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Why the Union's history is holding them back

How the Union are squandering their chance at relevance in the Philadelphia sports scene

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Union are the worst team in MLS. Yes, even worse than the Montreal Impact or Toronto FC.  

I could talk about the lack of goal scoring in the team so far.  I could talk about how injuries have decimated any attempt of depth for the team.  How it could be until June that the Union earn another win (seriously, look at the upcoming schedule and tell me before Montreal there is another game you currently feel confident that the Union could take 3 points from).  As well as discussing that I am also going to talk about relevance and how it pertains to the Union and the "Big 4"  - the Philadelphia Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, and 76ers - as well as evaluating what the ultimate problem may be. From first kick on April 10, 2010, the Union were playing catch up to franchises that have existed since 1933, 1967, 1889, and 1946 respectively.  Hell, even the Philadelphia Soul had a six year head start on the Union, starting up in 2004.  One thing Philadelphia sports fans know is futility.  Between all four teams there is a grand total of just ten championships in their respective leagues (not counting teams like the Philadelphia/Oakland A's which are no longer in the city).  For comparison, the city of Boston's New England Patriots has four Super Bowl victories.  Meaning that a single team from a single city has amassed nearly half the number of championships that all the combined teams from Philadelphia have achieved.

But if you're a hardcore Philly sports fans, you probably know all that.  What you are also familiar with is the stigma that Philly fans "like" to complain, that we "love" failure.  I would argue that it's not that Philadelphia fans like to lose, it's that we've gotten so used to it occurring. There's a phrase that is common in the military: "Embrace the suck." It means that you can't change the circumstances you find yourself in, so you might as well enjoy yourself...even if you're just pretending.  I have laughed myself silly while standing in driving rainstorms and had some of the best times of my life in some of the worst situations. Why? Because I had to or else I would have gone insane.

Philadelphia fans don't like losing, we just have to enjoy ourselves somehow because it is the only way we can survive.  

The only problem is that all four franchises I mentioned have, at minimum, nearly 50 years of existence under their belt.  When your franchise is playing catch up to teams nearly half a century older than it, there is going to be stumbling along the way. That being said, the Flyers (the youngest of the Philly sports teams) gained relevance by winning.  The Flyers came into existence in 1967, and by 1974 they were parading down Broad Street with the Stanley Cup and had permanently entered the city's sporting consciousness.

Breaking down the Big 4 for a moment, the Phillies are being picked to finish dead last this year and most people are speculating that it will be years before they will ever be competitive again. The Flyers missed the playoffs again, and given that they are currently trying to get rid of some huge contracts they foolishly signed, they may have to endure some rebuilding. The 76ers have a solid plan in place to build around the draft, however there is no guarantee that the players they draft will pan out, nor that they will ever win a title.  Even if everything goes the right way for 76ers, they're not looking at being a contender until the 2018 season at the earliest.  The Eagles have the best "chance" of the four at winning now, but there is a lot of question marks about their roster, and I doubt most fans believe that Sam Bradford is the guy going to get you a Superbowl.

There is a golden opportunity for the Union to force their way into the sporting consciousness of the city, and they're utterly blowing it. The Union have had some great momentum in the early years but seem to be slowly losing it. The current benchmark for success is Peter Nowak who got them to their only playoff appearance. In a league where over half of the teams make the playoffs, that is unacceptable.

Where do the fans look to for answers in these times? Who is to blame for the current mess we find ourselves in? More on that later.

But first, the common misconception of the team is that they're cheap.  This is not entirely true.

In 2014 and 2013 the Union ranked ninth and twelfth, respectively, in the league in terms of salary.  Obviously those figures change and we're not yet aware as to where they sit in 2015, but it's a safe bet they will probably continue to hover around the middle of the league.  Basically, the Union aren't big spenders, but they aren't cheap either.  The real problem is how they spend their money - and on who they spend it.

On July 30th, 2014, the Philadelphia Union announced the signing of what many are currently calling their worst move in history: Raïs M'Bolhi.

Obviously that is Raïs with Head Coach Jim Curtin, Technical Director Chris Albright and some unknown intern who has nothing to do with player decisions, but the team felt they'd do something nice and let him pose in the picture with the new signing. Okay I kid, that is Nick Sakiewicz, CEO of the Union and pretty much the face of everything wrong with the team.  During the M'Bolhi introduction, Sakiewicz proceeded to try and force feed the signing to the fan base by proclaiming, "You know he played in this little tournament in Brazil about a month ago. Just a little tournament."


