The funeral begins at parking lot C, marching slowly past the team’s corporate offices and into the plaza, where kids kick soccer balls on a grassy expanse and folks line up for fast-food giveaways. It’s a gorgeous spring evening in Chester, at the city’s biggest attraction — PPL Park, the waterfront coliseum that’s home to Philadelphia’s pro soccer team, the Union. The stadium is also the rallying point for the most dedicated fan base in town, the Sons of Ben. Before tonight’s match against rival D.C. United, they’re marching in unison to protest the team’s front office. Loudly. “We’ve had enough!” they chant while carrying a massive banner that reads UNION FANS DESERVE BETTER. They’re also carrying a coffin for the team’s CEO, whose photograph is labeled “Serial Franchise Killer.”
In a region that’s seen more than its fair share of disappointment in sports, this memorial service for a still-living team executive signifies a whole new level of fan frustration. The Union arrived in 2010 with much hype, and made the playoffs in their second year. They haven’t sniffed the post-season since. “We went from a team that was close to being a contender into rebuilding mode,” says David Fiorito, an early member of the Sons of Ben (or SoBs, as they’re proudly and appropriately known). “We’ve been rebuilding ever since.”
Full disclosure here: For most of their existence, I didn’t care about the Union’s woes. I’m the kind of soccer fan who watches the World Cup and the Olympics to root for the U.S., other underdogs, and cool foreign guys with names like Hulk and the Flea. Which means I’m not much of a fan at all. (And I don’t need some elitist Premier League devotee from Delco lecturing me on “the beautiful game” to convince me otherwise.)
But lately, I’ve come to wonder if my apathy about the Union just might be misplaced. Because when you look closely, you start to see that the team possesses all the hallmarks that define our city’s sports dysfunction. In just six years of the Union’s existence, it seems the Ghosts of Philly Sports Past have been summoned to haunt the upstart franchise. Which means that the most Philly team in Philadelphia right now just might be the Union.
When Union CEO and managing partner Nick Sakiewicz spearheaded the campaign to bring Major League Soccer to town in 2006, the love affair between him and the Sons of Ben reached get-a-room levels of PDA. It was easy to see why — Sak, as he’s known, is well-spoken, passionate about fútbol, and a former pro soccer player. He also bought beer for several hundred Sons of Ben members when the Union deal was made official. (This is not unique to Philadelphia, but nothing buys fan loyalty like free suds.) Today, it’s Sakiewicz’s face on that mock coffin, accompanied by the hashtag “#Sakout.”
As quickly as optimism arrived for the new franchise, the Union’s decline began, in ways that are straight out of some unwritten Philly front-office playbook. Fans have seen a rotating cast of coaches (three in just six seasons) that makes the Flyers look patient by comparison; questionable draft picks (similar to Eagles first rounders Marcus Smith, who recorded zero solo tackles in his first season, and Danny Watkins, who has returned to firefighting); and head-scratching roster moves, like the dismantling of what was one of the league’s best defenses in 2011 (sort of how the once-mighty Phillies gloves are now among baseball’s most error-prone).
One constant through all of the Union’s struggles has been Sakiewicz, and he’s now feeling Ruben Amaro Jr. levels of heat. “People view Nick as public enemy number one,” says Kevin Kinkead of CBS Philly, who’s covered the team since its inception. “The honeymoon period was over years ago.” (Short love affairs with sports execs — so Philadelphian.)
It’s long been rumored that Sakiewicz does more behind the scenes than just handle business affairs, as his title — and the man himself — suggests. Sakiewicz denies making decisions about the roster, but Kinkead evokes a name that sends shivers down the spine of every Eagles fan. “I don’t know if Jerry Jones is a fair comparison,” he says of Sakiewicz, referring to the not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is Cowboys owner, “but he wants to be involved.”
Making Sak’s job tougher is the fact that he’s the face of an ownership group recalling the late-’90s-through-mid-2000s Phillies: mysterious, unaccountable, and tight with the purse strings. The Union’s stadium, PPL Park, broke ground in December 2008, just as the nation’s economy was crumbling. As a result, all the feel-good projects surrounding the stadium never materialized. It’s also presumed principal team owner Jay Sugarman — whose business, iStar Financial, is tied to commercial real estate — can’t invest as much in the team as he would have if the recession hadn’t happened. To be fair, much of what you hear about Sugarman is speculation, given his Sam Hinkie-esque aversion to recording devices; he’s spoken to the media exactly once in the team’s history.
In that lone press conference last year, Sugarman talked about the need to groom young talent “as the long-term way to keep the Union competitive against teams that, you know, possibly will have greater resources than we will.” That’s a strange thing to say about a pro sports team in the fourth-largest television market in the country. But it also sounds familiar, suggesting that Sugarman and Sak are running the Union like a “small-market team,” as former Phillies president Bill Giles once dubbed his ball club. Luckily for the Union’s brass, its fans are still showing up — understandable, given that they haven’t suffered for decades. But they’re catching up.
A team in desperate need of a stud goaltender churns through a long list of net-minders. When ownership finally decides to pay top dollar for the best backstop available, he flops and is run out of town.
