When Philadelphia Union commenced play as the 16th team in Major League Soccer just over five months ago, the region gained more than a stake in the top-flight of domestic soccer. There is no sport more worldly than “The Beautiful Game,” and having a regional club inherently engenders comparisons to other sides around the globe.
The perception of MLS has long been one of inferiority, but that image -- and reality -- is rapidly shifting. The league may not be on par with the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliga just yet, but the gap has narrowed and is continuing to close with the accelerating influx of both talent and teams.
As a founding executive of MLS and former professional goalkeeper, Union CEO & Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz understands the challenges a 15-year-old league faces, as well the importance of measuring up against top international competition on a regular basis. As a result, Sakiewicz set out to introduce the Philadelphia region to the highest level of soccer, a mission that has been nothing short of wildly successful.
“It’s been a great summer of soccer and year of soccer in the Philadelphia area,” Sakiewicz told philadelphiaunion.com on Wednesday. "With the World Cup and MLS season, bringing Manchester United, Celtic, Chivas de Guadalajara, the U.S. Women’s National Team, the U.S. Men’s National Team (twice), it has to be an incredible treat to the soccer fans in the Philadelphia area.
“And that was our objective. We wanted to bring professional soccer to Philadelphia in a big way. We did it with MLS, we’re doing it with these internationals and that was the goal. We’re going to do that every year.”
Beyond the obvious benefit for soccer fans who waited patiently for over a decade to stand behind a club of their own, facing high-profile international outfits is invaluable for the on-field development of an expansion side like the Union. It’s also an important platform upon which to illuminate the rising caliber of play in MLS to soccer fans who may not otherwise take notice.
“We’re one year old,” Sakiewicz said. “We just started. Like any new franchise, there has been this perception out there that the quality of MLS doesn’t hold up to great teams around the world. 1-0 against Celtic. 0-1 against Manchester United and arguably some people said we should’ve won that game, but we put in a lot of our young guys in the second half. And I’m sure we’ll play well against Chivas tonight.
“That’s part of the strategy. Not just to say we’re as good as they are, but to prove it on the playing pitch. You can ask [United Manager Sir] Alex Ferguson. I think he got a good run for his money here. Kansas City beat him. Those games are important to us because it continues to show that the perception (that MLS is far inferior) isn’t a reality. We have good players, we have world-class players, and they can stand toe-to-toe with a Manchester United, a Celtic, or a Chivas.”
[inline_node:286903]With Guadalajara coming to PPL Park Wednesday night to complete a powerhouse trio of friendlies in Philadelphia’s inaugural season, one might think the Union sought a match against the beloved Mexican side as a way to gain exposure to the Hispanic community in the region. Not so, according to Sakiewicz, even though that may be a positive side-effect.
“No, Chivas is a great team like Manchester United and Celtic,” he explained. “(It doesn’t matter) whether the team is from Mexico, or England, or Scotland. Maybe next year we bring a Korean or Japanese team here. Our goal is to bring good football clubs here.
“We have a pretty dynamic Hispanic following. They come to watch the Union play against the San Jose Earthquakes. So it’s really not about outreach to a particular ethnic community. It’s about just bringing good football teams here. And Chivas is one of the best. They played in the Copa Liberadores final. That’s really the sole objective. To bring top-shelf, great international clubs here.”
Strong performances against Manchester United and Celtic have been two highlights in a milestone-filled season for the Union, albeit one that has been frustrating at times. Results have often been disproportionate to the product fielded by Manager Peter Nowak and his staff, but Sakiewicz is anything but discouraged. In fact, the club’s co-owner and first employee is thrilled with the progress made in a short time and intensely optimistic about the club’s future.
“We’re very pleased with this year,” Sakiewicz said. “If you were to paint this inaugural season out for us three to four years ago, we would’ve been ecstatic to look into the crystal ball and see what we see. It’s been a great year, and there’s still a lot of soccer left in it. We love the way this team is playing. We love the way this organization is building a culture together with its fans.
“We couldn’t be happier with the results on the field and off the field. Would we have liked more points in the standings? Of course. But I think what we’ve done from January until today is an immense accomplishment. This team is young, it’s hungry, it’s aggressive, its style of play is fun to watch, and we’re just going to continue to get better.”
As MLS continues along its current upward trajectory, comparisons to top clubs and leagues around the world will grow stronger. But with Philadelphia proving their mettle against top competition in just their first year of existence, and other MLS clubs fairing well on the international scene in their own right, perhaps it's better to let the ongoing debate play out on the pitch.