'Who's That Guy?' Soccer Jerseys and Finding a New Way to Be a Sports Fan

'Who's That Guy?' Soccer Jerseys and Finding a New Way to Be a Sports Fan

If you’re even a casual sports fan, you’ve probably had the “whose jersey should I get?” discussion. Whether it’s an Eagles jersey for yourself or a Flyers sweater for a nephew, it’s always an important decision.

But for soccer fans around the world, this isn’t often an issue. Take a look at this photo of Manchester City fans doing the “Poznan,” where they turn away from the field to celebrate a goal.

Notice how few of those shirts have names and numbers on the back. I dare you to go to an Eagles game and find more than dozen fans with blank jerseys.

Soccer fans around the world learned long ago not to become attached to individual players. Especially in recent years, it’s hard to keep track of who plays where. Whether it’s because your team can’t seem to afford to keep its best players (see: Arsenal), or your owner is an insane Russian bazillionaire who likes to change the roster annually (see: Chelsea), fans root for the shirt over the player.

“But Philly fans are the same way,” you might say. Well yeah, we all love our teams, and would root for an American Legion team if they wore red pinstripes. But we all get very passionate about names and numbers. There are entire sports radio shows dedicated to “jersey violations,” and it’s universally accepted that you can’t wear that McNabb jersey out of the house.

After three seasons in Major League Soccer, Philadelphia Union fans are learning they’ll have to go one way or the other.

It’s relatively normal in the soccer world for players to come and go – even more so than in “traditional” American sports. Contracts seem to be mere suggestions, and given the worldwide nature of the sport, players often have off-field issues pulling them one way or another.

In MLS, those issues are amplified, since for 99 percent of the soccer players in the world – even those in the United States – suiting up for the Chicago Fire or Colorado Rapids is not the dream they go to sleep to every night.

In the last week, Union fans have waded through Google Translate to find Spanish-language reports that team captain and defensive anchor Carlos Valdes is likely on his way out. The 27-year-old made his debut for the Colombian national team in 2008, but spent a few years out of the loop before getting a few call-ups in 2012. Now, it appears he is likely headed back to his home country, partially because his national team coach wants him closer to home to keep track of his progress (don’t expect U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann to demand Clint Dempsey leave Tottenham to return to MLS any time soon).


It’s yet the latest offseason heartbreak for Union fans, who have watched their favorite players disappear with disturbing regularity. From Danny Califf and Danny Mwanga to Sebastien Le Toux, Faryd Mondragon and Jordan Harvey, Union replica jerseys have gone out of date faster than the Hunter Pence shirt you bought two summers ago.

If you’re emotionally attached to these players, then you likely dread the MLS transaction wire each morning in the winter. And that’s perfectly fine. No one should tell you the “right” and “wrong” way to be a fan.

There’s no doubt it’s fun to feel attached to your favorite players. The Union encourage it with player appearances, autograph sessions and the intimate setting at PPL Park. I’ve been guilty of it before and I’m sure I will be again (try to ignore my Sheanon Williams jersey).
But in three years rooting for the Union, as well as a decade-plus supporting Manchester City (Claudio Reyna, for the win), I’ve learned it’s more enjoyable – at least in my soccer fandom – to focus on tactics, strategy, matchups and team performance over individual attachments.

Do I have favorite players? Of course. But I also have come to terms with what the business of soccer is about, and, more specifically, the transient nature of MLS.

With Peter Nowak’s ego out of the way, all Union fans are hoping to see less turnover on the roster in 2013. But if you want to fully enjoy your time at PPL Park – especially if you are a newer Union fan – try a new approach to sports fandom. You might just find that you enjoy it a little more, and are heartbroken a little less.

Save the date
The 2013 MLS schedule was released on Wednesday. In addition to opening at home for the first time – March 2 against Sporting Kansas City – the Union skip a few difficult road trips this year. The unbalanced schedule means the team won’t play road games against Seattle, Portland, LA Galaxy or Chivas USA. They do face multiple road tests against New York and D.C United – something many fans will actually enjoy.
If you’re a die-hard Union supporter, you’ve already dissected the schedule and planned your sick days. But to the rest of you, here’s a few games you shouldn’t miss – both home and away.

Saturday, March 30 at New York (3:30 p.m.): It’s the day before Easter, the kids are off from school, and there are PLENTY of seats to be had at Red Bull Arena. The Union’s biggest rival sits just over an hour up the road in Harrison, N.J., and plays in what is arguably the finest soccer venue in America. New York rarely sells out, so tickets are easy to get. Take a drive, take the train, or – if you want the full experience – join the Sons of Ben and ride the bus. For a few bucks, you get a game ticket, bus ride to and from, and a day you won’t forget. (If you miss it, don’t worry. The Union play there again on August 17.)

