May 12, 2009
Union is a good fit for Philly
I have to admit, when I first heard the name of Philadelphia’s Major League Soccer team, I thought to myself “just another bad name in a league full of them.”
But after hearing team President Tom Veit’s explanation of the name, where it came from and how it was selected, it seems perfect and has grown on me.
For more than a hundred years in this country (and Canada), team nicknames have usually been derived from characteristics of the teams themselves or the cities in which they play. Philadelphia’s Eagles represent the national bird. Phillies is a derivative of the city name, and 76ers of course reflects the history of the city.
Union does the same thing, while at the same time having the European soccer feel that MLS Commissioner Don Garber seems so fond of.
Unlike the other three recent MLS expansion additions, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, Philadelphia did not really have a storied and almost sacred soccer name. I had this conversation with Union CEO Nick Sackiewicz over a year ago. Spartans, Atoms and Fury, the names of the city’s three late North American Soccer League teams, never gained the local resonance that Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps have in their cities.
I lobbied a bit for using the name Spirit, as in Spirit of 76, which was the name of the Penn-Jersey club in the American Soccer League in the early 1990s and of which I was briefly team president, but I lost that argument and will now accept and embrace Union. I think other Philadelphia-area fans will, too.
Speaking at Monday’s unveiling of the name, Garber made mention of the fact that the league had previously tried to Americanize things, but is now changing its strategy – which is probably a mistake. MLS is trying to convert lovers of soccer to its brand, but it’s not that easy. Soccer is deeply rooted in the U.S., but in a very different way than in other parts of the world.
What MLS is trying to do is get that Club America, Man United or Juventus fan to follow the homegrown league, but Club America, Man United and Juventus are available to their fans every week on one of multiple soccer-only cable channels and online. Although their fans are fans of the game, they might be even harder to convert to MLS than the more casual soccer families that keep the neighborhood soccer parks busy every weekend. They also know Euro-wannabes when they see them, and are not impressed. They know that, under its current rules and salary structure, MLS cannot elevate its game to the level of the teams they follow from afar.
Garber seems to realize that, saying “we want to tap into not just the 18-34 year old male, but the hundreds of thousands of kids who play.” But many of the league’s Euro-centric image-building strategies can have quite the opposite effect.
MLS teams don’t have to have European-sounding names or unilaterally reject U.S. traditions of sports nomenclature just to establish their credentials as “real” pro soccer teams.
Remember, soccer in its early days in this country was dominated by ethnic teams and ethnic leagues. Although professional soccer in the United States dates back to the 1920s, it did not become a mainstream spectator sport until the NASL Americanized things in the 60s and 70s. When MLS came along, it made a concerted effort to stay away from anything that smacked of the NASL, but in doing so they separated themselves from a fairly recent local soccer tradition that might have given them a leg up in those early seasons. Out with the Earthquakes, in with the Clash. Out with the Rowdies, in with the Mutiny. More recently-christened MLS teams have had the good sense to change that policy, to recognize and embrace team names that have become synonymous with the soccer in their local markets.
Of course, the problem goes beyond team names, to the league’s apparent desire to replicate the rough and raucous European stadium atmosphere at its matches.
Sure, the Sons of Ben are colorful and extremely supportive. Hopefully they will be more civil than other MLS Supporters groups we’ve seen. It’s the uncivil atmosphere as much as anything else that keeps those soccer moms and dads from taking their kids to MLS games. I’ve heard it many times from friends in New Jersey and New York, who won’t go to Red Bulls games, and seen parents trying to hustle their children away from the eardrum-busting torrent of obscenities served up well-lubricated fan groups in DC and elsewhere.
Here’s an idea. Let’s take the best from Europe and the best from family-oriented American sports, then, to quote the Declaration of Independence, “form a more perfect Union.”