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Union can't afford to lose fan base | John Smallwood

The winless Philadelphia Union and coach Jim Curtin are getting booed, which at least means the fans still care.

IF UNION sporting director Earnie Stewart wants to understand why the heat is on his head coach, Jim Curtin, he only has to ask Curtin.

Curtin grew up in Oreland as a hardcore, 4-for-4 Philadelphia sports fan.

He had not yet turned 4 when the Sixers won the NBA title in 1983 and then he waited a quarter century for the Phillies to bring the city its next major professional sports championship by winning the 2008 World Series.

For Curtin, "The Curse of Billy Penn" happened during the prime developmental years of his perceptions as a sports fan.

So when ESPN asked Stewart about the current criticism of the Union coach before Friday's 2-0 home loss to New York City F.C., and he said: "Let's put it this way; it's not from internally," Curtin could have told him that's not the point.

The loss to NYCFC leaves Philadelphia (0-4-2) as the only winless team in Major League Soccer. Their two points are fewest in the league, including including expansion teams Atlanta United F.C. and Minnesota United F.C.

Union fans are angry and upset and they let the team know it by giving the team a "Philadelphia Salute" as it walked off the field at Talen Energy Stadium.

"Yeah, they're not happy," Curtin said. "We haven't won, so yeah, that's obvious. I'm not surprised that there's boos in our home building."

Growing up, Curtin spent many frustrating seasons suffering through the likes of Eagles coach Rich Kotite, Phillies managers Lee Elia, Nick Leyva and Terry Francona, Sixers coaches Doug Moe, Fred Carter, John Lucas and Johnny Davis, and Flyers coaches Paul Holmgren, Bill Dineen and Terry Simpson.

He likely directed a catcall or two in their direction.

Curtin is now winless in his last 14 matches dating back to Aug. 27, 2016.

"I don't really run or hide, I think I've always been upfront and honest with everybody here," he said. "I know that it's a tough time, but I also know that we have a really good team."

The Union is dangling from a dangerous precipice.

The good thing about the boos is that they at least indicate Union fans still care about what's happening with the franchise.

Still, if things don't turn around quickly, there is the possibility of a long, quiet summer in Chester.

Apathy from its fan base is the worst thing that can happen to a team. The Union is starting to make its supporters feel comatose.

Granted, the Union has played just three home games, but the average attendance is just 16,262. In its seven previous seasons, it has always averaged more than 17,000.

Ask the Phillies and the Sixers what happens to attendance when losing becomes the expectation of the fan base.

It is true that Stewart is only in his second season as the head decision maker for the Union, but it is hard to ask fans to separate a reset for what has happened in the past.

The reason a front office is restructured is typically because of a sustained period without success that creates animosity from the fan base.

Once it has gotten to that point, ticket buyers have lost patience for anything but almost immediate improvement.

Fans might offer verbal support for a change of culture but they'll wait for things to actually improve before paying their money for it.

That has to be of concern for the Union.

Major League Soccer teams do not have massive revenue-generating television contracts like teams in the NFL, MLB or NBA.

So while the Phillies and Sixers can still turn nice profits while suffering attendance lags during lean seasons, the Union will be hurt financially if fans start staying away.

The troubling connection is that if fans voice their frustration by not paying for a bad product, Union chairman Jay Sugarman will continue to push the myth that Philadelphia is a small-market franchise.

By all factors - population, media market, fan interest, income - the Delaware Valley is a first-tier sport market.

If the pockets of Union ownership aren't deep enough, that's a personal issue.

You have to spend to win in professional sports.

When Union fans watch NYCFC international David Villa chip in a ridiculously difficult goal from beyond 50 yards to seal the win against their team, they have to ask why Union internationals Giliano Wijnaldum and Jay Simpson can't start for a winless team.

The frustration is percolating and Curtin is drawing the most heat because a coach is the easiest change to make.

Curtin had said that the current stretch of three home games would be important to getting the season on track.

The Union lost the first two by a combined score of 5-1. The homestand ends Saturday against Montreal.

"When you only look at winning and losing, yes, I understand it," Stewart said of people pointing at Curtin. "Do I think it's fair? No . . . We ask as a club - I myself ask Jim - to do certain things because this is our direction. This is who we are, and this is who we want to be for the future."

If the Union doesn't get things turned around quickly, the future in Philadelphia might be short for everybody connected with the team.

Curtin can also explain to Stewart why that would be.