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