By Mico Carpiniello (Reporter ‘25)
Greetings to my most dedicated readers! I’m glad my last article didn’t scare you off, because the number of predictions I got wrong is pretty frightening. Even so, I promised I’d grade my NFL playoff predictions following the results of the games, so here it is:
First things first, some wild results in Week 18 of the NFL regular season seriously screwed up my predicted seeding. In particular, the Steelers and Raiders eked their way into the playoffs while the Colts slipped on a banana peel, gracelessly face-planting in their matchup against the 3-14 Jaguars to miss out on the postseason. But I guess that’s what I get for trying to be all fancy and make my playoff picks a week before the end of the season. Because the seeding was significantly off, it’s hard to fairly grade my picks, but I’ll give it a shot. I got half the wild card round winners correct, and also went fifty-fifty in the divisional round. I missed the Chiefs’ loss in the AFC Championship but did have the Rams advancing over the 49ers in the NFC Championship. But throw that all out. Crumple it up in a ball and chuck it in the garbage. I might have picked the Bengals to lose in the first round, but that’s irrelevant at this point. All that really matters is the big game. You know, the one for the trophy. And on the biggest Sunday of the year, the Rams won the Super Bowl and I predicted it and at the end of the day that’s all that matters.
Final Grade: A-
Now that’s out of the way, let’s dig in. Football is interesting, but if you want to know the truth, it doesn’t come near the sport of soccer. You may love football, you may not, either is fine, but what I’m really here to tell you today is that you should support the Philadelphia Union. Let me elaborate.
Here’s something that might shock you: the Union is actually good. Good, as in, by-far better than every other Philly sports team. Woah! He just said what?! But yes, you heard me right. The Philadelphia Union is more competitive than the Eagles, Sixers, Flyers, and definitely the Phillies. I’m a guy who likes numbers, so let me give you the stats. First, the Union has only been around for twelve seasons. In that time, they’ve made three final appearances, won a trophy, and made it to the semifinal of Concacaf Champions League, the paramount soccer tournament in all of North America. This alone separates “The U” from their fellow Philly teams. The Sixers haven’t won a ring in almost 40 years(!), and haven’t made it past the conference semifinals for 20 years. It’s hard to count out the Super-Bowl-winning season from recent Eagles history, but apart from that glorious run, the Birds have been painfully mediocre. The Flyers have won just one playoff game in the last nine years. And the Phillies haven’t made the playoffs once in the last ten years. But there’s more. The Union used to be bad. Worst-in-MLS bad. But in the last four years, the Union has skyrocketed to the top of MLS (Major League Soccer). In the 19/20 season, the Union finished with the best regular-season record in the league, earning themselves the Supporter’s Shield trophy. This past year, the Union finished second in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the semifinals of the MLS Cup, only to lose half their starters to COVID protocols and fall to eventual winners NYCFC by a single goal. The Union’s lights-out defense is unmatched, led by Andre Blake, the best goalkeeper in MLS, along with Jacob Glesnes and Jack Elliot, the best center back pairing in the league. And the Union just made a record signing this month, penning Danish striker Mikael Uhre to a three-year deal to bolster the attack.
While all these statistics are great, a fan’s experience isn’t defined just by the numbers. It’s by the experiences of supporting their team, the unforgettable moments of ecstasy and wonder and heartbroken defeat. And don’t worry, the Union has had quite a few of these moments in just their short history. During the 18/19 season, the Union were down 2-0 against their hated rivals the New York Red Bulls. But Brazilian super-sub Ilsinho had something else in mind, coming off the bench to spearhead a 3-2 comeback win. Dancing his way past bewildered New York defenders, Ilsinho scored twice and assisted once. Pretty great, huh? Well there’s more. Later in that same season, the Union were once again pitted against the Red Bulls, this time in the playoffs, and found themselves trailing once again, this time 3-1. “The Boys in Blue” proceeded to pull off yet another stunning comeback, leveling the game at 3-3 before Marco Fabián sealed the 4-3 victory in extra time. This kind of comeback is almost unheard of. You must be thinking, Wow, I can’t believe this team. Well guess what…they did it AGAIN! The Union and Red Bulls met once more last November, once again in the playoffs. The game remained scoreless through the ninety minutes of regular time, and neither team could find the net through thirty minutes of extra time. But in the 123 minute, with likely the last kick of the game, center back Jacob Glesnes hit a scorching strike to the top corner of the goal to call the game. (Glesnes has a history of these kinds of freakish goals, including a strike against Atlanta that bounced off the crossbar three times and a 35-yard free kick goal against LAFC. I can see you pulling up YouTube now.) These three games against New York are possibly the most memorable soccer experiences I have had. The following playoff game against Nashville FC also went down to the wire, this time to penalty kicks. Andre Blake came up huge with two penalty saves for another spectacular victory.
