Photo Courtesy of Frank Nolan
By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
If one had to summarize the Philadelphia Union in just one sentence, nothing evokes the spirit of this team better than this: The fans existed before the team did.
It almost doesn’t sound real that a fan base could come together over a nonexistent team, and feel so strongly about it that they spend years putting in the work to bring the organization to life. The Sons of Ben would travel to other teams' games and treat them like opponents (see: the “We Don’t Have a Team” chant against the New York Red Bulls). They even went so far as to crash the MLS All-Star Game and take the field during a showcase of other teams’ supporter groups. For such a big sports city, it only seemed natural that Philadelphia would welcome and embrace a new addition to the family.
So why does it often feel as though the Union still don’t exist?
I remember attending the Union’s first home game back in 2010. Their stadium down in Chester hadn’t been completed yet, so they were facing off against DC United at Lincoln Financial Field. Thanks to my father, little 10-year-old me appreciated the atmosphere of the game, even if I didn’t completely understand how the game was played. It was evident even in their debut season that this team had the potential to become something special. Even without the David Beckhams and Zlatan Ibrahimovichs that would grace MLS in the coming years, the Union brought something unique and quintessentially Philadelphian to the league. They didn’t need the name recognition that came with aging, overpriced players that the European leagues were no longer interested in. The Union invoked the Philadelphia sports way perfectly—gritty, hardworking, and unfazed by the constant underestimation. In short, their mentality fit right into the sports culture in this city.
The subsequent eight or so years were relatively quiet. Average finishes, no playoff runs to speak of, some recognizable names on the roster and promising youngsters in the academy, but the Boys in Blue weren’t exactly lighting the league on fire.
That is...until they were.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly caused the sudden uptick in quality for the Union. Was it Andre Blake’s phenomenal goalkeeping abilities? Brenden Aaronson’s prodigal talents up front? Alejandro Bedoya’s poised and charismatic leadership on the field? Jim Curtin’s cool, calm, and collected approach to the game? Whatever it was, it’s been working. They won the first trophy in franchise history with the 2020 MLS Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the season. It was a watershed moment for everyone in the Union family—the team that started out as an idea, a dream, a chimera was proving themselves to be a force to be reckoned with in MLS.
The movie-worthy underdog story was truly starting to come together. This unperceived gaggle of outsiders clad in navy blue and gold was showing up and demanding a seat at the table. No longer could opponents synonymize “Union” and “easy” on their schedules. The clouds gathered over the homey little stadium sitting on the Delaware River, while the thunder boomed and the lightning blazed to create a perfect storm of circumstances that would aid in the gradual, but guaranteed, ascension of the Union. Hunger had awakened the snake, and its fangs were tipped with venom.
But that was then, and this is now. The Union’s sights have been firmly set on the 2021 season, which kicked off on Apr. 18. Much has changed in the past 11 years—their academy has become renowned as one of the best in American soccer (so good, in fact, that they’ve been able to send homegrowns Aaronson and defender Mark McKenzie to Europe in 2020), MLS has grown its clout in the United States, meaning that the Union’s opponents are only getting stronger and more invigorated as time passes. However, the ultimate goal remains the same—win the MLS Cup. With this group of players under this management, it absolutely could happen.
So, yes, Philadelphia does have a soccer team, and a quality one at that. And, yes, they deserve loads more recognition and appreciation than they’re getting. Soccer has arrived in the City of Brotherly Love, and judging by the Union’s recent performances, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.