In 2014, the Philadelphia Union, despite preseason acquisitions that gave the Union faithful cause for hope, early on in the campaign, the Union were disappointing. Playing under coach John Hackworth, they lacked creativity, they lacked skill, and perhaps worst of all, they lacked cohesion. Having acquired Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana, the Union seemed poised to sure up a mid-field that lacked depth and the ability to move the ball forward.
Leading up to May 17th, a date which could be considered a turning point in the franchise’s young life, Philadelphia was playing some pretty mediocre soccer. To this point in the season, the Union had mustered just two wins while dropping and drawing five, respectively. Although the Union had beaten Sporting Kansas City 2-1 at Sporting Park earlier in the week, a storm of civil unrest began brewing among Philadelphia’s fan base, especially within the ranks of the Sons of Ben. It was clear to all who watched that the Union were outmatched in just about every aspect of the game against everyone they faced. On May 17th, during a sunny afternoon in Chester, this unrest comically built into a crescendo.
Despite their lackluster start to the season, the Union had a chance to climb back into the race (a race they would be running close but not close enough over 2014 and 2015), with a win against Eastern Conference rivals, the New England Revolution. To say that the match started off promising would be a lie, it certainly didn’t as the Revs’ found the back of the net twice by the 26th minute and eventually held a 4-1 lead, before the Union added two late goals to at least portray respectability on the stat sheet. The Sons of Ben, however, would have none of that, consolation goals are for suckers, and on this day, began to make their frustration with the front office, their frustration with Hackworth, and their frustration with the lack of effort given by the players on the pitch, known in a way that was poignant yet hysterical. The SOB’s ceased their repertoire of chants and songs aimed at rooting the team on and sang a soulful rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. It was a statement that, was spontaneous in nature, and a pointed reminder that the play was boring, the effort was pathetic, and if this was to be the future of the club, the future was indeed, very bleak.
“Mama, Just killed a man…”
Within a month of the Sons of Ben’s serenade of the front office, and despite a win over Chivas and a draw with the Galaxy, the front office had received the message loud and clear and John Hackworth was fired, replaced by Jim Curtin. While no one would put the Union’s lot in the league squarely on the shoulders of Hackworth, it was clear that the team didn’t respond to his style of managing and the effort and confusion often seen during matches by the team was a reflection that Hackworth may have been in a bit over his head.
Once Curtin took control of the squad, the team began a push towards the playoffs, winning six of their next 12 matches, however, a loss to the Sounders in the U.S. Open Cup Final seemed to let the air out of the Union’s sails and they stumbled down the stretch, coming away with just four of a possible 12 points to finish the season. They ultimately missed the playoffs for a third straight year.
While Hackworth may have been the face of the team’s failures since their 2011 playoff year under Piotr Nowak, ultimately Nick Sakiewicz, Union CEO, shouldered the lion’s share of the blame. Who could forget the revolving door of goalkeepers? Having had Zach MacMath between the sticks, the Union not only spent half a million dollars on the “Algerian Assasin” Rais M’Bolhi, they also drafted Andre Blake first overall after trading up to acquire the pick (full disclosure, drafting Blake has paid off so far). M’Bolhi proved to be a flop, and at the end of the 2014 season, M’Bohli quite literally squibbed the Union’s playoff hopes away as a ball he mishit found it’s way into the back of his own net. Overall, M’Bohli disappointed on the pitch and never seemed to feel comfortable with the team in front of him. After a handful of starts in 2015, M’Bolhi was given his marching orders and out came a steady stream of keepers, including Blake, local kid John McCarthy, and loan Brian Sylvestre, all of whom featured prominently throughout the season.
The Union would again reach the USOC finals, but would lose in penalties to Sporting Kansas City, and again would limp to the finish line, missing the playoffs for the forth straight year.
During the season, the team again under performed and this time seemed to lack chemistry. Almost a year to the day that the Sons of Ben belted out Queen, they held a funeral procession for the Union’s season and the ground swell for Sakiewicz’s removal began to grow. Sakiewicz always seemed aloof and never really could connect with the Union faithful. Ironically, it was after the Union’s loss to Sporting, despite one of the best efforts they had put forth that entire season, “Sak” was sacked. In addition to being perennial underachievers, the ownership group began to feel the pain in the pockets as attendance began to dwindle and interest in the team from casual fans began to wane. Something had to be done, the ship had to be turned around, and a new captain needed to take the helm.
Following the firing of Nick Sakiewicz, the Union hired Earnie Stewart as Sporting Director, and while the fan base was largely skeptical, it didn’t take long for Stewart’s hiring to begin paying dividends. Over the two previous season, the Union attack was anemic and lacked depth. Stewart added Illsinho and Chris Ponitus to the roster to add speed, creativity, and experience up top. The Union also had a successful 2016 Superdraft, selecting Joshua Yaro and Keegan Rosenberry to bolster the back line and Fabian Herbers to add even more depth to the Union’s attack. With these additions both Cristian Maidana and Andrew Wenger were traded to Houston and Connor Casey was let go landing in Columbus. Although Maidana was largely loved by the fan base, his skill set didn’t match Philadelphia’s style of play, and his exit would create more opportunities for Tranquillo Barnetta and Nogueira to push the Union attack forward. Both Barnetta and Nogueira have demonstrated the ability to play two ways, a weakness in Maidana’s game, for sure.
Is this just fantasy…
So here we stand, a far cry from the Union of yesteryear. A team that looked continuously disjointed looks like a team with a plan, a hunger, and a desire to win. While ten games may not be a respectable enough sample size to truly judge this squad, there is little doubt that they are much improved. They stand at 4-3-3 however, with the exception of the opening loss against Dallas, the other two losses showed perhaps more about this team than the four wins they have notched. The April 16th loss to the Sounders in Seattle saw the Union go down a man in the 53rd minute and down two goals in the 71st minute, however, they still controlled play and pulled within one. They played well enough to win, they just couldn’t find the lucky bounce requisite of producing points against a tough opponent, on the road, in perhaps the most hostile environment in all of North America. The loss to Chicago was a sloppy affair in brutal cold and snow, however, the Union outplayed the Fire for most of the match, but just couldn’t find the net.
The resurgence of C.J. Sapong has pundits and fans alike seeing stars and stripes for the striker, ahead of the Copa Centenario this summer. For the first time in perhaps their entire history, Philadelphia has a midfield capable of controlling play and creating quality scoring chances. What was largely their biggest area of weakness is now their greatest strength. Andre Blake has also proved that he was worth being taken number one overall in the 2014 Superdraft. With a goals against average of just over one goal a game and two shut outs through ten matches this season, he is emerging as one of the leagues top keepers.
The Philadelphia Union are a changed squad, there is no doubt. For the first time since 2011, Union supporters are dreaming big, imagining the possibilities as to how far this team can go. Through close to a third of the season, the Union sit in second place and are coming off of draws (one away) against the top teams in both the East and the West. The playoffs almost seem a certainty. After the dismal product that Philadelphia fans have been forced to endure over the past four seasons, it almost seems too good to be true. Their recent form and their inspired play in all facets of the game have even the most skeptical and cynical supporter asking, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” I suppose that remains to be seen. However, with the high ceiling that this team has with Earnie Stewart at the helm, Philadelphia’s sleepy soccer past “doesn’t really matter to me.”