Philadelphia loves its Eagles, Sixers and Phillies. It's time the city embraces the underdog Union, too
CHESTER, Penn. -- It's a good time to be a sports fan in Philadelphia. The city boasts a Super Bowl champion one year removed, an NBA franchise that has made the playoffs consecutive years and a Philadelphia Phillies team favored to make the World Series.
It's a city that is having a rebirth on the field and on the court, and the Philadelphia Union, tied atop Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference, are hoping to give fans from this city more reason to cheer -- beginning on Saturday, when they host the Portland Timbers (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+).
This team might actually be able to stick in the long-term, too, after a decade of struggles and inconsistency. It is a bit "of positivity" says Jim Curtin, now in his sixth season as the Union's head coach.
"As a guy who lives in the city, you can feel it. There's a more positive feel to all things Philadelphia," Curtin told ESPN FC. "There's some real winning going on. It's a real positive, and it is good for us at the early stages of the year to be a part of that."
Philadelphia is a tough sports town, a place that turned booing into an art form and has perpetually embraced the underdog. From the likes of Vince Papale of the Philadelphia Eagles to the "Broad Street Bullies" of Philadelphia Flyers fame, fans in this city are concerned almost as much with the fight and passion within their teams as they are in the results.
In the Union, this city may have found both.
To say that this has been a resurgent year for the Union is to ignore the fact that this franchise, which joined MLS in 2010, has made the postseason just three times and has yet to win a playoff game. The fact that this team has just two winning seasons as a franchise wasn't a talking point during a reshaping of their roster this offseason.
The rebuild of the Union began last summer with the appointment of Ernst Tanner as sporting director. Tanner's experience in Europe with clubs like Red Bull Salzburg, Hoffenheim and 1860 Munich focused on youth development. The Union boast one of the best academy systems in the United States, but like nearly every MLS team, they aren't at the point where they can rely solely on their academy to field a gameday roster. So Tanner scoured Europe for unheralded players with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.
Tanner plucked starting left-back Kai Wagner from the German third division and took a flyer on Kacper Przybylko, a Polish youth international coming off a bad foot injury last year. Despite the lack of star power, these imports have brought a different level of skill to the roster, but also have the fight that Philadelphia seems to embrace like no other city.
It's a meeting of need and mentality that has propelled the Union to the top of the East.
When Tanner first began texting Przybylko last fall about coming to MLS, he made no mention of the Union's middling past. Instead, the 26-year-old forward said the Union's sporting director made a pitch about creating a new future in Philadelphia for both player and club.
"Why would you talk about the past?" Przybylko said. "I don't think we would do that. We don't look at even our last game. It's all about tomorrow."
It is a mentality that permeates this roster, including the longest-tenured player on the Union.
Defender Fabinho has been with the club for seven years, a fan favorite as much for his overlapping runs as for his sheer tenacity and passion for the team. A veteran of two head coaches and multiple sporting directors, the Brazilian has seen the ups and many downs of the organization. Through it all, he has battled and clawed for the Union, a team the former Brazil U20 international said "has given me so, so much."
His 6-year-old son, Davi, was practically born at Talen Energy Stadium, he says with a laugh, noting in his next breath that the boy often cries when the Union lose.
"I think Jim and Ernst this year, especially Ernst because of his work with young guys ... they have made a difference," Fabinho said. "For me, [Ernst] is doing a lot of work with our team and especially in the beginning of the season.
"Now we can have success with Brenden [Aaronson] and a lot of the young guys are playing well and having success with the first team. Everyone asks what is the difference? For me, everyone is just giving something for this team."
Fabinho goes on, talking about the importance of competition for a spot in the starting lineup. It is a point that isn't lost on Curtin, who calls this "probably the deepest team this franchise has ever had."
There hasn't been much to cry about for Fabinho's son this year as the Union have reshaped their roster and their tactics. This was supposed to be a transitional year, Tanner told Curtin during the offseason, as the team would upend their style and philosophy. So far, it has looked anything but as the Union are legitimate contenders for the Supporters' Shield.
This Union has had erratic stretches each of the past three years, the only consistency seeming to be the exhaustion of their depth by season's end. The team has made the final of the U.S. Open Cup three times in recent years, but frustratingly lost each time.
There is hope that this time around, off to their best start in franchise history, the Union's early success will have some staying power.
The hope is that the young talent can blend with savvy signings made by Tanner. The Union historically aren't among the big spenders in MLS -- their payroll was bottom third in the league a year ago -- and they must be shrewd in how they acquire talent. The margin of error, given their payroll, is relatively small.
If the Union are going to join the likes of the area's other sports team in not just winning but also grabbing the hearts of Philadelphia sports fans, then it won't be a big-time signing that pushes them over the top. Despite being at the top of the conference, it hasn't been an easy sell at the turnstile as the Union currently are averaging 15,697 fans, down roughly 5 percent from last year's gate. Last weekend's sellout for a scoreless home draw against the Seattle Sounders is perhaps a reason for optimism that the fans are coming around.
The draw isn't just the winning soccer being played, but the collection of talent native to this market that is being integrated on the field. No team in Philadelphia boasts the integration of local talent as the Union, a direct fusion between their strong academy system and a tactical setup that values youth.
The blue-collar pressing and counter-pressing system implemented by Tanner this offseason requires a high work rate and the ability to log hard runs. Young players, Curtin says, are naturally an ideal fit for this style of play.
Already this year, the academy pipeline has paid dividends. Center-backs Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie have been regulars for the Union since last year, and midfielder Aaronson, in his first year in the league, already has 10 appearances and nine starts.
More homegrown players are coming along, something that Curtin is not shying away from.
"Our way is to build with youth, to build with players from the Philadelphia area," he said. "The investment that we've made in our school, we can put that up against any club, not just in our country but the world."
It might be an uphill battle for the Union to gain a toehold in this city. Philadelphia has never been associated as a hotbed for the sport despite a long history of playing soccer. It was the second-largest city in the United States to not have a venue host the World Cup in 1994, and they didn't receive an MLS team until the league's 15th season.
Baseball and football rule the roost in Philadelphia, with both franchises having developed deep and passionate fan bases that often go back generations. There is hope, however, that the Union can break through.
This is a city that, at the midpoint of the past century, turned to horse racing and boxing when the Phillies and Eagles were in the cellar of their respective leagues.
Curtin, who was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia and went to college locally at Villanova, understands the pulse of the city. This is a team, he argues, that will be easy for Philadelphia to get behind.
"It's no secret that Philadelphia loves to win first, but they do like to do it as an underdog," he said. "They do have the mentality that respect isn't given in this city, it is earned. I think little by little, our club is starting to earn that within the league, which is important.
"I think that so far this year, our team has certainly been emblematic of the city. Even when people didn't expect much, we've had some of our best performances. We're an underdog city."
And a club that Curtin thinks might be overlooked in the city and the league, despite their hot start. Truthfully, he is fine with that.
"Still the damn underdog," Curtin said. "That's fine."