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.