By Neil W. Blackmon
This is the fifth piece of a seven-part series highlighting the most intriguing subplots of the 2011 MLS campaign. Our other MLS preview pieces are linked below:
3. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia: This is a city that outside of a basketball team that will remain nameless, oozes competitive excellence right now. Why the Union, in year two, are ever-so-close….
Philadelphia is a tough sports town. But you know what? It’s a great sports town. Trust me, I should know. I’m not from Philadelphia. That makes me distinctly qualified to talk about why Philadelphia is a great sports town. The fans in the City of Brotherly Love? Somewhat qualified. Not wholesale self-aware. It’s takes an outsider to understand the greatness of being exacting, of demanding excellence and rejecting mediocrity. If you don’t find merit in that claim—try this one: winning is a habit, but people grow accustomed to winning. Winning can’t always happen—there are ebbs and flows and cycles, particularly in the world of professional sports. Sometimes when you are placed in an environment where excellence and championships are the stuff of expectation, you lose sight of that. It takes an outsider, one from somewhere where mediocrity or disappointment is the norm and championships are rare to appreciate the cyclical underside of dominance. As an Atlantan, I understand disappointment. Perhaps I even expect it, on some level or in places I don’t often like to think about. What’s more, my collegiate experiences provide me with experiences in both environments. At the University of Florida, my alma mater, excellence is demanded and at times excellence is not enough. If you know a Florida fan, ask them about losing one game in the 2009 football season while winning thirteen. Excellence isn’t the word the will use to describe the season. In many ways, that is tremendous. In other ways, that is destructive. In all ways, that’s the type of sports culture one should appreciate. And such is life in Philadelphia.
The Phillies, on the wrong end of the cyclical nature of competitive dominance for around one-hundred years, are now the shining example of excellence in the National League. They have assembled a pitching staff that on paper has only three to four rivals…ever. A championship is the expectation; failure to achieve the expectation will be just that-a failure f the most abject variety. Years of losing made Phillies lovable losers- the team it was okay for the city to forgive. But these are still proud Philadelphians. They aren’t disinterested yuppie Cubs fans who attend to be seen. They longed for a winner. They booed Mike Schmidt. They ached when Joe Carter hit a Mitch Williams cutter nearly 400 feet to win the World Series. They waited the Braves out for over a decade. Then Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and company delivered. A culture was changed, and winning is now the habit.
The Eagles, lacking a championship in over half a century, seem an odd example in this discussion, but a closer look reveals something different. Andy Reid has built a culture of winning. Donovan McNabb didn’t win a Super Bowl, but he and his head coach transformed a franchise. The fans always demanded a winner—Dick Vermeil finally delivered (an NFC Title) and eventually they stopped throwing snowballs at Santa Claus. Then they lost again. But forgiveness is handed out in teaspoons in Philadelphia. Hard-earned money is spent on sport and hard-earned forgiveness was spared for only the baseball team. The Eagles fans were, are, particularly a brutal sort. The desire to win, the expectation that just being a playoff-caliber team for over a decade isn’t enough, drove McNabb out of town.Eagles fans are a demanding, and sometimes irrational lot. They are, however, among the NFL’s most loyal, and on gamedays, among its best. The sense they could will the team past the McNabb near-misses was palpable last autumn. Enter Mike Vick. Proceed with winning, and at a level that only a tightly-contested game with a future Super Bowl champion could halt.
Then there’s the hockey team, the ones on Broad Street. The Flyers. Two World Championships, sure, but better yet, two decades (70s and 80s) of dominance and three decades of winning, stopped only by two New York based franchises that were simply more excellent than the excellent Flyers: the Islanders and then the New Jersey Devils. To suggest this bred a level of contempt and a mountain-sized-chip-on-the-shoulder of their followers is to put it too mildly. The obsession became getting over the hump. A conference championship only a year ago finally gave them a response. They want more. They should. Second place has been their identity long enough. Historically, this franchise shares its identity with the people of the city: tough, blue-collar, gritty, honest. Excellence is an expectation. Perhaps this version can deliver the more they long for, the more they’ll demand.
