with us still. Too many great men were cultivated here only to be mercilessly harvested for the price of allocation money and the personal authority of an angry Pole.
But not all was lost. Our personnel blessings, meager though they may be, are worth counting. Another exciting youngster managed, through the fog of it all, to fill the void left at the top of our formation in a way that’s nothing short of admirable. Yet another one redefined our expectations for a Super Sub, Roger Torres notwithstanding. A backup goalkeeper proved himself to be as much a man, in his composure and courage, as any seasoned vet. An assistant coach, stepping into a power vacuum the size of the Schuylkill, showed us all that at least some of the brass is capable of remembering the fans—and the players for that matter—and did a great deal to bring back the family atmosphere of the club while still making the tough decisions (*cough* Adu *cough*) that prioritize effectiveness over celebrity.
All of that is reason to cheer.
Thinning the proverbial herd
And speaking of which, yes, it did seem like there was a palpable loss of enthusiasm from the stands. The sight of empty seats is usually something we mock other clubs for, secure in the small army of devotees that turn PPL into a bi-weekly frenzy of Philadelphian phervor. Now our own hallowed temple has, on occasion, seemed to have more space in the pews (excuse the anecdotal evidence, but it’s hard to go by the official attendance numbers as they reflect tickets sold as opposed to the amount of people who actually show up). Many a frustrated tweeter and facebooker has spoken blatantly about jumping ship, having given the whole Union thing a try but feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth.
Undoubtedly, this festering hemorrhoid of a season has cost us some of the hard-won converts to the Beautiful Game that novelty and the promise of general Philadelphian sports glory had brought.
But frankly, we’re better served by thinning that proverbial herd, and cutting loose those among us who Dooped in fair weather but headed for the hills when the Doppler had FEMA dusting off the ponchos. Ask a lifelong Phillies fan about the value of fans whose devotion magically spiked after 2008. The bandwagon will pull into Chester again someday, but until then we can do without the half-hearted.
Badge of honor
This season sucked a particularly turgid one. But it was, as all tragedies are, a character-building experience. Years from now—perhaps when we see the Boys in Blue hoisting Philly’s first cup, or maybe when we just come close, or maybe just the next time we embarrass the toxic runoff that constitutes New York fans—we’ll think about Season 3. We’ll remember how we weathered that storm together, arm in arm, singing at the top of our lungs and daring the tempest to breach the levies of our spirit. We’ll wear our endurance of this nightmare as a badge of honor, as scars earned in a battle for something that matters.
Take this past Saturday’s game against the North Jersey Corporate Cows, without question the perfect insult to add to a season’s worth of injury. Not only did we have our asses handed to us by the epitome of everything that’s wrong with American soccer, but the PA system at the stadium was broken, almost as if PPL herself was hoarse and weary from screaming in agony along with the rest of us.
As I looked around the River End, I heard a thousand voices fill the air left empty by a mute announcer. They told me everything I needed to know.
Afterwards I walked out of the stadium, south along the Delaware to the waiting embrace of my fellow SoB’s for the post-tailgate. The wife smiled. People were laughing as if the thing that brought us to this forgotten city week after week couldn’t be found on a scoreboard. I opened a beer.
Somehow, I felt like we’d won.