Saturday’s match against the New York Red Bulls -- the last home game of this inaugural season for the Union -- may mean nothing in the standings for Philadelphia, but it’s one of the most highly-anticipated matches of the year for Peter Nowak’s side. Star-power is certainly one reason, as David Beckham and Landon Donovan showed on Saturday in front of a record crowd at PPL Park, but there’s more to it. Three subplots in particular make Saturday’s home finale intriguing.
First, the obvious: The Red Bulls are coming to town. If Philadelphia soccer fans disliked their neighbors to the North before this season, how about now that the Union actually exist in the flesh and New York went out and acquired two of the highest-priced Designated Players in MLS, Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez. After losing twice to NY within a four-day period in April (once in a U.S. Open Cup play-in), avoiding a season sweep is simply a matter of pride.
Preventing the Red Bulls from winning the Eastern Conference title may or may not provide additional incentive for the players, but it means something to plenty of Union fans who have rooted against New York since long before Philadelphia had a team to call their own. Especially when the Union have an opportunity to impact the outcome of the Eastern Conference race in their home grounds playing in front of a sold-out stadium on national television.
And if you want to ignore all of the aforementioned motivational factors, it’s hard to look past the most simplistic of them all: three points is three points.
Preparing for 2011
Inevitably, when playoff contention is no longer mathematically feasible, some percentage of a club’s focus turns to the next opportunity for meaningful success – in the Union’s case, the 2011 season.
Most immediately, a number of players are competing for safety in the upcoming two-team expansion draft, which will be held towards the end of November. While there are certainly some locks to be protected -- Sebastien Le Toux, anyone? -- the majority of the squad is playing to secure roles and roster spots for the club’s second go-around.
Age is certainly a factor -- all else equal, a younger player is likely to get the nod -- but expectations will be raised in year two and experience is invaluable. Will veterans like Alejandro Moreno, Fred and Stefani Miglioranzi see their roles change at all in 2011? Are youngsters such as Jack McInerney, Roger Torres and Amobi Okugo ready to assume more responsibility? Saturday’s match vs New York and the season finale against the Columbus Crew may not be 2011 “tryouts” per se, but they matter.
There have been a number of feel-good stories for the expansion Union. The emergence of Sebastien Le Toux as everything Philadelphia sports fans love in a professional athlete, the opening of a pristine waterfront soccer palace in the form of PPL Park, Danny Mwanga’s better-than-expected rookie season, and stretches of quality from a number of other promising young guns all come to mind. So, too, does the establishment of a true identity as an attacking, hard-working, never-say-die club. All signs of a promising future, one with certain potential for playoff contention in 2011.
But, no doubt, the number one story of the year has been the fans. Led by the Sons of Ben, PPL Park has received rave reviews for atmosphere, with Beckham remarking that "without a doubt, it is the way it should be. That is the atmosphere in Europe when you go to an away game, and I really enjoyed it." High praise from someone who has played at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, Old Trafford, Wembly and San Siro, among many others.
What stands out above all else is the connection between the players and the fans. Cheering unrelentingly during the match and staying long after, there is a special bond developing along the Chester Waterfront. While a 7-3-6 home record in all competitions is by no means disappointing, don’t be surprised if that mark improves in future seasons. If it improves on Saturday vs New York, the support of a fiercely loyal home crowd will be one major reason why.