Sunday, April 21 at D.C. United (5 p.m.): All the same reasons as above, except for the location. Instead of a majestic soccer palace, you get crumbling, raccoon-infested RFK Stadium. Still just as enjoyable.

Wednesday, May 15 vs. L.A. Galaxy (7:30 p.m.): No more Beckham, but the Galaxy are still the class of MLS, and the two-time defending MLS Cup champions. Odds are they’ll add one or two more big names to the roster before then.

Sunday, June 23 vs. New York (5 p.m.): The Sons of Ben bring their full voice when New York comes to town, and you can count on at least a few visiting fans making asses of themselves and getting arrested. So that’s always fun.

Saturday, May 25 at Montreal (TBD): Looking for a different Memorial Day weekend destination than the Jersey Shore? You could do A LOT worse than Montreal in May. Go for the weekend, and join what will likely be a sizable group of Union fans at the beautiful Saputo Stadium.

You can find Steve at the top of Section 138 starting in March. Come by and say hi.

Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Carson Wentz takes pride in not letting plays die easily. 

In Sunday’s 34-3 win over the Steelers, one play he didn’t let die ended up being the back-breaker in the blowout. 

We’re, of course, talking about the 73-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles at the 13:08 mark in the third quarter. Coming into the second half, the Eagles had a 10-point lead, but this touchdown pushed it to a 20-3 advantage and the rout was on. This play was a tone-setter (see story)

“That’s something that we talk about a lot,” Wentz said after the game. “We always say that a play is never dead. I like to make plays when we need to and everyone just does a great job of getting open in those situations.”

This was the first big off-schedule play Wentz has hit during his three weeks as the team’s starter, but the signs were there. In the Chicago game, there were several times where he showed his ability to extend plays. We broke them down in a film review last week (see story).

Throughout the week, Wentz had been compared to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. One of the reasons was their shared ability to extend plays and make something happen. Big Ben showed his ability in the first quarter and almost connected on a huge touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton in the back of the end zone, but the receiver couldn’t pull it in. 

When Wentz got his shot later in the game, Sproles was able to pull it in, then make something happen with his feet. 

“I saw Carson scrambling this way,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Darren was literally right in front of me and when I saw him wheel, my first reaction was to find the sideline to see if he stepped out to be quite honest.  He hadn’t, and Carson just — it was like in slow motion — floated that ball up the sideline and Darren did the rest from there. It was a tremendous play from those two individuals. I guess the last thing I did is I always look back to make sure there are no flags on the ground on those long plays.”

There were no flags. Touchdown. Game. 

Let’s take a closer look at the play: 

Wentz is in shotgun with Sproles in the backfield with him. The Eagles come out with three-wide on the far side of the field and a lot of space on the near side. 

Stephon Tuitt, who actually had a pretty good game against the Eagles, takes this route to the quarterback. When he gets to left guard Allen Barbre, Barbre either didn’t see him or didn’t react quickly enough. 

While Sproles is still running his short out, Wentz feels the pressure and is able to step up through the hole created by Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks. As soon as he makes it through, Wentz still has his eyes downfield. 

Now Wentz is through the hole and sees Sproles finishing his out-route. This is when Wentz, on the run, motions to Sproles to take off. This is something we’ve seen Wentz do a few times during his three weeks as Eagles quarterback. 

Wentz was left with a tough decision here. He could have run for 10, maybe even 15 yards. It was wide open, but he decided to try to make a play with his arm instead. 

“I always want to be a thrower first,” he said. “Even when a play breaks down, I’m always looking [to throw] because that’s where the big plays are happening. If I scramble I might get 5, 10, 15, 20 yards, but I’m not that fast. I always want to get it to the guys that can make plays. We always want to make plays when they’re there, and that’s what happened.”

With the line of scrimmage at the 27, Wentz has enough awareness to run horizontally to make sure he didn’t cross. And as soon as Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell takes that first step toward him, Wentz sees how much room Sproles has to work with. 

Ryan Shazier, who was covering Sproles on the play, froze and then started to step toward Wentz too. He said he thought the quarterback crossed the line of scrimmage, but Wentz was aware enough to stay behind.  