Lost in the shuffle was the fact that in the ten years prior to signing with the Union, M'Bolhi had played with NINE different clubs.  Compare that to former Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón who in the 10 years prior to his signing with the Union had played for only two different clubs. Quality players will be kept around by their club as long as possible.  Yes, M'Bolhi is the starter for the Algerian National Team, but given his propensity for allowing late goals, maybe signing with the Union wasn't the best idea.  There were reports that had pegged his transfer fee at just over the $400,000 mark and his salary after signing was $240,000. Some are speculating that salary may have risen in 2015 (we won't know exact figures until the player salary list is published). M'Bolhi however represented at the time (and still does) the perceived ineptitude of the team when it came to handling the cap and signing players.  At the time of the signing the Union had both Zac MacMath and the #1 pick in that year's SuperDraft Andre Blake. Both were young goalkeepers with huge upsides.  What they didn't have was outfield depth, which came to bite them hard when the Union fell to the Seattle Sounders in the Open Cup Final.

Essentially, the Union seem to be falling into the Andy Reid trap in that they think they're smarter than their fan base (and hence, everyone).  Philadelphia sports fans are probably some of the most knowledgeable fans out there.  So when someone like Nick Sakiewicz proceeds to be dismissive to fans concerns about the acquisition of M'Bolhi, and John Hackworth says in a letter to the fans (which is still on the Union website by the way), "The chatter of us needing to draft a left back was laughable because we knew what we had in Damani."  Damani is  Damani Richards, a player that the Union cut in the 2013 preseason and who might be out of soccer altogether from what I've been able to find (or not find as the case may be).

Fans are already furious with the team's terrible form thus far in the 2015 season.  It hurts because the opportunity for the Union to win and be thought of as the newest member of the Philly sports club is literally sitting right there, and all they have to do is try to reach out and take it. But how did the Union end up in this position? The answer my friends is that in a way, we doomed ourselves.

Much has been made of the Sons of Ben being formed before the team.  Without the SoB to demonstrate that an MLS team in Philadelphia was commercially viable we might not even have the Union at the moment.  This process is in direct opposition to virtually every other sporting franchise where the team existed before the hardcore supporters came along.  

When Philadelphia was awarded a franchise on February 28, 2008 the ownership group started behind the curve in many, many areas.  Most recent MLS clubs started out in USL or NASL, and spent  some time there before the Major League Soccer franchise was actually awarded.  If they don't go that route, then new franchises tend to have a lot of money behind it to make up for mistakes.  Looking at new MLS franchises going back to 2005 (which is when Commissioner Don Garber said that he felt that "MLS 2.0" began) there have been twelve new franchises that have joined the league or relocated from other cities. There is a "Group of Four" that had ownership with no prior roots (Real Salt Lake, Toronto, San Jose Earthquakes (the current team) and Philadelphia.  The other "Group of Eight" are Chivas USA, Houston Dynamo (moved from San Jose), Seattle, Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers, Montreal, New York City FC, and Orlando City SC. Grouping both teams, here is the amount of trophies they have won (we are not counting San Jose's 2005 Supporter's Shield win because that was the "original" franchise that started play in 1996 and would move to Houston in 2006). Keep in mind that New York City FC and Orlando City SC only started this year so this "trophy" count really just counts six teams with prior soccer history.

Group of Eight -  2 MLS Cups, 4 Open Cups, 1 Supporter's Shield

Group of Four -  1 MLS Cup, 1 Supporter's Shield

Now, on the surface there isn't a massive difference other than Open Cup titles, however let's divide this by playoff appearances since 2005.

Group of Eight - 21 Playoff Appearances

Group of Four - 9 Playoff Appearances

This is a much more lopsided figure.  The Group of Four's numbers are helped considerably by Real Salt Lake who have six consecutive playoff appearances from 2009 through the 2014 seasons.

What is the point of all this? To illustrate the fact that teams with prior experience in other leagues tend to enjoy more sustained success.  When you spend a few years competing in the USL or NASL you tend to have a system already in place of how you play on the field. You have a system regarding how you transfer players and who has organizational control. You have infrastructure in place, both organizationally and in terms of real property. However when you start from scratch, you are behind the eight ball.  Toronto FC is a perfect example of this.  Despite having a nearly bottomless supply of money, Toronto has yet to make a single playoff appearance.  The Union obviously do not have Toronto's level of money to spend, nor do they want to emulate TFC's level of playoff success. They instead have to look at another member of Group of Four for a type of team to emulate.  That team is of course Real Salt Lake.