Amidst this culture of excellence sit two teams: the Philadelphia 76ers, an also-ran, low-seeded conference playoff-caliber afterthought in college basketball mecca Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Union, a second year franchise that went through ups and downs in its inaugural season but emerged with a clear, two-pronged identity. First, they would score goals. They would score goals, and they would be highly competitive and entertaining. Second, they would be loved. As great as the Seattle Sounders fans are, as wonderful as the LA Galaxy support is, as tremendous as Vancouver and Portland will certainly be as soccer cities—Philadelphia’s Sons of Ben can stand toe-to-toe with all of them. And like all Philadelphia sports fans, they’ll demand excellence. They won’t be afraid to express their contempt for mediocrity. They’ll protest poor performances. But they will do so by showing up. They will do so by embracing the team, by breathing the spirit of a city into a team, especially when they lose. With every loss, they will say “Get up, get on your feet. Do better. Expect better.” And that’s what makes Philadelphia such a special place. And that, mark my words, is why this will be a special franchise.
Is this the year the expected tradition of excellence begins? Is the young but immensely talented, raw but hungry, offensively high-octane side capable of not only being the foundation of a decade of sustained excellence but of winning now? To get answers, we asked Philadelphia resident, Union fan and talented soccer writer Keith Hickey, who is the Philadelphia Correspondent for Goal.Com and the Managing Editor of the fantastic site Match Fit USA. Here’s what Keith had to say:
TYAC: The City of Philadelphia oozes competitive excellence in every sport but professional basketball (with all due respect to Andre Iguodala). It would appear that the Union are certainly headed down that path. Any road to excellence has stumbling blocks. When you look at the Union, where is the first genuine cause for concern, and what will need to happen to overcome it and threaten for silverware this season?
Keith Hickey: The obvious problem area is the defense. We’ve gotten stronger but thinner, with just five true defenders in the squad. A couple of injuries, and we’re looking at some very inexperienced players deployed out of position. The bottom line is, we need some experienced, versatile depth. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come cheap.
TYAC: Even if he regresses a bit towards the mean- midfield additions like Brian Carroll, the integration of Carlos Ruiz and the continued development of Danny Mwanga seem to suggest the Union can score goals with anyone. How effective does LeToux have to be for the Union offense to be high-octane?
Keith Hickey: Seba Le Toux is undoubtedly the driving force behind the offense, and with improved service and assistance, I think he’ll do even better than he did last year. That being said, with the additions of Carroll, Agorsor, and Ruiz and the continuing development of Torres, Mwanga, and McInerney, he won’t have to carry the team the way he did last year, when he was involved with a staggering 71% of the team’s goals.
TYAC: Chris Seitz is gone- off to play the Brad Guzan at Aston Villa role to Dallas’ Kevin Hartman. It would appear that a nice men’s league keeper would have been an upgrade– but how much can Union fans expect from Mondragon– and how long until phenom MacMuth is ready for prime time?
Keith Hickey: Mondragon should be in the top half of keepers in this league. He may be 39, but he’s a vastly experienced keeper and by all accounts, he takes excellent care of himself and is a vocal leader on the field, a quality Seitz was conspicuously lacking last season. MacMath should get plenty of reserve starts, and maybe some US Open Cup duty. He could be ready to start as soon as next year, but Peter Nowak will be very wary about rushing a young keeper into action and putting him under too much pressure. I’d say 2013 is the target for the MacMath era to begin.
TYAC: Let’s talk bottom line: is it a playoff spot or bust– or should expectations be higher in a city that demands competitive excellence?
Keith Hickey: Philly fans are tough on their teams, but Union fans are, compared to say, Eagles fans, a pretty patient bunch. They like the hard-working, attacking style Nowak has instilled, and they’re willing to let the young core develop. But a run at making the playoffs is definitely the minimum expectation.
Neil W. Blackmon is Editor-In-Chief and Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.