Once Sproles catches the ball in open space, he begins to do Sproles things. Defensive back Sean Davis took a bad angle on him and once he gets close, the veteran turns it inside. Davis said he was trying to buy time for the rest of his defense to get there and stop Sproles. It didn’t work. 

“Man, it’s Sproles!” receiver Nelson Agholor said. “Did you think he was going to get tackled?”

While he’s blocking downfield, Dorial Green-Beckham actually trips himself up and does a somersault. But it didn’t matter — Sproles didn’t need a great block. He pretty much did it himself. 

“Anytime that you can put it in the hands of [Sproles] something special can happen on any play, and he did the rest of it,” Wentz said. 

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Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Michael Raffl had just finished playing alongside Travis Konecny, the 19-year-old kid that has Flyers fans abuzz about the now and future.

Yet for Raffl, he wasn’t thinking forward. Instead, he was looking back.

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t do that when I was 19, that’s for sure,” the 27-year-old said smiling, eyes wide open. “No, it’s impressive, he’s a really, really good hockey player.”

Konecny had that resounding affect Wednesday night at the PPL Center, recording a goal and an assist while leading the Flyers to a 2-0 preseason win over the Devils (see 10 observations).

He dazzled with speed and shiftiness.

He showed off vision and smarts.

When he touched the puck, he had everyone’s attention.

Paired with Raffl and Brayden Schenn in a game featuring mostly prospects, the 2015 first-round pick made the molding of Ron Hextall’s roster that much more difficult. With the general manager looking on, the highly touted winger started fast before making his imprint during a span of just four minutes and 34 seconds in the second period.

First, he redirected a blast by Andrew MacDonald to hand the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Not long after, the 5-foot-10, 184-pounder deceived the defense to find Raffl right in front off a backdoor pass for a 2-0 advantage.

“We had a cycle play going and he had a nice fake up top there and I was just going to the net,” Raffl said. “Somehow I was all by myself and he saw me, put a perfect pass on my tape and I just went around the goalie and put it in.”

Following his first goal, Konecny nearly tacked on another less than a minute later when he appeared to hit the crossbar on a shot. He also flirted with a few more assists.

“I think I just played relaxed,” Konecny said. “I came into the game tonight trying not to do too much and just keep things simple. The main thing for me was getting pucks out of the zone, so I think I did that well tonight and hopefully I can keep building on it.”

Relieving pucks from the zone isn’t a real problem when you possess the speed and skill of Konecny, who racked up 101 points last season at the junior level.

At just 19, that’s where he’ll have to return if he doesn’t crack the Flyers’ roster.

With cuts already made and more coming, that sometimes is on Konecny’s mind.

“It weighs on you a little bit. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it and it’s definitely the time I need to step up and make sure I’m playing good hockey,” Konecny said. “And just earning another day — that’s just the way I’m looking at it. Every day I wake up and just work hard and move forward from there.

“I think everyone comes into camp and tries to give them (management) a reason not to send you back and make it hard on them.”

Wednesday night didn’t hurt his chances.

“He played a good hockey game,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “Had an impact offensively. He did a pretty good job. There’s some youthful mistakes in there, but overall, he had a real good night tonight playing with Raf and Schenner.”

Placing Konecny with two capable NHL forwards offered the Canadian an opportunity to prove what he could do if he was in fact on the big club.

“We played well together,” Konecny said. “I think from the start we just had a lot of communication, we talked in the room, in warmups, we all knew what we were going to do throughout the game and in certain scenarios.”

If anything, Konecny left an impression on Raffl.

“He’s a very smart player,” Raffl said. “Once he has the puck, he makes smart decisions with it. It was very easy to play with him out there. He plays a mature game and I really enjoyed it.”

Time will tell if more enjoyment is in store come Oct. 14.

Loose pucks
Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon combined for the shutout. Stolarz started and made 11 saves over 29:23, while Lyon played 30:37 and stopped seven shots. “I like both of our guys tonight,” Hakstol said. “Stolie did a good job, he made a difference in this game in the first 10 minutes, those two or three really good saves there. Then Alex came in halfway through, which isn’t an easy thing to do and was ready to go and did his job.” … Schenn, MacDonald and defensive prospect Robert Hagg finished with an assist apiece. … With the roster currently standing at 49, the Flyers expect to make 15 cuts on Thursday. … Defenseman Nick Schultz is out four to seven days with a lower-body injury suffered in Tuesday night’s preseason game. ... The Flyers are off Thursday before likely practicing Friday ahead of Saturday's preseason game at 7 p.m. against the Bruins at the Wells Fargo Center.