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Why I don't want the Union to sign a superstar Designated Player

With apologies to Union Hulk...

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

"You know what it is, it’s not my style, it’s not the way I work. That’s why it was very important that the first discussions that I had that we talked about the core values of the Union. I want to make sure that we have a playing style that fits for the fans of Philadelphia and that we all can identify ourselves with. Once you have that, and you win games, I’m pretty sure we can fill up seats in the stadium, and make sure it’s full all of the time. But most important is that people can identify themselves with our style of play. That’s something that Chris, Jim, and I, Tommy are talking about, identifying those roles of the way we want to play, and how we think we can be successful, and go from there. So, it’s not my playing style, it’s the Union’s playing style."

The above quote is from Earnie Stewart's introductory press conference back in December. Stewart is answering a question about what kind of playing style he plans on implementing here in Philadelphia. On the surface, it seems like a very political answer. It's the exact answer you would expect a new sporting director to give during his first interaction with the press at a new club. It's way too soon for him to be talking about something like style of play, or personnel decisions. But the press has to ask, and Stewart had to answer. So he did what any new coach, general manager, or sporting director would do in that situation: He gave an answer that sounds good on paper, but was effectively meaningless.

Or was it?

Even though I know this quote was probably just a political answer, I sincerely hope that it wasn't. I hope that Earnie Stewart meant every word of it. I hope beyond hope that he has every intention of running a soccer team that perfectly represents the city of Philadelphia and the fans that live here. I hope the Philadelphia Union become an organization that we can all be proud to call our own.

I know what you're thinking: "That all sounds well and good, but this is the same crap we would hear from Jim Curtin and John Hackworth. The 'Philly Tough' mindset doesn't help the team win soccer games, as evidenced by the fact that they've only made one playoff appearance in 6 seasons. I don't give a rat's ass about culture or play style or any of that bull. I want to win games. Period. The rest doesn't matter."

I hear you, Mr. Straw Man. I really do. I want to win games too. "Philly Tough,' and "we want to play like bastards," is just a bunch of empty rhetoric. It's nearly impossible to stand behind a team that talks about culture, and toughness and attitude when all they do is lose games. I mean, honestly, who can say they care more about how a team plays than if they win?

Well, I can. Sort of, anyway.

You see, as a fan, I desperately want to identify with my team. I fully admit to supporting the Union mostly because they are my local team. It's the same reason I support the Eagles, Flyers, and Sixers (sorry baseball fans, your sport is lost on me). I didn't even follow soccer very closely before the Union came to town. Simply put, I grew up in the Philly suburbs, so I root for Philly teams. But it's also much more than that. I want to support my team because I like the way the team plays, because I like the players, and because I like the way the organization is run. It becomes a lot more difficult for me to be supportive of a team that I just don't feel a connection to.

And honestly, that lack of connection is what has made the Union a difficult team to support at times. I don't want to make this article about the Union's past regimes, but when the team was being run by Nick Sakiewicz I think the "Philly Tough" idea was nothing but empty rhetoric. It was just a political answer. I didn't like Sakiewicz or the way he was running the team and I think most Union fans agreed with me. It's really hard to root for a team when you don't like the guy who's running the show. Doubly so when that team is losing. That's why fans staged a protest before one of the games last season specifically targeting the team's CEO.

Would that protest have happened if the team was winning? Almost certainly not. The sad truth is that, in spite of all of my noble posturing, I would prefer the team win as a shitty organization than lose as an organization I identify with. But, in spite of that I still would much prefer a team that is easy to root for because I like the players, the people in the front office, and the coaches. At the end of the day I still want win, but I would much, much rather win with a team that I like than with a team that I don't. 

"Drew, you're over 850 words into this article and you still haven't really said anything meaningful. What's your point here? I mean, everyone knows what you're building towards because we read the title, but you needed a way to transition, so I'm asking this helpful question."

Thanks, Mr. Straw Man. That is very helpful. You're a real stand-up guy.

Anyway, I'm saying all this to basically to talk about Rocky.

When Earnie Stewart said that he sat down with Jim Curtin and the rest of the influential people in the Union's front office and talked about the core values of the Philadelphia Union, the first thing that popped into my head was Rocky. There's a reason we've got a statue of a Sylvester Stallone in boxing gloves at the base of the Art Museum steps, and it's not because we all think Rocky is a real guy. It's because, even though he's entirely fictional, Rocky perfectly epitomizes Philadelphia sports culture. He's a scrappy underdog, living in the shadows of better boxers. He's a blue-collar guy who works hard and gets in the ring even when he's got to fight a guy who everyone thinks is much more talented than him. Then, to the surprise of everyone, he stands in there and goes toe-to-toe with the superstar. 

And we love him for it. 

In some ways, cliched though it might be, I think of the Union in the same way I think of Rocky. They're scrappy underdogs who get on the pitch and play with teams who've spent big money and signed big stars, and sometimes they surprise us all and they fight toe-to-toe with those big stars. And I'll be damned if I don't love them for it. 

That's why I don't want the Union to go out and spend a ton of cash sign a big name superstar like Stephen Gerrard, David Villa, or Sebastian Giovinco. If they do that, they won't be scrappy underdogs anymore. They'll just be another New York City FC or LA Galaxy or Toronto FC who thinks they can buy success in this league. 

I don't know about you, but I don't want to root for a team like that. Don't get me wrong, I still would, but I don't think it would be quite the same. 

Moreover, there's some honest proof that you don't need to spend big money to win games in this league. I recently published an article where I pointed out that when you look at base player salaries in this league, some of the best teams (Portland, Columbus, NYRB, SKC) spend considerably less than the Union. If that's not proof that you can win without signing a superstar, I don't know what is. 

So, as much fun as it is to fantasize about the Union signing Robert Lewandowski, and as much as I enjoy reading @UnionHulkSmash's constant pleas to players like Ronaldinho and Peter Crouch, deep down I don't want the Union to make any moves like that. Deep down I want the Union to stay the same scrappy underdogs they've always been. 

Because who doesn't love an underdog?