Since the Union's inception in 2010, the club has been searching for an identity. With John Hackworth in charge, it seemed like they finally found it.
Hackworth got rid of creative and possibly less determined players, to make room for hard workers who were willing to adapt. This is why Roger Torres, Freddy Adu, and even Jack McInerney were replaced by Danny Cruz, Sebastien Le Toux (again), and Andrew Wenger. That second trio is much more willing to play wherever they are asked, and are a lot less likely to mouth off about it. They are the embodiment of the Union under Hackworth.
In May of 2013, Hackworth lauded Cruz in a post on the Union's website, saying, "His attitude - the relentlessness, hustle and intensity - is a perfect representation of what this club stands for and wants to bring every time we step out on the field at PPL Park. On Saturday, Danny showed us all 'Philly tough.'"
Hackworth wanted to take on the scrappy, hard working mantra that has been adapted and popularized by other Philadelphia sports teams, most famously the 1972-73 Flyers and 1993 Phillies. Thinking that the fanbase wanted to see a gritty band of underdogs, Hackworth tried to coin "Philly tough." He tried to perpetuate the stupid Philly stereotype of scrappiness and grit. Instead of trying to build a successful soccer team, he tried to build a successful Philly team. He tried to be the underdog.
According to Nielsen, Philadelphia is the fourth biggest media market, and the Union are the eleventh most valuable franchise in MLS, according to Forbes. Neither of those numbers suggest that the Union's defeatist inclination stems from financial woes. Why would a club in a better financial situation than half of the league - including 2013 MLS Cup Finalists Real Salt Lake - brand itself as an underdog? Because it was convenient. After the firing of Peter Nowak, who literally beat players and stole money from the club, Hackworth didn't need to do much to endear himself to the fans. He thought it'd be easy enough to build a gritty, but affable, squad, and shout "small town club" and "Philly tough" whenever questioned. Many would have been content with a perennial contender, even if they played ugly soccer. However, since the Union have been terrible for the last few years, fans wanted change.
MLS's salary cap structure makes it incredibly easy for teams to improve in a short amount of time. Take Sporting Kansas City, for example. In 2009, SKC (then the Wizards) finished second to last. In 2010, they finished third. In the offseason between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, they re-branded themselves as Sporting Kansas City. SKC went on to finish first in the Eastern Conference in consecutive seasons in 2011 and 2012. In 2012, they won the U.S. Open Cup, and last year they won the MLS Cup. At the end of 2013, SKC was the seventh most valuable team in the league, with only the eleventh highest payroll--a spot ahead of the Union. While the re-brand and new stadium certainly played a large part in KC's revival, most of the credit goes to Peter Vermes, who got the head coaching gig in mid-2009. Vermes made a powerhouse out of a club based in one of the smallest markets in MLS. There is no reason that that cannot be replicated in Philadelphia.
The Union, still only five years old, have time to define themselves. In terms of media markets, they'll be a top seven team for the foreseeable future. With respect to value, they're in the middle of the pack. It's completely feasible that they could become a consistent threat to finish in the top three in the East. With the conference adding four expansion teams in the near future by dropping SKC and Houston and the New York Red Bulls quickly losing influence, this upcoming hire is crucial for the Union. The underdog attitude must leave with Hackworth. Nick Sakiewicz and the higher-ups must hire a manager who will create an atmosphere where winning is expected, not a pleasant surprise. If they get it right, the Union could amass a few trophies over the next five years. If they get it wrong, then I might have to write this article again in two.