As discussed last week, the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer is a terrible soccer team. This point is indisputable to all humans (and certain intelligent animals, like dolphins) and particularly obvious to the unfortunate souls who occupy the stands of PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania.
Tonight, the 1-7-3 Union has a home game against current Eastern Conference leaders, D.C. United. The Union will probably not win this game, because, again, it’s terrible. Philly’s largest supporters’ group, the Sons of Ben, is about fed up with said terribleness and plans to make a visual and vocal display of their frustrations at tonight’s game.
On rare occasions, supporters’ groups will stand up to clubs for what they feel are unjust treatment from heavy-handed stadium security, or unnecessary restrictions on supporters’ privileges. These issues can be hammered out and compromised in meetings between supporter leadership and teams’ front offices.
When supporters understand that they are the single greatest advertisement for their team, it affords them a certain amount of leverage, as long as they’re smart enough to understand that in the end, what we support in MLS is a collection of franchises, and “football clubs” in name only. If these fans believe they are being treated unfairly, or an organization isn’t making an honest effort to match their personal investments, songs and banners to get that point across can be an effective first step to letting the club know that there’s a serious demand for change.
But protests without a follow-up – particularly one that impacts a club financially – can ring hollow. And despite their increasing frequency in MLS, fan protests, more often than not, come off as the cries of spoiled children. Most of the protests (a misuse of the word, here) tend to boil down to something very basic: the team sucks. Philadelphia fans will arrive at PPL Park today, carrying a banner that reads “Union fans deserve better”, and they will be dead wrong.
There are certain things that supporters of a modern MLS team should expect, and the Philadelphia Union has provided them. The Union plays in a new stadium, designed for soccer at a reasonable distance from the city’s center. The front office has made real attempts to fill the roster with players good enough to be annual playoff participants. There has been no shyness about replacing a coach for a perceived better option. An academy system has been put in place and a relationship with a lower-division team has been established. Philadelphia has even landed a network television deal, the holy grail of MLS broadcast rights. The one thing that the Philadelphia Union has not given to its fans is on-field success.
The Union are 1-7-4 not because of a lack of effort from its front office, but from a lack of skill within it. These are two wildly different things. No fanbase “deserves” a winner. Showing up every week, or out-singing traveling support, doesn’t affect the league standings. Tifo has never earned anyone a spot in MLS Cup. Losing is a part of sports. It sucks, but even in a league that thrives on parity, it is the inevitable lot in life for some fans. Unfortunately (for the fans), it’s the lot that has been cast for the Union.
Yes, Union fans, your front office is a disaster, and there’s no real reason to have faith in them to deliver a better on-field product to you in the near future. But a “protest” is going to do absolutely nothing to change that. The people in charge may be terrible at assembling a team, but not for a lack of trying. Making a public display of pouting and stamping your feet isn’t a solution. All it has done is limit the impact of making a vocal stand for something real and justifiable later. Telling your team that you “deserve better” – especially in this half-hearted way that won’t actually carry into the stadium – isn’t making a statement, it’s crying wolf.