Let’s call this week a draw, Eurosnobs.
As the LA Galaxy came to Philly Wednesday night, the disparity between the perennial title contender out west and the usually mediocre Union was obvious. While the results haven’t been that different this season, and each team’s position in terms of conference standing is similar, how each side got there is an entirely different story; one through a willingness to spend on big names from Europe, the other with an outlook finally changing from “we are a sports team, in a sports city, so the fans will follow.”
The Union have shed the idea—and those in the front office who held it—that Philly fans will support the team just because it exists. Finally it’s starting to look like the Union are building a competitive MLS team the “right” way, and yet, head coach Jim Curtin knows that some fans are still only interested in big names and foreign stars.
“Is there still going to be a certain kind of Eurosnob that just thinks they do it better? That’s fine, we admit we’re not quite on the level yet,” Curtin said at a press conference in advance of the Galaxy match this week. “But at the same time, we’re a league that’s improving, we have good players. All you have to do is turn and ask the guys who have come over here what they think of the league: the Beckhams, the Gerrards.They’ve done it at the highest level, but they still have a respect for the players in this league and the work that’s put in.
“Is it perfect yet? No, but it is growing and I think when fans see it live, and they see the stars coming here for a reason — some of them in their prime — it can only help the game.”
Major League Soccer is certainly a few years off from becoming a world-class league. The top-flight in England, Germany, Spain, Italy and arguably a half dozen other leagues around the world are still far ahead in terms of overall talent. But if the trend MLS is setting continues, the soccer fan who spends his or her Saturday mornings watching European leagues and forgetting MLS exists—your typical Eurosnob—will be well aware of how their local MLS team is doing.
It would be uncool not to.
Curtin seems to agree, saying recently “I think, more and more now, it has happened, whether you’re walking around the neighborhood in South Philly, and you run into a Mexican fan, who says, ‘You know, you guys are pretty good’. And you say, ‘Yeah, we are, we have a good league, we have a strong league.’ So, I think you can steal fans away in that regard.”
Mexico. Spain. England. Wherever Philly soccer fans originate, Curtin hopes this version of the team will attract them to the Union. Not just because they’re here, but because the team is building something better.
As Wednesday’s draw showed, the Union are on their way to regularly being able to hang with the likes of the Galaxy who, in addition to teams like NYCFC and Orlando FC, have highly-paid designated players like Steven Gerrard, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Kaka. The previous Union leadership seemed to feel that by simply having a soccer team in the city, without maintaining a high level of quality–and talent–on the field, supporters would stay loyal. And they were right, for a few years. But sports fans in this city are smarter than perhaps they anticipated.
Things seem to be changing quickly under Sporting Director Earnie Stewart.
What the organization lacks in their ability (or desire) to attract big names, they’ve begun to make up for with culture, and coaching. With the addition of players like C.J. Sapong, Chris Pontius, Tranquillo Barnetta over the last few seasons, the Union are putting out a better product, and even the most ignorant American-soccer-hater in town can’t ignore improved performance when it’s right in their face.
Before the season, Stewart said, “there is a lot of potential in the players we’ve seen. Our goal is to get starters, and to make sure our roster is as strong as possible… If we can get two good players in every position, they are going to drive each other to be bigger and better.”
While the big-ticket names aren’t on the roster yet, and Stewart hasn’t quite gotten his two good players at every position, the Union have increased the talent of those comprising their starting eleven. A lot of the players have European experience, and the ones who don’t have either been recently drafted, or are MLS journeymen who know the league inside and out and have been able to use that experience to the team’s advantage. Eight players on the team have international caps for their respective countries, including U.S. internationals Maurice Edu, Brian Carroll, Pontius and Sapong.
The game against the Galaxy showed that, at least for one night, big names don’t matter when two quality teams face off, one of which seems rejuvenated under a coach who is desperate to bring winning soccer to the city of Philadelphia.
The Union are building differently, and it’s working so far. After Wednesday’s draw, they are in a strong position near the top of the eastern conference, setting themselves up for almost certain playoff soccer this season, something a long time coming. The Union don’t get much of a rest, though, as they are back this Saturday, traveling to face Didier Drogba and the first-place Montreal Impact, with a chance to take first place, and convert a few more Eurosnobs in the process.