This scenario sums up the Flyers, with their revolving door of goalies and the signing of Ilya Bryzgalov, who became best known for allowing soft goals and his Borat-meets-Stephen Hawking musings on the universe. It also describes the Union and its goalie saga, which is somehow even more of a soap opera.
As of the D.C. United match at PPL Park this season, the Union had started three different goalies in just 12 games. The first to get benched was high-priced recruit Raïs M’Bolhi, who dominated for Algeria in last year’s World Cup only to see his mojo slip away the second he put on a Union jersey. M’Bolhi’s defense was so porous — nine goals in the first five games of 2015 — that he was sent away from the team to get his mind right. He hasn’t played a game since, and none of his replacements have inspired any confidence. In this town, if you’re paid to stand in front of a net, you’re likely going to fail. (Old Philly sports curse: Billy Penn. New: Pelle Lindbergh.)
The guy in goal is just one of many problems the Union face, especially this season. Imagine if the Phillies lost six starters from their lineup at once. (Maybe that wouldn’t make much of a difference this year, but humor me.) At times the Union sideline has looked like a grassy triage — a forward with a fractured cheek and a concussion (plus, later, a bonus DUI), a midfielder with a bum ankle, and, in one practice alone, two goaltenders who hurt themselves. It’s a collection of walking wounded that Chip Kelly would appreciate, or for that matter Sam Hinkie, with his soft spot for drafting players who need a year’s worth of rehab. But unlike the Sixers, tanking is not an option. The Union need to win now.
Then there’s the time-honored tradition of underperformance. Freddy Adu was a child prodigy — at 14, he became the youngest pro athlete in any American sport, and was hailed as the next Pelé. Adu’s arrival in Philly at age 22 wasn’t exactly a game-changer, the way Andrew Bynum joining the Sixers could have been. But like our least-favorite ex-center/amateur bowler, Adu had a marquee profile and David Beckham-like potential. As any cynical Philly sports fan would expect (see also: Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Vinny Lecavalier), Adu’s star fizzled here. “The Union’s big-ticket items have not worked out,” says the Inquirer’s Marc Narducci, who could say the same of those of all the other local teams.
Nothing defines a true Philly team more than the dreaded letdown, and the Union have mastered the art of the last-second disappointment. Of the nine games they’ve lost by a goal or tied at press time this season, five slipped away in the closing minutes. That tradition dates back to the historic collapse of the 1964 Phillies — who lost 10 of their last 12 games and missed what seemed like a guaranteed World Series appearance — and continued through 2014, when the Eagles missed the playoffs in the second-to-last week of the season. Asked which letdown game hurt the most, Sons of Ben member Fiorito sighs: “They’re all so bad, they’re blurring together.” If the city ever erects a sign welcoming fans to the South Philly sports complex, that should appear as our motto.
Last month the Trocadero hosted the premiere of Sons of Ben: The Movie, a documentary about the quixotic efforts of a small band of enthusiasts to bring soccer to Philadelphia. Before the team had a name — or existed at all — the perfectly monikered SoBs made light-blue scarves, held rallies, and traveled to other cities to cheer loudly and obnoxiously (in true Philly fashion) for a club that was purely theoretical. “I’m a huge Philly sports fan,” says Fiorito. “But the Sons of Ben are unique. It really feels like a family. They interact on a daily basis, work together in the stands, raise money for charity. I don’t see the same for any other sport.”
Yet like the Big Four pro teams, the Union’s fans have little to show for their loyalty. (In a sense, the Union is a bit like the expansion Flyers in the late ’60s: blue-collar players, a passionate fan base, but with full sets of teeth and no real hope of back-to-back championships.) The Sons of Ben still turn out in force at the “River End” of PPL Park, but unlike in past years, you don’t need to know a guy to score a ticket; any mook can grab a pair of seats in the supporters’ section for most games. “The fans are frustrated,” says SoB president Kenny Hanson. “But the Sons of Ben are going to be there no matter what happens.”
For now, attendance is still strong; home games average 17,500 fans, just a thousand shy of capacity (and not much less than some Phillies games are drawing). In their willingness to suffer through tough times, the Union faithful have proven more like boosters of the Eagles and Flyers than of the Sixers or Phillies. But when diehards who wear “SoB Til I Die” scarves are choosing to watch from their sofas, it’s time for some soul-searching in Chester. One Sons of Ben member asked where they could get a thousand paper bags to wear on their heads at the next home game. He was only half joking.
Hours after the SoBs’ funeral march into the stadium, their squad provided a rare glimpse of hope for the future. The Union was trying to avoid a record-setting five-game losing streak against a D.C. team that had won eight in a row, and in the waning moments of a scoreless contest, fans braced for another late letdown. In stoppage time, a miracle was delivered — a crisp crossing pass, and a decisive shot (by a kid from Upper Dublin High!) past the sprawling D.C. goalie to give the Union a win. It was only the second victory of the season, and as smokebombs and delirium spread in Chester, it was easy to forget that the Union is a team from Philly, where disappointment is never far away.
Originally published as “Union Trouble” in the July 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
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