The700Level - Union

Soccer in 2017 broke a lot of people

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Soccer in 2017 broke a lot of people

If you’re a soccer fan in this country, you might always feel like you’re rooting for two things at once: your favorite team and the growth of the sport in this country.

It may sound silly to some, thinking about the latter, but that’s the way it is. You’re constantly on the defensive, constantly reminded of the uphill battle that soccer faces against some of the country’s more established sports, constantly telling people that we’re climbing that hill, slowly but surely. 

And if you’re in Philly, you’re hoping that the Union can help the cause by attracting big-name players and developing promising young ones, gaining more relevancy in a crowded sports market, and competing for championships.

Even when there are bumps in the road, that’s what soccer people think about: building toward something cool, something special.

And then 2017 happened.

On Saturday, the Union were officially eliminated from playoff contention in perhaps the most frustrating season in the franchise’s eight-year history as questions abound as to where the club goes from here.

Three nights later, in a far more crushing and unexpected blow, the U.S. national team’s stunning loss in Trinidad and Tobago, coupled with come-from-behind wins by Panama and Honduras, left the Americans out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Let’s start with the U.S. national team because that, obviously, has far more wider significance. It’s hard to overstate how devastating it is to miss a World Cup — a rare event that brings casual soccer fans and even non-soccer fans to their TVs. Of course, many of those people only watch soccer every four years but there are certainly some who then decide to follow their local team or pay attention the USMNT at other tournaments. Not being able to use the momentum of a World Cup is a big setback to growing the fanbase and getting the sport more into the mainstream (if a defeat as crushing as the USMNT’s on Tuesday happened elsewhere, it might grind that country to a halt; here, it didn’t even register with a lot of people).

More to the point, not being able to cheer on the US at a remarkable event like the World Cup is just gut-wrenching for the soccer diehards out there. The World Cup is the reason I fell in love with soccer and, if you’re reading this, it’s probably the reason you did too. The fact that the US isn’t nearly at the same level as the best soccer countries from Europe and South America is certainly cause for alarm and change (and the subject of plenty of other columns today) but it also makes for a fun, anything-is-possible underdog vibe on the biggest stage in sports.

From watching in a summer camp cabin in ’94 to waking up in the middle of the night in ’02 to jumping on barstools in ’10, I can remember where I was and what I was doing for every World Cup — and for people of my generation, it almost became a given that the scrappy US team would be there. If there’s any bit of solace it’s finally realizing that CONCACAF qualifying shouldn’t be taken for granted and that building around a new crop of players led by 19-year-old Hershey sensation Christian Pulisic is vital. More than anything, though, it’s painful to think about waiting at least five years to cheer on Pulisic and the Americans at the world’s biggest sporting event.

And then there’s a different kind of pain in Philly. While the passion soccer people have for the USMNT won’t ever diminish (which on days like today, manifests as a passion to be held accountable and figure things out), there’s a creeping sense that apathy has set in with some sections of the Union fan base. 

The Union have had bad seasons before but this one almost feels different because, you can argue for the first time, it seems like they’re moving in the wrong direction. Consider: 2010 was the expansion season when everything was new and exciting (and, hey, a World Cup year with a soccer moment for the ages). In 2011, they made the playoffs. In 2012, John Hackworth took over for the embattled Peter Nowak in the middle of the year and unleashed some young players, before leading an overachieving group to the brink of the playoffs in 2013. In 2014, another new coach in Jim Curtin took over and led the Union to the first of two straight U.S. Open Cup finals, in front of home crowds that shook with noise, and then pushed them back into the playoffs (albeit on a winless streak) in 2016.

But what did 2017 bring us? No playoffs. No Open Cup runs. No big changes. Uninspired play for much of the season, especially on the road. Alarming regression or lack of playing time from young players. No real nucleus to build around. Nothing, really, to inspire confidence heading into 2018 other than the hope that ownership opens up the wallet more, the youth academy continues to improve, and sporting director Earnie Stewart does a better job of finding talent around the world with the resources he has to work with.

The sad part is the Union may have had a fighting chance to break through a couple years back when Curtin, a big Philly guy, took over while the rest of the city’s teams struggled. Now, the other Philly teams are on the rise with marquee young superstars to build around while the Union remain on the periphery of a stubborn four-sports town without a true face of the franchise. (In perhaps the funniest little comparison, the Union’s best young player this season, rookie Jack Elliott, quickly become overshadowed by Eagles rookie Jake Elliott kicking a 61-yard game-winning field goal.) 

Perhaps that’s where the Union are destined to remain — on the periphery. Perhaps that’s where soccer as a sport and MLS as a league are destined to remain, too. Soccer players and coaches love to talk about the building process, and we love to believe them because the possibilities are endless. A Union-operated high school that chooses from the best teenagers in the region and nurtures them along so they can one day win a championship at Talen Energy Stadium? A huge, sports-obsessed country like the United States finding a way to develop enough stars to make them household names and potentially even win a World Cup?
It’s all so tantalizing, so exciting, so fun to think about it. But in a year and a week like this one, it feels like nothing more than a pipe dream.

Union top fan experience in Philly while Eagles come in last, study says

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Union top fan experience in Philly while Eagles come in last, study says

Every Philly team has something unique and special about attending one of their games. And all fans have their own opinions so ranking them objectively is sure to prove challenging with results that will be disagreed with by many.

