By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 15, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Consider all that’s happened. The departure of the team’s top goalkeeper, the trading of the team’s biggest star, and the (understandable) angry reaction on the part of a new and still-solidifying fan base. That's the reality for the Philadelphia Union, something no one outside of their front office should've seen coming.
With that in mind, Philadelphia CEO Nick Sakiewicz was almost obligated to write an open letter to his club’s faithful fans attempting to explain why this off-season has been so tumultuous. Whether his explanation - thick as it was with the code words for “rebuilding” and “we’re not going to spend a lot” -satisfies the fans is still an open question. The Union need to show their series of controversial and confounding moves worked. That means they have to win.
Clubs don’t jettison their leading scorer, their emotional leader, and the first real star player to wear the colors without some backlash. Particularly when that player showed no signs of slowing down, and particularly when the player showed no desire to leave. Yet, that’s what the Union did with Sebastien Le Toux, and you’ll have to excuse Union fans if they’re a tad confused by the sudden turn of events.
From the outside, the handling of Le Toux's trial at Bolton and subsequent trade to Vancouver seem to be at odds with what this club is supposed to be about. Le Toux didn’t hold back on his way out of Philadelphia, stoking the fires of discontent with some harsh words for how the club handled his departure. The whole thing is a bit of a mess, something new for Philadelphia.
The ride this far has been rosy. The Union debuted to passionate crowds in a brand new stadium with all of the shiny good feelings that newness brings with it. For the first two years, it was (mostly) enough that the Union existed, their story of the MLS expansion team willed into being by a group of committed fans, with the help of the requisite ownership group and a nearby locality of course, reverberating in a ready-made professional soccer city. At some point, however, the Union were bound to slip up. Or, looking at it from a different perspective, they were bound to make moves the fans weren’t going to like.
Like other MLS clubs before them, it's a transition to sports business as usual. Soccer is not an exception to the standard practices of North American professional team sports. Like the Phillies, Flyers, 76ers, and Eagles, the Union (we now know) will go about their business as they see fit, with little regard for fan favorites, loyalty, or emotional attachment.
Unfortunately, Philadelphia's response has fallen victim to the same trap that's snared so many clubs when it comes to “explaining” unpopular moves to the fans. Buzzwords abound, and while MLS fans might be better versed in the jargon of their League than most, the letter can’t help but come off as obfuscation. The word “strategic” appears three separate times in the letter to fans, “resources” five times, and Sakiewicz goes to great pains to point out the team’s need to “balance acquisition finances.”
Even if the Union’s odd moves are “strategic” in nature, it’s the lack of clarity over the strategy combined with the callous nature of the execution of that strategy that concerns Union fans. Le Toux wasn’t expensive, and though he was due for a salary increase, the club shouldn’t have had a problem signing him to a contract that would keep him one of the bargains in the League. If the Union staff determined he still wasn’t worth the expenditure, that was ultimately their call. But it better work.
Philadelphia has already completed the transition from wide-eyed new kid on the block to budget-conscious club. It was bound to happen at some point, so perhaps now is as fine a time as any.
This is a crucial year for the Union, but only because they created the situation themselves. Win, and everything will be fine, the letter will be true, and Philadelphia will remain a bubble of happy soccer fans. Lose, and the letter not only rings hollow in retrospect, it smacks of the worst kind of club-to-fan patronization. The Union won’t be the feel-good story in town at all anymore. Instead, they'll be just another letdown, turning the hard-earned money of their fans into lackluster results while they ship out quality players in an effort to save a buck.
It wasn’t a realistic belief that Philadelphia would act any differently when it came to the business of building a team. But the Union are still in that initial era of good feelings. Every goal is a joy. Every win a marvel. Expectations don’t matter because everyone is just happy to be there. Discord sown by the team under-performing builds slowly. When the whole world is smiling, it’s a shock to the system when things get real.
More From Jason Davis: