This season feels different, doesn’t it? Going into the 2017 Major League Soccer season, many people - including most of us here at Brotherly Game - thought this was the year that the team would make the leap forward and become a semi-competitive team in the MLS Eastern Conference.
Even in a very (un)scientific poll, most of you (77%) thought this team would make the playoffs.
The current reality is far more grim. The Union sit tied for 10th place in the East and are the sixth-worst team in the entire league. As of this writing, the Union sit at 4-6-4 against current playoff teams based on points per game. In those 14 matches, the Union have earned 1.14 points per game and have a goal differential of -1, which, funny enough, is about the same as the Union’s overall PPG and goal differential on the season.
Why does this season feel so different though? Losing is not uncommon for this franchise. The Union have had one winning season in its eight years, plus another .500 season in 2013. Missing the playoffs is not uncommon for this franchise. The team made only its second appearance in the playoffs last season after last making it in 2011. So again, why does this season feel different?
When Earnie Stewart came to town two seasons ago, fans saw him as a lifeline for a drowning franchise.
“I look forward to working with everyone at the Union to establish a clear playing philosophy and use my experience to create a competitive edge in our methods of recruiting and developing players at all levels of the club, from the Academy up through the First Team,” the then-newly-signed Stewart said in a press release on October 26th, 2015.
Stewart found success immediately in the 2016 SuperDraft, as the Union selected Josh Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry, and Fabian Herbers with their first three picks. Each member of the trio has made runs in the starting lineup throughout their first two seasons. Stewart also brought in Chris Pontius, who went on to win the MLS Comeback Player of the Year award after the best season of his career.
On the other hand, he brought in Anderson Conceicao, Roland Alberg, and Ilsinho. Combined, these players have made more than one-million during their time with the Union. As the team sat in first place in the MLS Eastern Conference in June of 2016, most fans were willing to overlook some of the iffy signings. For the first time since the U.S. Open Cup Final the year before, Talen Energy Stadium was rocking.
However, we know how the story ends. Vincent Nogueira left abruptly to return to France and the Union fell hard, never managing to recover. In their final seven games of the season, after Alejandro Bedoya—essentially Nogueira’s replacement—had joined the team, the team earned only two out of a possible 21 points. They stumbled into the playoffs only to be thoroughly outclassed by Toronto FC in their first playoff game in five years.
In spite of the rocky finish to the 2016 season, 2017 was supposed to be the year the Union made the playoffs and looked like a competitive team. Stewart brought in some new pieces to build on what most would say was a successful season. A new striker, an acclimated Alejandro Bedoya, and a new number eight in Haris Medunjanin were all supposed to spell success for a team that has never really had much of it.
If the end of last season was bad, the beginning of this season was even worse. Zero wins and only four points in their first eight matches came as a punch to the mouth to a fanbase expecting so much more. And now here we are in the beginning of September, with the Union having only a two-percent chance of making the playoffs with seven games left to play, according to FiveThirtyEight.
So why was this season so much more painful? Was it the expectations? Was it the tiny taste of success last season that had evaded the team for so long? It is hard to say why, but there’s evidence that this season was a breaking point for many.
Paid attendance, which hardly captures how many fans are there, is down. In reality, this 16,511 average attendance number is absolutely nowhere near the true attendance, as anyone who attends a match can attest to the plentiful open seats throughout the stadium.
It is not hard to see why attendance has dropped that much. The product on the field is extremely stale. Fans can look across the league at just about any team and see their contemporaries spending money to bring in big talents, while the Union scrape together free transfers or loans.
In terms of transfers, there has been much made of the Sporting Director’s “moneyball” approach to transfers and development of young talent. With a moneyball approach, every dollar that is available to Stewart must be spent meticulously. This has not been the case. The Union spent nearly $1.4 million dollars on the salaries of just Ilsinho, Alberg, and Jay Simpson. Ilsinho and Alberg have had tiny flashes of brilliance, but have otherwise been duds for this team. Simpson was brought in from League Two side Leyton Orient to be a lone striker, a role that he is clearly not fit to play. Alejandro Bedoya is a good piece to have around to build a winning club, but he is surely not going to bring this club to glory on his own.
When the Union have opened the wallet to spend relatively big on a player, whether it be under Earnie Stewart or former Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz, the organization has seemingly struck out more often than not. Under Sakiewicz, Freddy Adu, Rais M’Bolhi and Steven Vitoria stand out as high-priced failures. Under Stewart, the signings of Simpson, Ilsinho and Alberg have also produced little to contribute to this team.
The plan to build and develop young talent has hardly been followed wholeheartedly. As part of the idea to nurture young talent for the first team, it makes little sense to bench such talents and risk stunting their development. Young and very talented players like Josh Yaro, Fabian Herbers, and Keegan Rosenberry have all been relegated to the bench behind players who are not nearly as impactful. Granted, Herbers has been hurt for most of this season, but before he was hurt, he was relegated to backing up Ilsinho once the Brazilian came back from his own injury. In addition to Herbers, Rosenberry, who did have a rough start to the season, was benched in favor of Ray Gaddis for more than four months. This season, rookie Jack Elliott has been a very solid anchor on the backline overall. However, if he struggles next season at some point, can he expect the same treatment of being sent to Bethlehem or sitting on the bench?
In a way, it feels like this team has taken a longer, circuitous route to where it has always been - just with different players in the story. A team with promising young players who do not get the chance to play. A team with bloated contracts of failed experimental players. A team failing to carry out a stated vision or goal. A team with a more respected name at the helm, in Stewart, than in the past, but still struggling immensely.
So with all this said, why does this season feel the most painful? We’ve been waiting for so long for a glimmer of glory. I’m sure most fans do not expect this team to win MLS Cup within the next couple years, but would surely like to see just one or so playoff wins to show fans around the league that the Union are not the laughingstock of MLS.
There’s a failed vision of what this team wants to be, which is a team that is competitive in the 2012 version of MLS. In 2012 or 2013, the Union probably could have gotten away with bringing in a couple lesser known players, plugging in some scrap-heap transfers with a couple of young players involved and been a semi-competitive team.
It is pretty difficult to not be fed up and angry at this team that has been in our life for close to the last decade. That is a perfectly justified feeling after eight seasons of terrible soccer with a little bit of success sprinkled in. Fans at Talen Energy Stadium have on numerous occasions this year showered the teams with boos to voice displeasure. It is not the hate that should worry the Union. It is apathy. The dislike or booing means that a fan at least cares enough to voice their displeasure about this team. Apathy is far more sinister. As fans become apathetic, there’s no chanting or booing, there is just indifference - and indifference usually doesn’t mean fans in the stands.
“Ad Finem Fidelis” has been a slogan used by fans and the team alike to proclaim their faithfulness to the Union ‘til the end. But being faithful doesn’t mean just giving your money to a mediocre product based on some made-up loyalty. In the end, you don’t owe this franchise anything, whether it is your time, money, or attention.
This franchise is only here to provide one product: a soccer match. Beyond that, there’s little more you are given by this team. More often that not, those soccer matches feature the Union being outclassed by teams that have loaded up on talents. Your money is your say and vote of approval for this team. It is the only real meaningful outlet a fan has to voice their displeasure in a way that effects the organization.
Here we are on the cusp of what is very likely another season without playoffs and anything really to be proud of. It is a fork in the road. The team has needs that have not been addressed. Who knows - maybe the ownership group will see the league passing them by this winter and spend money to compete? Without serious upgrades across the board, the Union will forever be stuck in MLS 2.0, while the rest of the league grows onward to 3.0 and beyond.