There have been some bumps along the way, from battles over state and local funding, stadium construction setbacks and opposition to its location, and a league players strike that threatened all the efforts and dollars put toward founding this new team. Some of those difficulties are still underway, but for the most part, the franchise and its supporters have weathered the initial storm, and now they are ready to represent the city and suburbs of Philadelphia.
In a region dominated by Eagles football, and more recently, championship-caliber Phillies baseball, along with the Flyers and Sixers, the Union have quickly made surprising inroads into building a fanbase. First and foremost, they have captured the existing soccer fans in the area, many of whom had been clamoring for a pro team here—and let's face it, without whom there would be no franchise, at least not yet. The Sons of Ben have led that charge, and done it well while gaining a lot of media exposure for the team, but there are a lot of unbranded fans showing support too.
Without a doubt, there is still opposition to an MLS club—to any soccer entity—being here. I still don't fully understand the hate on a sporting level, thinking it'd be a lot easier to just ignore that which you don't care for (those who are against it for tax and funding reason are a different story). I ignore LOST and Muse every day.
But from what I've seen, the franchise isn't begging for universal fan acceptance. They want the soccer fans—those already in love with the beautiful game, and those who someday will be. They seem confident in their product, in their future stadium atmosphere, and they haven't shown any signs of compromising their soccer purist culture to make the team more acceptable on a mainstream level.
The team has a very classic approach. It isn't flashy, or named after a dinosaur or something from space, and even its colors and logo are simple. Their visual-branding–oriented TV commercials are the furthest thing from overselling or hyping.
One of the biggest criticisms of soccer is that it is too low scoring, that there aren't enough game-changing events within each contest. Knowing this, while starting a new team and hoping to fill a stadium in Chester, the Union are built on defense, on limiting opposing scoring opportunities. We all love our great Phillies defense, long for the days when the Birds played better without the ball, enjoy big hits and turning the field upside down, but it's offense that really puts asses in the seats no matter what the sport.
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The Union's primary focus is on building a successful franchise though, not just selling a 2-hour show for its entertainment value.
Their coach, Peter Nowak, is known as a hard ass who believes that defense wins games. Sure, a 5-3 loss might appear more interesting than a 2-1 loss or a 1-0 win, but these guys aren't looking for unpredictable, shootout soccer. Nowak wants to control the tempo, dictate the pace, and decide when and how to strike. It's strategy over flash, and maybe the difference between the interest level of the enthusiast and the casual fan. Again though, they're not interested in compromising their soccer values.
Only time, attendance, and dollars will tell if that is the right move in the long term. With ticket sales already exceeding many people's expectations and sponsorships lined up for many team elements, it's hard to find fault in their decisions to date. What remains to be seen is how those soccer fans who have never been interested in the MLS—guys like me—will take to a slower game with less talent on the field than we are used to seeing when we choose to watch soccer. This won't be waking up early on a Saturday to watch Drogba score two highlight goals, or Manchester City take down Man U, or USA in the 2006 World Cup. But it will be a team representing where we live, taking on a squad from some other place, and we've always been into that on every level, from football in sweatpants to the Olympics. It's fun to support your side, and even better when they win.
I admittedly don't know much about the MLS, nor how the Union will fare in the W-L columns. Some experts think they're not bad though, and having an average-to-good team will go a long way in helping the franchise take root, rather than what we're used to seeing from expansion teams in most other sports. If the latter happens, interest could wane in the half-interested fans, and not grow initially in the soccer-curious crowd. But the crazies won't slog off after a few bad games, or even seasons, which is huge if this season doesn't go well in terms of ya know, winning.
We'll have a bit more on tonight's game later today, with a look at some of the on-field questions facing the team in its first game.