But J.D. Power attempted to rank the "fan experience" of Philadelphia's major sports teams using a set of objective criteria (see full study here).

Here's how they described the process:

Fan satisfaction is evaluated across seven factors (in order of importance): seating area and game experience; security and ushers; leaving the game; arriving at the game; food and beverage; ticket purchase; and souvenirs and merchandise. Satisfaction is measured on a 1,000-point scale. Additional factors that are measured but not included in the official ranking are loyalty and future intentions; team performance (on-field); and team image.

The Union scored highest of all the Philly teams while the Eagles came in last in our town.

If you ask me where the best time is had at a sporting event in Philly, I'm going with an Eagles game. But that's not really considering bang for your buck.

"This study is about finding out which teams are giving their fans the best experience for their dollar,” said Greg Truex, Senior Director, Sports Research at J.D. Power. 

And while the Sixers have been the worst team in the NBA for seasons now, they still make extra strides to provide a solid fan experience on the periphery. 

The Phillies came in second to the Union, followed by the Sixers with the Flyers and Birds rounding out the bottom.

Here are the key takeaways J.D. Power took for Philadelphia:

•  The Union rings the bell: The Union takes the top-scoring spot in the Philly market, aided by top performances in stadium arrival at the game, and seating area and game experience.

•  Another reason to boo: There was no road to victory for the E-A-G-L-E-S in this year’s study, whose score of 701 puts them in fifth. The next closest team in the Philadelphia market is the Flyers, which scores 51 points higher (752).

•  Trust the process: Despite years of tanking, the Sixers still score a respectable 759 points, proving it’s possible to provide fans with a good experience even in the face of on-court failures.

Andre Blake is having a moment — but what does it mean for the Union?

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Andre Blake is having a moment — but what does it mean for the Union?

The Philadelphia Union play a soccer game tonight. Three thousand miles away, two Union players play in a far bigger game as Chris Pontius and the U.S. national team face Andre Blake and Jamaica in the Gold Cup final.

Pontius likely won’t see time in the battle for CONCACAF supremacy but his contributions throughout the tournament were a cool thing for someone who had been out of the USMNT picture for many years. So was the play of Union captain Alejandro Bedoya before he left to be home for the birth of his daughter.

But no one is having a moment like Blake.

Over the past few weeks, Blake has carried Jamaica on his back and showed a wider audience exactly what Union fans have known for years.

If you haven’t seen some of his crazy good moments throughout the tourney, here’s one:

https://twitter.com/DesTaquito/status/888205343733501952

And here’s another, from Jamaica’s stunning semifinal upset of CONCACAF power Mexico on Sunday:

When asked about watching Blake this week, Union head coach Jim Curtin offered high praise, even though a small part of him would prefer he’d have been in net for the Union during their last three games — two losses and a draw.

“He was [MLS] Goalkeeper of the Year last year and I think he’s having a better season this year with the seven shutouts he has for us, with the shutouts the Gold Cup,” Curtin said. “His leadership too. Andre’s a quiet kid. He’s always been kind of reserved and shy, but to see now after the game when he’s wearing the captain’s armband and calling that whole group in after you beat Mexico, basically in a road game at the Rose Bowl, to call that whole group in and you could see he was the one doing a lot of the talking in the group, that’s impressive.”

As Curtin notes, it’s one thing to make incredibly athletic saves, as Blake has consistently done since coming to this country to play collegiately at UConn, from where he was plucked by the Union as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft. It’s quite another to do so while leading a soccer nation to the kind of heights it rarely sees.

So what now for Blake? Even if Jamaica loses to the U.S. in tonight’s final (which you can watch at 9:30 on FS1, right after the Union-Crew game ends), Blake’s stock has skyrocketed this summer. And if he has another monster game and Jamaica pulls the huge upset over the Americans? It’s hard to imagine any other goalkeepers at that level.

Curtin essentially said as much, pointing out that when it comes to world-class athletes at a position like goalkeeper, “there’s only so talented you can be, and I don’t see much better than Andre.” Which means it’s not a stretch to think he could go from the Union to a Real Madrid or a Manchester United or any of the other top clubs in the world.

“He should be a goalkeeper I believe teams in Europe are calling for,” Curtin said. “He’s that talented.”

But are they calling? Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said they weren’t earlier in this year and Curtin reiterated that claim this week. That means that either the Gold Cup isn’t boosting his stock across the pond as much as we’d like to think (which does make sense in a way; it’s not a huge tournament) or perhaps teams are waiting it out until the 26-year-old gets more game experience and more freedom to leave MLS.

For what it’s worth, both Blake and the Union can afford to be picky. The Union are a better team with Blake in goal but a lucrative sale could lead to a true difference-maker in the attack, which the team has sorely been lacking (and John McCarthy has shown this week to be more than capable as a starting goalkeeper). And Blake shouldn’t have to settle for a second-tier team or second-tier league in Europe; he’s on the record as saying he’d love to play for Manchester United and, given his talent and now-stable situation in Philly, doesn’t necessarily need to set his sights much lower than that.

“I think he will play in Europe,” Curtin said. “But it’s one thing to play in Europe; it’s another thing to play in Europe for a top club. I think he has the ability to play at a top club in Europe, for sure.”

In the meantime, Union fans should enjoy every minute they have watching Blake — because there’s no telling when it might end.