'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.

Elton Brand on national anthem protests: Sixers working with NBA, having 'discussions internally'

Elton Brand on national anthem protests: Sixers working with NBA, having 'discussions internally'

CAMDEN, N.J. — Pockets of NBA players have increasingly started to speak up about what they believe to be racial and social injustices taking place in the United States.

With San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem sparking protests from other players around the NFL and various sports, now the NBA as a whole is preparing for potential protests prior to games.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver and National Basketball Players Association union executive director Michele Roberts came together last week to formulate a joint letter to players to express how the two sides plan to take "meaningful action."

Whatever that action is, Sixers veteran Elton Brand is all for it and the overall discussion of issues going on around the country.

"There are e-mails and direct texts from the NBPA. We’re working with the NBA. They’re going to talk to us soon,” Brand said. “My thing is if you want to stand up for something, that’s a good thing. Especially in America, the tensions and the injustices that are going on right now. 

“Even in our locker room we’re discussing who feels like this, who feels like what and ways that we can display how we feel about things. I’m all for it. I stand behind it and stand with other athletes and people that want to stand for a cause. Whatever their cause is, they want to stand for a cause. Our cause may be different.”

The NBA is significantly more diverse than the NFL, and Brand even admitted it’s been an eye-opening experience having talks about issues affecting African Americans inside a locker room with players from around the globe.

“We have a lot of international players,” he said. “I’m looking around the room and there are seven people that aren’t from this country. So you talk about the flag, talk about the constitution and to them it’s like, ‘I represent America because I’m working here, but I’m pro-Spain and I have problems there, too.’ We’re all sorting it out. We’ve had discussions internally also. I’m looking forward to what the NBPA and the NBA have to offer."

What the league and players association come up with will likely serve as something other than protesting during the actual anthem. Unlike the NFL, the NBA has a rule in place that explicitly states players, coaches and trainers must stand on the foul line or sidelines in a dignified posture during the playing of national anthems.

If Sixers players do ultimately decide on some sort of protest before games, they will have the support of the organization to express their rights.

"We haven't been together collectively long enough to have a real robust discussion about it," Sixers president Bryan Colangelo said. "I think we just addressed it briefly this morning with the players in an opportunity to say the following. Basically, we as an organization are going to be supportive of the views of our players. As the league and the players association formulate perhaps an approach, they've already circulated some information to teams. Things are probably still at the discussion phase. I hope to think that's where things are with our players, that they're still at the discussion phase. 

"Once again, I'm assuming that there will be a desire to express an opinion or viewpoint. I've always been supportive of people in society having freedom to express a viewpoint. Again, going back to the league and the players association, in a positive way I think they've always been out in front of some of these social issues and if they can affect social change in a positive way they probably will. You can just anticipate that there's still some unknowns to this, but you can estimate that we will be supportive as an organization as to how our players want to express their views."

Joel Embiid expects to play in Sixers' preseason opener

Joel Embiid expects to play in Sixers' preseason opener

CAMDEN, N.J. — The long wait could be over next week.

Joel Embiid expects to play in the Sixers' first preseason game Oct. 4 at UMass-Amherst against the Celtics, he said Monday at media day.

“The first thing for me is just get back on the court,” Embiid said of his expectations this season. “It looks like in a couple days I’m going to have the chance to do that.”

Embiid has missed the past two seasons since being drafted third overall because of foot injuries. Even though he is taking his rookie year one step at a time, he has a positive long-term outlook given how healthy he feels. 

“I’m confident that I’m going to have a long, successful career,” he said. “From what it looks like right now, I’m going to have a 20-year career.”

Embiid has grown as a player and a person during his recovery. He noted had he been competing in an 82-game season, he would not have had as much time to dedicate on his development. As a result of the specialized workouts and the hours he has spent in an individual practice format, he has improved his shooting and gained strength and speed. 

“What I was two years ago, I’m not even close to what I am right now,” he said. “My game has gotten so much better ... I’m not the same guy. I’m different.”

Embiid has been following a well-mapped out rehab plan during which he has had to adhere to restrictions, and will continue to do so this season. He admits the restrictions have been frustrating, but he now understands they are being implemented for his best interest long term. The lengthy recovery has forced him to change his outlook on maintaining his health. 

“The main thing I learned about myself is, I could be patient,” Embiid said. “When I was first doing my rehab, going through that, the only thing I thought about was getting back on the court. I would try to get back on the court and play more than I was supposed to. After the doctor [said] you had to heal well and I needed the second surgery, that’s when I told myself be patient and do whatever I can and make sure I listen to what people have to say.”

Head coach Brett Brown wants Embiid to become the “crown jewel” of the defense. Embiid, who stands at a towering 7-foot-2, 275 pounds, is ready to embrace those expectations. He has studied tape of Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing, among others. Embiid likes the game of Marc Gasol and appreciates how DeAndre Jordan communicates as a big man. 

“I love playing defense,” he said. “I hate when the other team scores.”

Embiid's debut will be the culmination of years of work. Now that the season is approaching, he is eager to count down the days. 

“I’m really excited,” Embiid said. “I’ve gone through a lot and it’s been two years. The fact that I’m healthy now and ready to get back on the court, I just can’t wait.”