On a recent Men in Blazers podcast Philadelphia Union Sporting Director Earnie Stewart spoke with co-host Roger Bennett about his career and his current plans with the club. At one point in the conversation Stewart revealed how he started the process of building a winning culture in Philadelphia. He said:
We did start with: what is Philadelphia about? What can our fans identify with? Because it’s not my idea. It’s not my vision. It has to be our vision. I can have my vision but if nobody buys into it and if Philadelphia doesn’t like it, it doesn’t go anywhere. I started with Jim Curtin our head coach, Chris Albright who is our technical director and just talked about what is Philadelphia about? What did they want to see from us? From that we created our playing style. We want to make sure that we’re on the half of the opponent, we’re in their face, that we pressure them, and then we actually talked about the system.
Upon first hearing this quote I was transfixed by the idea. What a concept: To research the very fiber of the city the team plays for and build a soccer style that can seamlessly integrate with unique character of the fans. It seemed beautiful.
But the longer I’ve thought about this process, the more I became less certain of its beauty.
First of all, you have to get your head around what a soccer style exactly is. A team's style in soccer can cover many facets of the game. When in possession of the ball a style would refer to how "direct" their passing is. Do they try to move up the field quickly with direct passing or are they more indirect with shorter diagonal passes to maintain possession and work the ball up the field? On defense a style might refer to how much pressure they put on an offense and how high up the field they apply that pressure. A style might also be about how physical a team plays. How much do they want to physically intimidate the other team?
With all that to consider what exactly is a style of soccer that embodies the city of Philadelphia? If you asked just me I’d latch on to the relatively rich history of the city and blue collar work ethic. The team would have an incredible work rate and be very physical and intimidating in their play. They would never lose for a lack of trying and they certainly would never give up. I’m thinking of a player like Allen Iverson who always left it on the floor. I’m thinking of the Broad Street Bullies and a ballplayer nicknamed Nails. I’m thinking of the hard hitting Brian Dawkins. These are the characters this city loves. And even though the Union have failed so far to provide one, I think the city would love a powerful yet elegant striker, one that glides through defense and strikes the ball into the net with creativity and grace - one that could remind us of the eloquent orators of the past that helped unite this country. My Philadelphia team would pass directly to find that target man and he would carry the team on their shoulders game after game. We love our historic statues like the one of William Penn that adorns the top of City Hall. We’d rally around a forward we could turn into a statue.
But that’s just my image of what a Philadelphia soccer team might play like. Yours will be different. I haven’t even considered the rich soccer history of this area. It would take all of our collective ideas to form the right mix of player and the right soccer style. So what exactly is Philadelphia’s soccer style? I am very curious as to what this style might look like but an accurate image escapes me.
That’s not the only concern I have with Stewart’s process. The second concern is that it implies that all styles of soccer have an equal chance of winning, and therefore boldly assumes that a city might prefer a style of play at the expense of winning games. What if the Philadelphia fans like a style of soccer that isn’t conducive to winning? We’re not exactly the soccer intelligentsia capital of the world.
Of course Stewart doesn’t explicitly say winning isn’t a priority but let’s be clear that aesthetics should subordinate to winning.
There is no sport like soccer where the discussion of winning is so extremely interlaced with how a team wins. A recent topic of discussion was how Portugal defended their way to the Euro title and how the style of play was unattractive. The amount of vitriol towards their defensive style was astounding. They won the Euro! Did fans criticize the Denver Broncos for winning with defense in the Super Bowl this year?
In soccer, at the extremes, teams can choose to control the ball or they can control space on the pitch and it’s only the best teams that come close to doing both. Controlling the ball means flooding the space around the ball with players to increase their chance of getting or keeping the ball. Once you desire the ball you can no longer control the space on the field. But teams that choose to control space do so because they fear they are technically inferior and tend to play less attractive soccer. It’s hard to be beautiful when everyone is watching the ball, and the ball is controlled by the other team. Portugal chose to control the space they played in and it worked. They committed to that approach from the outset as they could not have otherwise competed with a technically superior France squad.
The point of the space versus ball discussion is that the style of play should always be about giving your team the best chance to win - not what style the city of Philadelphia fans prefer to see. One thing I know about Philadelphia fans is that they want their team to win. We’re not big on style points. Philadelphia Eagles fans loved Buddy Ryan’s defensive teams, Andy Reid’s west coast offense and even the innovative shenanigans of Chip Kelly. They don’t care about style as long as the Eagles win.
So far whatever Stewart is doing is working so it’s hard to be too critical, and of course there’s probably a little storytelling going on in his quote, but please Earnie, don’t play a style that reflects the characteristics of a city we happen to love. Play a style that wins MLS games. Find players that can make that happen. Believe me, we’ll support you.