So you’ve decided to be a fan of The Philadelphia Union, eh? What a good idea! Let me give you a run down of what you need to know to be a knowledgeable fan!
First, some team very basic team history. If you want a deeper dive on history, there are better sources out there. This is just intended to give you a surface level understanding of what the team has been up to over the last 8 years.
The Union’s first season was in 2010 under head coach Piotr Nowak. Honestly, objectively speaking, it wasn’t all that great. The team finished seventh in the conference and fourteenth overall in the league. Not great by any stretch of the imagination. But it didn’t matter - Philadelphia had a team, and that was good enough! Plus the first season was full of incredible and exciting moments like Sebastien LeToux scoring a hat trick in the team’s home opener. Plus, it takes time for a new team to build a successful squad.
Not that long, though, because Nowak took the team to the playoffs in 2011 behind a stalwart defense and Sebastien LeToux’s continued majesty. It was an exciting time, just two seasons in and the team was already headed to the playoffs! Sure, they were knocked out in the first round, but these things take time to perfect, right?
Oh, what sweet summer children we were.
The team quickly collapsed when Nowak went utterly bonkers and started trading away his best players. It later came out that he was even crazier than we thought. He is apparently guilty of doing things like subjecting players to long training sessions in the heat without water breaks and paddling the bare asses of rookie players. Needless to say, the team moved on from Nowak (unless you count the years of litigation from various law suits), and promoted John Hackworth to the head coach position.
Hackworth spent most of his time with the team building assets, trying to mold the team into the modern attacking system that he wanted to implement. During the winter of 2013-2014, it seemed like he finally has the pieces in place to do what he wanted after making a trio of quality signings. However, it wasn't meant to be, and the team was terrible for the first half the season. Hackworth became infamous for tinkering too much with the roster and playing players out of their natural positions. By the time he seemed to figure out how the roster ought to look it was too late. Hackworth was fired mid-season, and Jim Curtin was promoted from within to be head coach. Curtin holds the position to this day.
Curtin's tenure has been one of mixed reviews. Many will argue that he just doesn't have the experience or tactical knowledge to be a successful coach. They will say that he was promoted too soon, and that while he might be a good coach someday, he is not the answer right now and he should be fired. Others will say that Jim's hands have been tied during his time here, and that he has done the best he could with what he had. If you ask me, I am honestly not sure where I land on Curtin. Sometimes it seems like he's a great young coach with a bright future ahead of him, other times I find myself utterly baffled by his choices and wonder if he'll ever grow into the coach we hope he will be.
To Curtin’s credit, he has had some success. He led the team to two, count ‘em, two U.S. Open Cup Tournament Finals, and took the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2011 last year. To his discredit, the team lost both of those final games and got knocked out of the first round of the playoffs again. It’s been a whole lot of "close, but no cigar" so far for Curtin.
I think that this season will be a make-or-break season for Curtin. If he can't win with our current squad, I doubt he keeps his job. And well, if he can win, I daresay it will silence the doubters well enough (winning always does).
I suppose it would be remiss of me not to talk about Nick Sakiewicz, even if I would rather forget he ever existed. Nick Sakiewicz is the shadow that loomed over the Union during their early existence, and seemed to constantly be holding them back from improving. Sak, as he is not-so-lovingly called, was never supposed to be in control of the "soccer" part of the organization, but it seemed clear (particularly under Hackworth and the early Curtin years) that he was the guy making the final call on roster decisions. This resulted in a whole lot of bad decisions (don't say the word "M'Bolhi" around here) and ultimately a shit product on the field. Sak is the reason so many are willing to overlook the fact that Jim's first one and a half seasons as head coach were so mediocre. He was so bad that the Sons of Ben (the team’s supporter club) actually had a protest before one of the games where they carried a coffin with Sak's name on it through the stadium parking lot before one of the games.
Luckily, Sak was fired and bought-out by the rest of the ownership group at the end of the 2015 season, and they brought in Earnie Stewart as the Sporting Director. Stewart runs everything related to soccer in the organization, and it is widely agreed that he has done a fantastic job. Last season was the Union's first appearance in the playoffs since the 2011 season, and that is largely credited to Stewart’s roster moves. They might have done even better if they hadn't lost a key center midfielder to personal health issues mid-season (I miss you every day, Vincent Nogueira. Come back, baby).
This season, things are looking good, except for a few question marks at key positions. Stewart identified the team's positions of need early in the off season. Fans and journalists alike agreed with his assessment of the team and their needs. Then over the next few months, Stewart went out and signed a player at each of those identified positions. This may not seem like that big a deal, but it is the first time that has ever happened for the Union so it felt like a big deal to all of us. More than just first-team talent, Stewart has made sure that the Union have (mostly) quality depth at all 11 positions. I think this is the most talented roster that The Union has ever put together, and I am excited for the upcoming season.
That being said, there still a few questions about the current roster:
1. Will Maurice Edu be healthy? – Maurice Edu is one of the bigger signings the team has ever made, and is expected to start at a key central defensive midfield position. The problem is his health has been an issue for nearly 18 months. If he can't get healthy, or if the extended injury has caused him to lose a step it will not be good. We do have some depth at that position, but it will be a step down in talent.
2. Will Jay Simpson be good enough? - Jay Simpson was signed as a center forward from the 4th division in England. Some of his highlights show an incredible ability to score goals, but he's bounced around in English soccer for years and it's heavily debated as to whether that will translate to success in MLS. The Union had difficulty scoring at the end of last season, particularly from the striker position. Jay Simpson is supposed to be the answer, but many have doubts.
3. Will the young defense improve? - The Union gave up a lot of goals last season, particularly later on, and many blame the fact that they fielded a very young defense. That young defense has potential, but was guilty of the kind of mistakes you can expect from youth. Many of the same players are expected to start at the same positions this season, so there is a big question as to whether they will develop into the defensive talents we all hope they will.
We won't know the answers to these questions until the season starts, of course, but I, for one, am optimistic.
Aside from the current roster and Earnie Stewart, the Union have been up to some other good things in the last few years.
1. Great Academy System - The Union ownership has invested heavily in a widely respected Academy system. The Academy has been around for years, but it has only recently started to finally bear fruit. It's great to see the team invest in the development of local talent, which is great for the team and also great for growing the game on the national scale.
2. Bethlehem Steel FC - The Union ownership also invested in a USL team. This is an amazing tool that can be used to develop young talent for the first team. With the Academy, and BSFC, the Union finally have a complete pipeline for the complete development of local young talent, getting them experience in a lower-division league, and eventually signing them to the first team.
3. Top-Notch Practice Facility - Gone are the days where The Union trained at a public park in Chester. Oh, did I not mention that the team used to practice at a public park in Chester? I didn’t? That was probably for the best… Anyway, the team recently built two great practice fields and a state-of-the-art practice facility right next to the stadium. Is this stuff the team should have had from the beginning? Sure, but... Well. They didn't. So for those of us that have been following it's great that they finally do have all of those things.
The Union have done a great job at setting themselves up for success in the future. They have brought in capable leadership, and made considerable investments in infrastructure, and built an excellent player development pipeline. On top of that, the current Roster looks to be the most talented and deep they've ever had (at least on paper). The team is fun to watch, the players have an infectious camaraderie that makes you want to root for them, and the stadium atmosphere is absolutely incredible.
It's a good time to be a fan of soccer in the U.S. It's a good time to be a fan of The Union. You picked a great sport and a great team to support.
Let's get ready to DOOP.