Before he took a seat in Union principal owner Jay Sugarman’s suite for Sunday’s Eastern Conference final, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber visited the Sons of Ben supporters club’s pregame tailgate outside Subaru Park.
The commissioner has long held a soft spot for the Union, thanks in part to the years of vigorous campaigning by Philadelphia soccer fans to bring a team here. So it was no surprise to see him at one of the team’s biggest-ever games.
“The entire concept basically started in many ways with the Sons of Ben and their passion for bringing MLS to Philadelphia,” Garber told The Inquirer in an interview this week. “I feel close to the project and am really pleased to see their success, particularly recently. … It obviously wasn’t the result that the Union players and fans had hoped for, but I do think that it proves that this is a very well-run and managed team, and I’m happy for that.”
Garber particularly highlighted the Union’s success at winning games while developing elite young prospects and selling them to European clubs for major sums, as happened with Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie.
“They’ve proved the player development model can really work if you go about it thoughtfully and with strategic investment, and I’m proud of that,” he said.
Game would not be postponed
As Garber made his way through, he got an earful from some Union fans who demanded Sunday’s game be postponed because 11 players were sidelined by health and safety protocols. He wasn’t surprised by this, knowing it comes with the territory of being a commissioner who’s active on social media and enjoys engaging with fans.
But a postponement never was going to happen, for a number of reasons.
First, the Union had 20 healthy players to pick from, including three hardship reinforcements in goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh and academy-bred defenders Brandan Craig and Anton Sorenson. That was easily enough to make a game-day squad with. Jim Curtin even ended up leaving out Matt Real and Matheus Davó as healthy scratches.
Second, the championship game is set for this Saturday, and wasn’t going to be moved. Postponing the Eastern Conference final would have shortened a six-day turnaround to something even worse for the active players. If anything was going to happen, it would have been a cancellation and forfeit, not a postponement.
The third piece was most important. While we still don’t know exactly what landed the 11 players in the protocols, MLS executive vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche told The Inquirer that postponing the Eastern Conference final “a day or even a few days was not considered, as nearly every Union player in the health and safety protocol would remain unavailable to play” throughout that time span.
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“I can assure you that no Union players were in the MLS health and safety protocol due to a case of the sniffles,” Courtemanche said, a reference to Union manager Jim Curtin’s remark after Sunday’s game that “we had 11 guys that are healthy to play a soccer game that aren’t here, because they have a version of the sniffles.”
Curtin obviously said those words in the heat of a postgame lament about what could have been. And he spent plenty of time in that news conference talking about how seriously he takes the pandemic. But there was no confirmation until now that a postponement would have made little difference in freeing players to play.
“Players enter the health and safety protocol when they have tested positive for COVID-19 or are an unvaccinated high-risk close contact, and we hope that those affected by COVID-19 recover in short order and fully,” Courtemanche said.
Impressed by big crowd
In time, Sunday’s game will be remembered as an epic day in Union history, even if it was for unsatisfactory reasons. The Union’s playoff run will be remembered for not just the results, but the packed houses in Chester. Those electric crowds showed that the Union can get the attention of local sports fans without having a stadium at the sports complex or elsewhere within Philadelphia’s city limits.
Though Subaru Park’s listed capacity is 18,500, with standing-room tickets it can fit more than 19,000. That happened for the conference semifinal and final, with the latter drawing a stadium record crowd of 19,487.
That subject came up when Garber and Sugarman visited the Sons of Ben’s tailgate, joined by MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott, longtime former league and club executive Nelson Rodriguez, and Union part-owner Richard Leibovitch.
“We talked about the fact that there’s this view that the stadium location is a challenge, and it was proven — particularly in the playoffs — that’s just not true,” Garber said. “That stadium was packed; they had a record gate; you could see the energy in the entire market. So I just don’t subscribe to the fact that a stadium that is 10 miles from the heart of the downtown can’t be successful.”
That will be taken as a change of tune from Garber after the league spent years judging expansion teams on whether they could build stadiums in central locations. But as Garber noted, this year’s expansion team Austin FC built its stadium outside downtown; and Sporting Kansas City’s always-packed venue is in Kansas, a good half-hour from the Missouri city’s center.
Next year, Nashville SC will join that group with a new 30,000-seat soccer venue on the city’s fairgrounds, also beyond downtown. (The Union will be the first visitors, on May 1.)
The subject is, it seems, on a case-by-case basis these days — including for the endless quests to get NYCFC and the New England Revolution their own stadiums in New York and Boston, respectively.
Asked whether the spotlight on expansion has made getting those two venues built less of a priority, Garber gave a firm no.
“The league as a central body can only do so much to assist clubs in their stadium development projects … and with larger cities that have limited amounts of available affordable real estate, it’s just that much more difficult,” he said. “But I am confident that in time both teams will be playing in a soccer-specific stadium. So it is not because of expansion and the league’s ‘distraction’ on other things that we’re not focusing in on New York City or Boston.”
In the end, Philadelphia’s case isn’t so much about location as a lack of easy public-transit access. If that existed, there would be far fewer complaints.
Garber acknowledged this, saying “it’s a whole lot easier to walk to the stadium than it is to get into your car.”
But he left Chester with no doubts about what he had seen.
“If your team really matters, and it’s relevant, and you have a game that is an important match in the history of the club, people are going to go there,” he said. “And I think we’ve seen Philadelphia, which has had more on-field success of late than they had in the early years, proving that they could get people to go to the stadium, and not just go but have a great experience.”