Nearly every soccer team has a player wearing the number nine. In the early years of the sport, starters always wore numbers one through 11, and as tactics and preferred team shapes changed the number nine was often the player furthest up the pitch.

Thus nine became mythologized. The great goalscorers wanted the weight of that number, and those that broke into the senior team would quickly request it the moment it became available. Unlike other sports, soccer does not retire numbers for all time. Instead, numbers take on both positional and club-specific narratives, and none are more consistent than nine: The goalscorer.

Yet, Philadelphia Union are entering the 2020 season with, at present, no number nine. Kacper Przybylko, last year’s top goalscorer and the club’s likely talisman this year, has kept the No. 23 jersey. Sergio Santos remains No. 17, and Andrew Wooten has stuck with No. 7. Young attackers Michee Ngalina and Jack de Vries have not been so bold to request the legendary number either.

Some may see this as a warning sign: Why does no player want the nine? Do they not believe in themselves?

Ernst Tanner and Jim Curtin likely see things far differently, Curtin has, for years, pounded home his belief that the team is always more important than the individual. No single player will make or break a Curtin-led side, and no matter what number is on the back of a kit, it is the badge on the front that should drive you.

Tanner, similarly, has scoffed at signing individualistic players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He sees competitive advantages in creating a club culture in which the shape of the team and the play of the group is more important to each individual than their own statistics. Wear the number nine, wear the number 79: It does not matter. Winning is an outcome of a strong mentality shared across a group of 20-plus individuals, and the number you wear is simply how the referee writes you into his book.

So with nine days until the start of the 2020 Union season, there is no reason to wonder who will be this year’s No. 9. It may be No. 23 or No. 17. It could be a player that has yet to arrive or one that is patiently waiting his turn to break out. Heck, it could even be Ilsinho — after last season, it’s fair to believe he can do absolutely anything he wants.

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