The Philadelphia Union are set to open their third season this afternoon, hosting the Colorado Rapids in a 4PM start. The faithful are preparing their tailgating gear or already on their way to Lot A or B, depending on how banged up they got celebrating a certain saint's feast day.
If there's one thing we've learned in our two seasons of MLS fandom, it's that we probably shouldn't get terribly used to the idea of individual players being around forever. MLS rosters endure a lot of turnover, and as we saw this off-season, it's not just the scrubs or mid-level players who come and go.
This isn't strictly an MLS or Union thing, but the player shelf lives seem more transient because we know so little of them coming in (if anything), and there's not much time to get to know them before they're headed out in some cases. We did just have a clear example of what we might expect from a local team making some significant personnel changes though. Before the Flyers began their current season, no one had any idea what to expect from this year's team. Many of the guys we knew were gone. They weren't particularly old, but they were replaced by even younger players in most cases. So far, few would argue that the team has disappointed compared to last season's iteration.
Will the same be true of the Union after allowing captain and goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon head home and trading face of the franchise Sebastien Le Toux against his (and the fans') wishes? It's impossible to say at this point. There are signs the team could be more versatile and better built for the long-term, but also indications that long-term growth could come at the expense of contention this season. As we saw on Monday, there will be growing pains as this group gets to know each other.
For now, as fans, it's time to turn the page and get to know the new guys and the players who will get more PT as a result of the roster changes.
4. The MLS All-Star Game Comes to Chester
Growing up just outside of Chester and playing soccer as a young Delco kid, I never once imagined a soccer-specific stadium sitting beneath the Commodore Barry Bridge. Now, we drive down Kerlin Street every other week to the greenest patch of grass for miles. Because of the reception the MLS has received in the Philadelphia area since before they hung their shingle, the league has already awarded PPL Park an All-Star Game. We don't yet know what the sides will be, but we know that the league's focus will be on PPL Park this July 25 at 8PM.
It's a telling acknowledgement of the fans and the franchise by a league looking to replicate this success in future expansion cities, as well as current MLS cities with weak or waning support and no soccer-specific stadium.
3. Tailgating (and a note on parking changes)
The Union's schedule is mercifully weekend-heavy, making tailgating in the lots adjacent to the stadium ideal for us working stiffs. A change in the way parking is handled for 2012 could pose some challenges, with Lots A and B now reserved for only season-ticket holders who have requested and paid for full-season parking passes. The change here is that you can no longer park in these lots on a game-by-game cash basis. So, if you're a Lot A or B group, your friends without season tickets will have to park in Lot C, which is the southernmost lot and quite a hike from Lot A if they want to walk down and join you.
The Union had to limit access to Lots A and B because demand from season ticket holders was high (season passes for them are sold out). As a Lot A resident, I can understand that. We would have been pretty upset if we weren't able to get our Lot A request filled. But, at least two carloads of our friends today will have to park in C and hoof it to A. That sucks, for sure, but it's nothing we haven't done a thousand times at the sports complex in South Philly either. Admittedly, I'd be more upset if I were the one having to get in and out of Lot C, then drag a wheelie cooler halfway to New Hope. Private lots are also springing up around the stadium, but they are not run by the Union, and the team has been clear that they can't guarantee safety or acceptable conditions in lots they don't run. The Union lots are well-staffed and secure, in our experience. We don't know anything about the private lots yet, particularly where they fall on the Jetro-to-Scary Vacant Lot in Chester spectrum.
Anyway, this was supposed to be about tailgating, not parking. But tailgating doesn't need much explanation. Battery-powered audio. Small grills. Kicking the ball around, throwing the frisbee, some ladders, washers… Gotta hurry up and finish this, get down there!
2. The Feeling of High Expectations
A playoff berth in 2011 means only one thing—anything less will be considered a disappointment. Sound unreasonable? This is Philly sports. What's reason have to do with anything?
After riding the wave at the top of the table a few times in 2011 and making that playoff appearance, the U have given us a glimpse at the potential for this to be a dominant franchise in the league. We didn't have to endure a long expansion process, or so we hope. The feeling of walking into the building expecting a win is something we've come to enjoy in Philly lately, but most of us know all to well the other end of it. Today, we'll get our ticket cards scanned and scream our way to the River End.
Of course, with high expectations comes great fury when they aren't met. The Union got to see what the fanbase looks like when it's angry after Le Toux was traded away, and it wasn't pretty. But that energy can be quickly rerouted with the usual panacea—winning.
It's now put-up time, when Peter Nowak and Company show us the fruits of their personnel plans. If not, the choruses will continue, but they won't be in such constant support as the franchise enjoyed in its first two seasons. We expect a winner now.
1. Getting the Band Back Together
Ten years out of college, life is very different. I work all week, don't go out on school nights nearly as often, feel the effects of long nights for more hours the next day than I'd like, and put a whole lot more stock into quieter nights at home and weekend afternoons with the family. It's increasingly easy to turn down plans to go out, and I don't even mind admitting it.
But with that, you start to lose touch with good friends, and the gaps between meet-ups get longer every year. For this reason, getting season tickets to the Union was one of the best decisions I've made. Two tickets in 2010 meant that me and one of my oldest soccer-fan friends could enjoy a few beers and some rowdiness not far from home on a regular basis. Friends started to join us on a game-by-game basis, people who had never followed soccer and others who kept up with the National team during World Cup play and maybe some English Premier League. In 2011, a few had become season t
icket holders as well, and our group's size increased with more people coming to their first, second, third… Union games, buying individual tickets along the way. In the second year, Union home games became meeting places for a group of guys that always has fun together, but otherwise might not get together half as much without a set time and place when it's understood we'll all be there.
This year, our group has again grown, with new full and partial season ticket holders, spouses, and family. My brother-in-law just called to arrange where to meet up when he walks with my 8-year-old nephew down from their first ever Union tailgate in Lot C to meet us in Lot A for a bit.
The home opener is a bigger beast than the regular home schedule, which spans from now til the leaves turn. But every other week or so, we'll meet in the lot under the Barry Bridge, have a couple beers, make fun of each other for a few hours, and walk in. What happens after that doesn't make or break the day, but the more DOOP the better...