In their first few years, Real Salt Lake was terrible.  From 2005 through 2007 Salt Lake finished eleventh out of twelve, tenth out of twelve, and twelfth out of thirteen in the league. They first made the playoffs in 2008 and haven't missed one since.  Salt Lake knows that financially they can't stack up against the big spenders so instead they have an organization that is smart with how and where money is spent. The problem is that the Union seem to have failed to learn that lesson.  The 2011 playoff appearance should have been the first of many for the team, it apparently was the high water mark. Given the latest result against Columbus (spoiler alert: it was a horrible, soul crushing loss) some people are calling for the firing of head coach Jim Curtin.  However, would getting rid of Curtin actually solve anything?

The answer is probably not. Curtin is merely a symptom of a greater problem. In this case, the problem is an ownership that still seems to be "feeling" it's way through the league.  I referenced Real Salt Lake as having some terrible years in it's early stages, however by it's fourth year of playing on the field Salt Lake got to the playoffs. In the following year they won the MLS Cup, and the year after they nearly won the CONCACAF Champions League.

The Union still seem stuck in the "expansion team" mentality. They have been greatly handicapped by the fact that the only person in the ownership group with any kind of sports experience was Nick Sakiewicz - and his history with his two prior MLS franchises is well known and documented.   The franchise continuously seems to hand the reigns over to coaches and owners that don't seem to have a clue in what they are doing.  Jim Curtin could very well become a good head coach in this league, Ben Olsen, Jay Heaps, Gregg Berhalter, Jason Kreis, Jesse Marsch, Jeff Cassar, Oscar Pareja, and others all were MLS players at some point in their careers (some longer than others) and all have enjoyed success coaching in MLS.

I'm not excusing the Philadelphia Union for not being involved in USL or NASL before starting up a team, I'm instead damning them for not learning from their mistakes.   I understand that starting up a franchise from scratch takes a lot of time and money, and there will be missteps along the way but the fact that the team continuously makes the same mistakes is both alarming and infuriating.  Case in point - remember Juan Diego Gonzalez?

A Colombian defender who was with the Union for two seasons, "JDG"  was being paid nearly $194,000 for a grand total of seven appearances with the club with a total of 630 minutes.  Now I'm not arguing whether or not JDG was good, but my question is that after 2010 (the year he made all seven of his appearances)  why keep him on the roster in 2011 if he wasn't good enough to crack the starting eleven? The guy was earning just over three times the salary of Jordan Harvey - a player who many were upset  was traded.  The team kept a player like JDG on the roster and let a guy like Michael Orozco Fiscal go back to his Liga MX club (Orozco Fiscal was making $200,000).  It should be noted that Orozco Fiscal received call ups to the USMNT and scored the goal that gave the USMNT their first ever victory against Mexico in Azteca in 2012.

JDG's salary could have been used to retain the services of Orozco Fiscal (any loaned player to Major League Soccer includes an option to purchase) but instead the Union chose to go with a player who would never see the field for them again.  The Union's history is full of such missteps on the player acquisition front. Ironically, one of the transfers they got right was Porfirio Lopez.  The club acknowledged that after one season, Lopez wasn't the guy they needed at left back so he was cut.  It's sports, it happens.  A guy you think is going to be good for your team doesn't pan out so you move on from him.  In a salary cap driven league like Major League Soccer, this type of strategy is necessary to survive and succeed.  However for reasons that have baffled virtually everyone, the Union seem to have failed to get this right in their sixth year.

Every fan wants the Union to succeed, and I don't think anyone is demanding that the Union sign someone like Obafemi Martins - it's just NOT going to happen with the current ownership group.  However, we do want a team that's competitive and can actually go toe to toe with those teams on the field.  If the Union continue on their current course, they are destined for a life of mediocrity and worst of all apathy.  Apathy is the ultimate disease for any sports franchise.  Apathy means that you know your team is playing right now, but you choose to watch something else on TV or not go to a game because you frankly couldn't give a damn. 

Soccer is a rapidly growing sport in the United States, the future for it is indeed a bright one.  I think fans understand that teams have a bad year or two. Rebuilding happens. But if there is no hope for the future, no plan in place for the fans to get behind, apathy begins to set in.  On April 23rd the Philadelphia Phillies lost 9-1 to the Marlins before a record setting crowd at Citizen's Bank Park.  The problem was the crowd was the LOWEST to ever attend CBP. Many people are still FANS of the Phillies, but given the choice of spending their money, they're choosing not to go to games, watch them on TV, etc.

The Union are rapidly falling into that hole.  

Hopefully, they realize that before it's too late.