Photo: Daniel Studio
Union fans are searching for answers. In a season that began with such promise and has gone so quickly sour, those who have invested their time, money, and emotions in the Boys in Blue are beginning to look elsewhere for what the seats of Talen Energy Stadium can no longer provide. Whether they’re showing up in pews for a bible study on the teachings of The Book of Earnest, or in queues for a practicum on brief and breezy finality at The Cliff of Union Despair, the followers are restless.
Part of what is so unsettling for Union fans that they perceive the Union to be very different than what the Union perceive themselves to be. “Faith in the group” and “trust in the process” are certainly cogent management theories, and as long-term blue prints for an organization, they should be valued by fanbases in every sport. But they are rendered useless in the face of consistent and repeated failure.
In order to fully convey what type of team Union fans would like to support, perhaps the duty is on the fans, even as a last resort, to give working instructions for operation back to the team. Using a book called “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz, famous in self-help circles and popularized by Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady (he didn’t get upset about Deflategate because of this book… it’s that impactful), Union fans can give their team a rubric for salvaging their relationship.
Agreement #1: Be impeccable with your word
While the Union seem to be more transparent this season than perhaps any before, they still have a glaring communication issue: the team has written a narrative about who they want to be that hasn’t manifested itself in who they actually are. In support of this narrative, which claims that the Union are a savvy, Moneyball-playing championship contender, the Union were busy rebuilding their roster for the better. However, of the players brought to Philadelphia in the winter, only one, Haris Medunjanin, has proven himself to be an every day starter when the entire squad is healthy. Meanwhile, the worst of them has been little more than a footnote at Bethlehem Steel. Together, the group has lacked chemistry and resolve.
The Union must be clear in their vision, as well as their successes and failures in pursuit of that vision.
Agreement #2: Don’t take anything personally
Criticism of sporting organizations is a topic that consumes every major media market in the United States. Turn on your local sports radio station, “sports shouting” shows like Around the Horn, or any miscellaneous blog dedicated to fixing the local sports team and the theme will be some variation on the same theme: the owners don’t spend enough money, the coaches and front office don’t know what they’re doing, and the players aren’t good enough.
All clichés aside, these are essentially the only relevant criticisms of failing teams (imperfect jerseys and imperfect stadiums are valid, but not nearly as important) and are precisely the criticisms Union fans have of their team. The owners do not spend enough money, and relegation-level positioning in revenue and operating income further support that data. The coaches and front office, as unified as they might be, are sticking to a plan that has produced exactly zero wins since Hilary Clinton had a firewall and an 81.4% chance of winning the 2016 Presidential Election, according to Nate Silver. The players, given soccer’s extremely high correlation between money spent on salaries and on-field team success, are not good enough, with team spending ranking near the bottom of Grant Wahl’s Ambition Rankings.
The Union must invest more in the tangible elements of on-field success: better players.
Agreement #3: Don’t make assumptions
Most Union fans were soccer fans first, Union fans second. In America, this is almost always the case given the overwhelming participation in youth soccer and the young age and relative instability of Major League Soccer. For an organization teetering on irrelevancy in its league and its own market, this is a paramount problem: Union fans have “old flames” that they can run back to when they don’t feel heard, fulfilled, or valued by their local professional franchise. Whether that be their old standby rec-league team, their gang of gnarled Premier League pub pals, or that cute girl in Dortmund jersey who can correctly pronounce “Pulisic,” Union fans have options. People with options don’t have to keep dating the team that doesn’t love them back, no matter how many bribes of puppies or tacos they may offer (though, for enough tacos, I’m willing to prove this theory wrong).
The Union must not assume that their geographic proximity or cache of cultural value is substantial enough for fans to remain engaged through a product that is currently substandard.
Agreement #4: Always do your best
For most of its sporting history, Philadelphia was a blue-collar town that rewarded grit, hustle, and a certain “je ne sais quoi” of crassness (see: Chuck Bednarik, Lenny Dykstra, Charles Barkley, or Conor Casey, or hear any of them pronounce “je ne sais quoi”). Philadelphia media still talks about it, Jim Curtin still talks about it, and Union fans lament that valuing these intangibles is a binary to devaluing other things, most specifically talent. Though every inch of the “Philly Tough” narrative might be a cliché today, the overarching theme of this collection of character traits is this: do your job like your life and team depended on it, and like someone is right behind you trying to take it from you. Effort is a difficult thing to quantify, but there have been enough moments in this young season where the team’s body language and subsequent final push has been unmistakably negative or altogether nonexistent.
The Union must not only play smart, assertive soccer, they must also play for their team and their teammates like the badge is important to them.
Agreement #5: Be skeptical, but learn to listen
(The author’s son, Don Jose Ruiz, added a fifth agreement in the sequel to his father’s work and it fits well with the task at hand.)
“If a coach starts listening to the fans, he ends up sitting next to them.” Jim Curtin is a Philadelphia kid who reads Philadelphia soccer websites, this one included. He’s said as much over the years, so he has some insight into comprehending his team’s predicament from the inside and (at least in part) from the outside. With both of those things in mind, it’s understandable then that he and the Union organization are reluctant to stray from their formational mantra of 4-2-3-1, viewing the team’s poor results as a bump in a very long road. However, despite some ineffective tweaks against New York City FC and some whispers of Starting XI changes at training this week, the longer the team keeps heading down the same road with the same results, regardless of whether or not Curtin remains the coach, the smaller the crowd will be that is there to greet him at the end of the road should things get better.
The Union must do more to embrace the fact that their fans have strong opinions, many of which are informed and in the team’s best interest.
It’s unclear if any of these things will be sufficient to save the Union’s 2017 season or to bring fans back into a place of trust, even in total. Right now, though, things need to change in Chester before it’s too late.