The Philadelphia Union had a successful inaugural season in drawing fans and interest toward their new soccer-specific stadium in Chester. In the off-season, they picked up a $12 million sponsorship and a few game-changing players. The corporate name on the front of the jersey was unpopular, and the three biggest-name additions to the roster were far from "household." Not the most conventional way to go about attracting more fans, but the sponsorship was forged to bear fruit, the new faces are just the first step in that.
Six games into the 2011 season, the Union are only a point out of first place in the MLS's Eastern Conference, with a game in hand on first-place New York. They're drawing increased recognition in the league and the global soccer community, and locally, the team is inarguably on the map. That much was made very clear this past Saturday afternoon. When the Flyers' second-round playoff schedule was announced and included a home game completely swallowing the Union's home match against the San Jose Earthquakes—starting before it and ending after it—I thought the Union would have trouble drawing the big crowd that has been at PPL Park for all but the monsoon-drenched draw with Seattle this season. The Phillies were also playing in South Philly that afternoon, hosting the Mets to boot (not that opponents are influencing attendance at Citizens Bank Park much these days), and the Penn Relays were going on. Quite the perfect storm for the region's newest franchise to see a slow day attendance-wise.
And yet, PPL Park was nearly full, with a paid attendance of 18,279 (capacity is 18,500, though that's been topped already this season). I don't know how many people came versus paid for tickets, but the first thing I thought upon seeing the crowd was, "I was wrong, this place is packed." The Phillies and Flyers home games didn't seem to have hurt attendance at all, with very few empty seats peeking out.
Great weather and some additional marketing of that particular game probably each played a part in drawing the crowd, with the Union hosting their first Dollar Dog promo, as well as a promo for local college students that involved a player meet and greet. The young folk do like their discount dogs, as the Phillies showed years ago, and player accessibility seems to be a hallmark of the Union to date.
To the soccer itself, the Union have had some well-documented scoring issues, but it hasn't slowed down their pace in terms of winning. They've lost only once so far, and after posting only two shutouts in 2010, they already have four clean sheets in their six league matches in 2011.
Two big reasons for that improvement are the aforementioned non-household names that local even many soccer fans didn't know before they were on the backs of Union jerseys—Colombian nationals Faryd Mondragon and Carlos Valdes.
Although the Union haven't yet used their designated player slot to add a high-profile player such as the Red Bulls' signing of Thierry Henry, the impact of the new players has been immediate and plain to see, even for the soccer-uninitiated. The Union are able to lock down their end of the field every match, limiting even the stacked LA Galaxy to a lone goal.
Oh Captain, Mon-dragon
From the stands, you can really see the difference between a goalie finding his way (Chris Seitz) and an established veteran with experience in far higher-stakes matches (Mondragon). A soccer goalkeeper obviously doesn't shut down the game in the same way as in, say, hockey, when he's actively stopping 30, 40, or even 50 shots in a night, so you can't look to Mondragon's save totals to determine his impact. If you're watching the games, you don't even bother. His control of his end is unmistakeable, and for me, it's been the most noticeable change in the Union from their first season to their second.
Mondragon is the general barking out orders as the opposing side attacks, in particular on free kicks and corners. Simply put, he's a dominant force. And, perfectly for this town, he has a marked aggressive side, which we got to see in this past Saturday's cardfest. Mondragon is among the largest guys on the field, very physically fit and imposing in stature, and he seems perfectly willing to mix it up. There's a hard man on the sidelines running the team in Peter Nowak, but now there is one on the field as well.
Valdes added a defensive dimension the team was sorely lacking last season, an ability to close on the ball and shut the water off before it gets dangerous. Part of the reason Mondragon's sheets are so clean is that attacks aren't getting past #5.
The Other Chooch
The Union's added attack weapon gained immediate recognition in Philly simply because he shares a name with the very popular Phillies catcher. The photo of the two together made the rounds, which, for as meaningless a thing as it is, still made for good PR. That's all well and good, but El Pescadito made a name for himself long before coming to Philly, and so far, his acquisition has paid off as well. Ruiz leads the team with a pair of goals, but in watching the team's offense struggle overall, I get the feeling he could get very hot this summer as all the pieces on the field get used to each other and more balls find their way into the open spaces upfield.
Sebastien Le Toux had his best game of the season on Saturday, possibly the man of the match for the Union in my opinion, although others would cast votes for Mondragon and Valdes with good reason. Seba hadn't really found his touch before this game, possibly not fully knowing his new role with so many veterans replacing the inexperienced faces he was leading last season. One thing that hasn't changed is his work rate, which was on full display against San Jose. Le Toux was burning it out there, blowing past a few Earthquakes who thought they had a safe beat on the ball before 9 showed up. Then he scored the game's only goal on a PK.
TOWARD THE HEAD OF THE CLASS?
The Union didn't outclass too many teams in 2010, but they have shown that they can this year. Saturday was a great example, even with a lowly team coming for a visit. The referee had too much of a stranglehold on this game (although I don't necessarily disagree with Jordan Harvey's red card) for the full impact to be seen on the scoreboard, but the Union continued to play their game and eventually got the result. To be frank, a lot of that was on San Jose too, who errantly booted the ball out of bounds about as often as a youth team. Bad, bad soccer. I'm biased (if you couldn't tell from reading all this), but I chalked it up in part to feeling the pressure the Union were putting on, even when down a man.
There are 28 league games remaining, so it's premature to gaze in wonderment at the standings. But Saturday
's game was telling to me in many ways, from the field to the stands. National recognition also continues to come, with Union players comprising three of the MLS's Team of the Week (Valdes, Sheanon Williams, and Keon Daniel, who also had an amazing game, particularly after Harvey was sent off). Popular site Soccer By Ives also named three Union players to his Best IX, and only Valdes was on both lists (Ives also had Mondragon and Le Toux).
Finally, as Rev pointed out, not long after a friendly was announced between the Union and Everton of the English Premier League, the Union will be featured in the MLS's first ever nod on Fox Soccer Channel's Soccer Night in America this Friday, facing the impressive expansion side Portland Timbers. The atmosphere in Portland's home is perfect for the national spotlight, as is PPL Park—an outstanding sign for the growth of the league.
Are there still improvements to be made, both on the field and in the stands? Certainly. But I get the feeling that will come with time. If not with the current personnel, changes will be made, as we saw in the club's first off season.
Photos courtesy of the Union's Facebook gallery