But Union history isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Remember when I mentioned the Union have made three final appearances? Well, I hate to say it, but they lost all three. Each time, I’d get my hopes up, and each time I’d come crashing down to earth. I’d rather not go into the details. But that’s how sports are. Ups and downs.
And sports aren’t just about winning or losing either. Sports are about your connection to the team, and the team’s connection with the city. The Union exhibits the hardworking, underdog spirit of Philadelphia. They can grind out a win when they need to, playing stubborn defense to frustrate their opponent. But the Union can also work brilliant passing combinations, culminating in a stunning goal. The Union’s counter-attacking style, built on their rock-solid defense, allows them to compete with the best, even the wealthiest teams with the flashiest players. The Union is far from a “big” club, even by MLS standards, and doesn’t have the resources of teams like Atlanta United, LA Galaxy, and Inter Miami. But they make up for it with shrewd transfer moves and promoting from within. Sporting Director Ernst Tanner has signed a multitude of top players at little to no cost that have become the core of the team, including veteran Alejandro Bedoya, midfielder José Andrés Martínez, and left back Kai Wagner. In fact, on only four occasions have the Union spent over $1 million to sign a player. The Union also boasts the best academy in the country according to SoccerWire, and over a third of their squad is made up of homegrown players. The Union have groomed and grown local talent to produce players such as Brenden Aaronson, whom the Union sold to Austrian club RB Salzburg for a record $6.5 million last year. Aaronson has recently become a starter for the US National Team. There’s Mark McKenzie too, whom the Union transferred to Belgian club KRC Genk for $6 million around the same time. McKenzie has also made appearances for the national team. And a host of the Union’s academy players currently play for the under-20 national team. This underdog story, of a not-so-wealthy team forcing its way to the top through clever transfers and promoting of local talent, is one that should inspire the hearts of Philadelphians and light their passion on fire!
Perhaps most important is the Union’s strong, intimate bond with its community. The Union is the most accessible Philly sports team because of its cheaper ticket prices. The Union play at Subaru Park, a small but homey stadium with no bad seats (I promise, there actually aren’t any bad seats). This close-knit community means that fans get to know the players better, learning each of their individual personalities and unique playing styles. For example, the aforementioned Jakob Glesnes is known for his cannon of a leg that enables him to score from anywhere on the field. So when the big Norwegian gets the ball, Subaru Parks roars, “Shoooooooooot!!!!” And of course there’s the Doop song, the almost-sacred hype music played each time “The Boys in Blue” find the back of the net. The Union also hosts a multitude of community service events. They hold a fifty/fifty raffle each game, in which half of the total collected is donated to charity. The Union also supports local youth soccer in underserved neighborhoods. The Union even stepped up during the pandemic, donating masks, face shields, and hand sanitizers to healthcare workers and local residents. These kinds of actions in the community make a fan feel proud to support their team.
There are two things I look for to categorize a sports team as worthy of support. The first is a good amount of success (but not too much, because a team that wins everything isn’t any fun), and their connection with the fans. The Philadelphia Union exemplifies both of these characteristics, competing with the best while also staying accessible to fans. Sadly, the Union doesn’t get the recognition they deserve from the local Philly community. But soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and it’s growing in both the United States and in Philadelphia, so I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about the Union soon. But the time to be a fan is now. The Union is a relatively new team, making history every season, and you can be a part of that history. The Union wants and deserves your unwavering support. There isn’t much else to say. Just go buy a ticket now!
Until next time, my friends. Sayonara!
P.S. The MLS season is right around the corner! The Union hosts Minnesota United for their first match of the 2022 season on February 26 at 1:00 pm with tickets starting around $30.