Show Me Something: After 4 years, Union have 17 home games to convince masses to pay attention

Show Me Something: After 4 years, Union have 17 home games to convince masses to pay attention

Sebastien Le Toux, left, and the Union welcome the New England Revolution to town Saturday afternoon (AP Photo)

Last Saturday night, after the Union's 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers, I got a text from a co-worker friend of mine.

Now, this friend is a huge soccer-head. He not only has multiple Liverpool jerseys and listens to multiple Liverpool podcasts (and somehow understands the ridiculous "Scouser" accent), he manually keeps stats in an Excel spreadsheet for a fantasy English Premier League with some friends.

Despite all of those shortcomings, he has never been to an MLS game, and I'm not sure he had ever watched one from beginning to end on TV. He's not an out-and-out soccer snob, like many who turn their noses up at MLS, but says he's just never felt invested in a team or the league or any players.

His text read: "I watched ... I'm in on the Union finally. I saw enough quality for me to buy in, which is good news for next week."

"Good news" since he's tagging along to PPL Park on Saturday as the Union open their home schedule against the New England Revolution (4 p.m. - Comcast SportsNet).

My friend is a perfect example of MLS's largest target audience. But he's also the reason why this season is so critical for the Union, not so much as it amounts to wins and losses, but as it relates to butts in seats and eyeballs on TV.

While I would put the PPL Park match day experience on par with any team in the city, the "Have you been to a Union game yet?" allure is wearing off after four seasons.

That season ticket waiting list the team loved to tout in 2010 and 2011 has disappeared. There are still (a few) tickets available for Saturday's home opener. Season ticket holders this season were enticed with the offer of free parking for the ENTIRE SEASON, which is not a throwaway promotion by any stretch (a season parking pass has a face value north of $300).

I've met plenty of people in the stands who never watched a soccer game before 2010, and still don't know what color Liverpool wears. They love the tailgate scene, the stadium atmosphere, and the affordable season tickets. They'll likely be back (with their favorite local tailgating brews).

There are plenty of people like me who have jumped in with both feet and will likely hang around no matter what happens (to a fault, if it gets that bad).

But my friend is one of the countless people in the greater Philadelphia area (me included) who wakes up early on weekends to watch games between teams they've never seen in person.  These are the people MLS is now marketing to, and the people the Union may lose forever if they turn in a disappointing season.

Whether these people believe that they can't "dumb-down" to an inferior product, or they already have too much emotionally invested in their favorite EPL team is beside the point. The Union don't need to win the MLS Cup this year (though it'd help). They don't even need to send 5 guys to the All-Star Game or win a trophy.

What they do need to do is play an attractive, entertaining and exciting style. They need to show skill beyond the "MLS Standard" and do more than just hang on for 0-0 home draws. They need character, personality and players who are easy to like (something they're already excelling in, based solely on Maurice Edu's Twitter account and Cristian "Chaco" Maidana's Instagram account).

I'm not saying the Union need to jazz up their play at the expense of wins. Philly loves a winner, and if this team wins, people will pay attention. And you're never ever going to convince the ever-dwindling "Soccer is so stupid, there's no scoring!" crowd. MLS thankfully gave up on that a long time ago.

But my friend -- and many others like him -- may only give the Union one or two chances.  He's remarked to me in the past that he was a little turned off by what he felt was a "Look, we have a team, isn't that great?" attitude from the Union front office. And for most of the Union's four years of existence, he wasn't wrong.

But in the past four moths, the front office has pushed its chips to the center of the table with big names, flashy talents, and a full season to build chemistry. Now it's time to see if the payout comes.

Win some games, entertain the masses, and keep providing the best game day experience in town. Then you'll have people lining up to pay $20/game for parking.

...check back tomorrow for more on the home opener and enjoy a beer while you're waiting

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

NEW YORK -- John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists, scoring Washington's final four points in the last 32 seconds as the surging Wizards beat the New York Knicks 113-110 on Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall down the stretch to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Carmelo Anthony's miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

Anthony finished with 34 points but Wall stole the ball from Brandon Jennings to prevent the Knicks from attempting a 3-pointer that could have tied it (see full recap).

Leonard scores 34 to lead Spurs over Nuggets
SAN ANTONIO -- Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver's three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson's shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol's return.

Irving, James lead Cavs over Suns
CLEVELAND -- Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, All-Star teammate LeBron James had 21 points and 15 assists, and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked more like themselves at home in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road trip (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss at Golden State. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance and ball movement while improving to 30-11 -- the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA championship season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Jay beagle, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored, and Alex Ovechkin and Daniel Winnik each had two assists to help Washington earn at least a point in its 12th straight game (10-0-2) for an NHL-best 66 points.

Braden Holtby bounced back from his roughest outing of the season with 22 saves. Holtby was pulled after giving up a season-high five goals on 26 shots in an 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Monday. He improved to 22-8-4 and 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis (see full recap).

Grabner scores 2 goals, Rangers top Leafs
TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored two goals against his former team, helping the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and J.T. Miller added goals for New York, and Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves following a series of rough outings.

Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman scored for Toronto, which had a three-game winning streak stopped. The Maple Leafs had earned 21 of a possible 26 points in their previous 13 games (10-2-1). Frederik Andersen gave up four goals on 40 shots (see full recap).

Tavares leads Islanders to shutout of Stars
NEW YORK -- Getting a new coach this week didn't change things much for the Islanders -- and oddly enough, that's a good thing for New York.

John Tavares narrowly missed out on his second hat trick in a week, Thomas Greiss got his second straight shutout and the Islanders beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Thursday night in their first game since firing longtime coach Jack Capuano.

New York canned Capuano in the middle of his seventh season Tuesday, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight (see full recap).

Niederreiter, Wild dodge letdown, edge Coyotes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nino Niederreiter had two power-play goals and an assist, including the go-ahead score for the Minnesota Wild with 7:06 remaining in a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday night after the Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit.

With Shane Doan in the penalty box for hooking, Niederreiter knocked in a nifty redirect of Mikael Granlund's slap shot for the winner. Devan Dubnyk stopped 20 shots for the Wild, who are 18-2-2 in their last 22 games.

Louis Domingue made 21 saves for the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and fell to 2-12-1 in their last 15 games starting with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota in Arizona on Dec. 17 (see full recap).