By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 30, 2020) US Soccer Players – The Philadelphia Union entered Major League Soccer on a wave of enthusiasm. It took a decade for the club to reward it. In an era when MLS expansions prospects were decidedly less exciting than they are now, a brand new franchise claiming Philadelphia was a big deal. MLS had just the year before inaugurated the Seattle Sounders, a team that broke attendance records in its first season. That set a new bar for second-wave expansion teams by reaching the playoffs in their first year.
The Union was not the Sounders, but then, no one could fairly expect them to be. The new club did have a rabid fan base providing ample support for professional soccer in the region. Whether any of them expected the nexus of that support to end up in Chester, that brought with it a new stadium. Philadelphia seemed set to compete for honors from its position in the country’s fifth-largest media market. Then it didn’t.
Expansion growing pains are typically part of the deal, Sounders aside. There wasn’t much reason to overreact to the Union’s initial struggles. Working out a functioning identity and pulling together a championship-caliber team doesn’t happen overnight, after all. MLS might turn on parity. It might use a myriad of mechanisms to ensure bad clubs and improve quickly year-over-year. That doesn’t guarantee anything.
The Union did finish third in the Eastern Conference and reached the conference quarterfinals in its second season. At the time, MLS still had room for low-budget, star-starved clubs who played functional, if not exactly transcendent, soccer. The best player on that 2011 Union team was Sebastian Le Toux, a former second division player who the club picked up in the expansion draft from the Seattle Sounders. The highest-paid player in the Union roster that season was Freddy Adu, the former phenom who had returned to the league.
Philadelphia missed the playoffs for the next four seasons and never moved past the first round in two playoff appearances before 2019. The hallmark of that era was turmoil behind the scenes. Fan frustration about a lack of spending, both on players and infrastructure, was the most benign of the issues Philadelphia faced during its early years.
Simply put, the club struggled to figure out a path to relevance. The 2010s were mostly forgettable, with the club occupying the soft middle of a league quickly changing around it. Philadelphia was never made for the Designated Player economy. The club’s list of players signed to DP contracts in a decade of history is a study in attempting to thread the needle with “inexpensive” DPs.
Finishing runners-up twice in the US Open Cup were the highpoints. At no point did the Union appear ready to climb into the Eastern Conference’s elite, much less that select group of MLS Cup contenders.
Again, it’s easy to make this an economic issue. The clubs willing to spend had obvious ways and reasons. The Union doesn’t have any of that.
While the club was struggling on the field, it was also laying the groundwork for its current rise. The launch of the club’s academy just a few years after its founding didn’t look remarkable at the time. MLS mandated that every club start an academy program. Still, it was Philadelphia’s commitment to its academy and unique approach that allowed it to turn out some of the most talented players MLS has ever produced.
Only FC Dallas can claim to be on the same level, at any point in the recent past, following the same sort of approach as the Union. The Texan club began to turn out talented professional players from its academy over the last decade. They remain an example of what an MLS team can do through smart developmental practices.
FC Dallas also doesn’t have a trophy in its homegrown-heavy era. For all the plaudits the club has earned for its success with young players, it is not an elite, MLS Cup-contender on a year-to-year basis. What Dallas has accomplished is admirable, but it’s not transformative. MLS is now more than ever a league that rewards its biggest spending teams.
By virtue of a 2-1 win over Chicago on Wednesday night paired with Toronto’s loss to NYCFC, the Union can clinch the Supporters’ Shield if they take maximum points from its remaining two games. This is also true if the Shield, like playoff seeding, is determined by final points-per-game numbers. It’s likely Philadelphia won’t need all nine points to secure the first trophy in club history.
Considering how far the club has come from its early days and the unclear path it had to this point, winning a Supporters’ Shield even in this strange season beset by stoppages in play, empty stadiums, and difficult playing environments would be a remarkable achievement.
Philadelphia got there by moving forward. What began under Earnie Stewart is better under Ernst Tanner and owes much to Jim Curtin. Achieving with a mix of academy-produced youth and smart veteran signings under a budget-conscious regime in the modern MLS might be among the most difficult tricks ever pulled. More difficult is finishing off this year with an MLS Cup title and carrying the momentum into 2021.
There are plenty of reasons to doubt that the Union can maintain this level for seasons to come, not the least of which is Major League Soccer’s tendency to bring good teams low. In order for it to work, Philadelphia will need the academy to continue to produce and the smart signings to stay smart. That’s the future. Right now, it’s that first trophy.
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- Depth takes on new importance in the East
- Somehow, MLS gets stranger
Photo by Rob Ericson – ISIPhotos.com