As I looked at my twitter feed during my Sunday afternoon of consuming the media-driven excitement that is Soccer Sunday on ESPN and Fox Sports respectively, I found myself being peppered with the heavyweight bouts being displayed. The features? Los Angeles Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders on one end, and in the primetime the tried and true Hudson River Derby and its rich history. The three match old rivalry hit a high point when in an attempt to represent passion, NYC and Red Bull supporters decided to have a garbage-bag-swinging brawl in the streets of Newark before the match. It was really the first time I have seen something along the lines of hooliganism (have your opinions about the authenticity of the outbreak of violence, but I think the category of hooliganism applies) in American soccer.
Hooliganism aside, MLS really hit a major stride in the path of the "world's fastest growing league". Seattle and LA's match on Sunday was the highest viewed MLS match in ESPN Deportes' history and also the highest viewed match in MLS this season. In MLS it does seem to me that ESPN Deportes would have never gotten close to the numbers it received had a certain someone not been on a certain team (I'm looking at you Gio). My point remains, with a growing league, its hard not to look at the top teams starting to really lose the rest of the pack,
MLS is, however, a league that prides itself on its parity. On any given day, the LA Galaxy can go out on the pitch and with players like Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, and Giovani dos Santos can lose 3-0 to a Houston Dynamo side, albeit while filled with talent, doesn't have the same superstar appeal. With the introduction of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), MLS has opened the door for another way to allow the Los Angeles', the New York City FCs, and the Toronto FC's of the world to get better players and continue to widen the gap. It has its benefits for smaller clubs and we have seen the Montreal impact and Philadelphia Union particularly use TAM to their advantage, signing Didier Drogba and Tranquillo Barnetta to the league respectively.
But will it really matter? During the halftime of the thrilling forced rivalry between NYC and Red Bull, Alexi Lalas spoke to the changing climate of MLS and gave a particularly interesting take using the Union as an example:
"So take Philadelphia for example that we know are not going to compete when it comes to the amount of money that's being spent. In midstream, are you telling your supporters, ‘Look we are something different.' And to adjust (the perception of the team), I think its going to be fascinating to see how people adjust their mentality to now supporting teams that, because of the money they're not spending, are a very different type of proposition."
- Alexi Lalas during halftime of NYC FC and New York Red Bulls match on Fox Sports 1
It's a telling story indeed. From a franchise that routinely promises success as the only goal, yet in the same token doesn't have the capital to spend toe-to-toe with the heavyweights, what is it telling us as supporters? Is this our path to mid-table stagnation at best? We see places around the world where there are always clubs that have their top goals are to fight their way to upper-mid table, with no relegation are the Union collapsing into that club at best? The promise and allure of championship soccer lingers in a city that doesn't always have the best record when coming in contact with glory. Is the perception of the Union going to be accepted in the future when the current path of haves and have-nots sets in stone?
It's a frustration that has maintained in the hearts and minds of Union supporters throughout the club's brief history. Many hold tightly to the idea that being in a city such as Philadelphia comes with the pre-guaranteed notion that we're a big market team. We aren't used to supporting a small-market team, which I hate to break it to those of you out there who are struggling to adjust, but that is what the Union are. The perception of this team on a national level is that this is a club that isn't willing to go out and spend until their wallets are dried up and it's a complicated matter.
I would argue there are two perceived ways to succeed in this league and we've seen it in the form of spending money on big time players (LA, Seattle Sounders, Toronto) and in the form of spending money "intelligently" across the board (Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, and D.C. United). There's mixed results in there and its not always cut and dried as to what teams are doing which. New York Red Bull has had its brush in the past with blowing up the bank on big players and it's had its successes and failures, but they seem to have taken a smaller approach this year. Orlando City is currently a club with huge aspirations, bringing in Kaka and chasing after rumored big name players like Chicharito Hernandez, but at the same time they've done well bringing smaller scale players to reach their potential in a short time.
This begs the question, where are the Union? There is a clear perception that the Union aren't going to spend a lot of money on a player. Are they going to go out a grab a Sebastian Giovinco for millions? Probably not, but there are strange inconsistencies with this franchise. The Union have stated that they are going to invest more money into bringing in players, and then we find out that they don't have the money to do so. They get coverage from local media outlets suggesting they are really held down by bad contracts and have no wiggle room to sign anyone, and then bring in Tranquillo Barnetta and there's reports they were going to bring in a "7-figure" player. It leaves everyone in Philadelphia scratching their heads.
My suggestion is that there is no plan here. I don't think I'm breaking any ground in doing so. The Philadelphia Union don't know how they are going to compete next year, let alone in 5-10 years. Its hard to bank on the idea that the academy will save the team when there's no proof that anything is coming through the pipeline (or whether the pipeline to the first team actually exists). It's hard to see the ownership making shrewd decisions in transfers when players and personnel have been mismanaged so poorly throughout the entirety of their existence (I don't think I have to go into a list). With a team unwilling to spend money, unable to intelligently spend the money they have, and inexplicably points to a talent gold rush coming, what is the future for this team?
The Union will be among the have-nots, but not because of MLS and their heavy-handed favoritism for teams that draw interest from superstar names. The Union will be among the have-nots because they are operating as such. The league knows it, the national media knows it, and we know it.
Welcome to the Philadelphia Union, where the bottom of the table starts.