Go to any pub within a stone's throw of a Premier League venue on game day. Strike that, go to any pub within a stone's throw of any club in any league in Europe, South America, or really anywhere. It won't take long to learn quite a bit about the local club. When were the good times? Who are the best, or most loved players in the clubs history? Who would not be welcomed in that pub? Where ever there are fans gathered, club culture is present and growing.
The Philadelphia Union may only be five years old, but it has not been a boring, uneventful five years. Plenty of players coming in and out of the club, a taste of the playoffs,the depression of terrible management, and even the joys and crushing disappointment of a cup final. The club has a great stadium, a passionate fan base, and well I would like to say an ownership to match, but I'll leave that distinction up to you.
One of the most debatable elements of club culture is the players that fall into the categories of Legends and Cult Heroes. Sometimes the lines can blurred, but to me there is one major difference; did the player make his place in the fan's hearts on or off the field? To complicate matter further, can a player who made their name on the field elsewhere be counted as a club legend? Let's dive in to the Union's brief history and see what players are making their way into club lore.
When determining legends for a club, what is done on the field is what matters. Soccer legends across the globe can count players like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and in more recent times Lionel Messi. Within US soccer, Landon Donovan would be a perfect example. His personal life is his own and while his play on the field is one of the best in the history of the country, his off field personality has never been celebrated. Their talents speak for themselves, making more headlines than what is going on or off the field.
So who in the Union has earned their way on the field? The only one that can truly be said to be head and shoulders above their teammates is Sebastien LeToux. He ranks in the top 3 in Games Played, Minutes Played, Goals, and Assists. He is 15 goals ahead of Jack McInerney and 22 assists ahead of Sheanon Williams. Speaking of Sheanon Williams, LeToux is 1 game played behind him and sits third behind Williams and Carroll in minutes, back by 1,137 and 53 minutes respectively.
He has put in plenty of time and effort and it would take something mighty terrible to knock him off the pedestal he is building. With less of a track record, there are players who could, one day, be considered on his level. Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis are building a nice resume with the club in defense. Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira have shown in just one season that they are a class above many of the players who have played for the club and if their careers here in Philadelphia are sustained, would easily fall under the Legends title.
Sometimes called "fan favorites" those that earn the Cult Hero status are the most loved by supporters and almost always for their personality, grit, and off field actions than for their stats. US Soccer has a perfect example in Frankie Hejduk. His instagram is a celebration of all things soccer, Columbus, and the Crew, the team that he spent the bulk of his career with. After his retirement the Crew made him a "Brand Ambassador" and he has made it his life to boost the club's culture, posting all over social media, drinking with fans, and showing up at appearances for the club and any event at the stadium.
There is one former player that immediately popped into my head that would be perfect for this type of a role. If you spent any time around PPL Park in the first few years of the franchise, I think you know who I'm thinking of as well; Danny Califf. The first face of the franchise came to Philadelphia to close out his career. It didn't necessarily work out that way as he skipped around to Chivas and Toronto before actually ending his career, but that didn't take anything away from the love the fan base had for him.
Sebastian LeToux is one of the rare cases where a player crosses over and can be considered both a Legend and a Cult Hero. As his goals and assists have piled up, he has also put so much of his heart into the city and the fan base. Always the last player to leave the field, he makes sure to shake every hand and sign every autograph that is requested after home games. He shows as much passion for the city of Philadelphia as any member of the Sons of Ben. It is obvious that when his playing days are over, he will be making more than a few appearances at PPL a year.
Players with shorter stints that have cult-like followings are Faryd Mondragon and Veljko Paunovic. Coming into the team as somewhat unknown quantities to everyone except the biggest international soccer fans, they not only showed a level of professionalism and class on the field, but were open and endearing to the fans. Mondragon inspired the "He's big, he's quick" chant that is still probably one of the most popular in the club's song book and Paunovic was lovingly dubbed "Old Serb" during his time.
The current player that is building his cult status is Ray Gaddis. From his bow ties to his inspiring messages across social media, he is one of the most loved players on the current roster. It wouldn't surprise me if the definition for "good guy" is changed to "See Raymon Gaddis."
Through the ups and downs of the first 5 seasons of the franchise, there were a handful of players who could have been a Cult Hero or Legend, but for one reason of another, were not given the opportunity to reach those heights. Players with storied international careers are easy adds to this list with Kleberson and Carlos Ruiz having underwhelming stints with the Union. We can only imagine what they could have been to the fan base if they were given a real shot to be a key part of the team for a longer period of time.
The second group of players that the Union fans were robbed of before they could reach the heights they could have reached are the players who started their careers here and looked to have real potential. Amobi Okugo is at the top of this list, having been misused and then deemed unnecessary. Jack McInerney is also on this list as well as Zac MacMath. These two were given a chance, were accumulating respectable statistics for young professionals, and then were dumped by management.
The last player I would put in this category might not come to mind for many people, but Danny Cruz could have been one of the biggest cult heroes of the club if not for the rough patch he went through when he arrived. He was thrust into a starting role, forced to try and be a major contributor when that is not who he is. Cruz is a bundle of energy, a burst of excitement. If he was used in a contained manner in substitution situations or against lesser opponents in the league and cup games, he would be a fan favorite. If you haven't had the chance to watch the A Day In The Life video following around Danny Cruz around, please take the time to watch it. He's the type of guy you want to root for and it is a shame he was expected to be more than he is.
What will 2015 have in store for the growing club culture? Who is primed to step up and become a legend or cult hero for the club? Only time will tell. Who do you agree or disagree with? Did we miss anyone? Have your say in the comments below.