When the Union kick off against New York City FC in Orlando just after 9 a.m. Thursday, it will be the first game played by any Philadelphia-area pro sports team since the Phillies beat the Rays in a spring-training game on March 12.
The last official contest for a local team was the day before that, when the 76ers’ beat the Pistons at the Wells Fargo Center.
You can put Major League Soccer’s insistence on playing its summer tournament in Orlando into a lot of contexts, and a lot of them aren’t positive. Coronavirus cases continue to soar in Florida and nationwide, and MLS’s best attempts to build a secure bubble at Disney World haven’t stopped three teams from carrying cases in from afar.
Some fans, players, and media have complained loudly. They are right to ask whether this tournament should be played in the first place.
But MLS has soldiered on, and it will continue to unless there’s another big virus outbreak on site. There’s too much at stake to not try.
It’s not just about money from TV. The league has an even bigger opportunity this month, and it comes from the first sentence of this story.
Right now, the Union are the only Philadelphia sports team in actual action.
The Union have never had this big a share of the local sports stage. They might never again. The opportunity is impossible to ignore.
It’s not true for just the Union. Sixteen of the 25 MLS teams in the tournament (including Nashville for now, but not FC Dallas) will be the first pro sports teams in their local markets to resume playing games after the coronavirus outbreak shut sports down four months ago. Thirteen of the 16, including the Union, will play before their local Major League Baseball team does.
Those numbers are just as important as the MLS tournament’s national telecasts on ESPN, Fox, FS1, and Spanish-language TUDN. Each of those networks will have one Union group stage game, starting with ESPN’s showing of Thursday’s match with NYCFC.
Here’s something else that the anti-tournament chorus — including the anonymous “MLSCovidCup” Twitter account that has become a viral sensation — probably won’t like hearing. Though the players who don’t want to play are right to speak up, a lot of their colleagues do want to play.
“I’m looking forward to the game — I was missing that,” said Union forward Kacper Przybylko, the team’s top scorer and the first player in MLS known to have contracted COVID-19.
Przybylko saluted his teammates for following the rules, and believes everyone else can too.
“If everybody’s just doing their job and being professionals, I think everything’s going to be good here,” he said. “We all agreed to the terms, and I think that the terms are very good here. So let’s just be professional, let’s do our job, and have fun.”
The Union-NYCFC matchup should be a good one. New York won the Eastern Conference regular-season title last year. The team has a strong midfield led by Alex Ring and Maxi Moralez, and two dynamic forwards in Héber and Alexandru Mitriță
The Union have been a trendy pick for a deep tournament run. Remember the 3-3 tie at powerhouse Los Angeles FC on March 8? It was the best game in the league at the start of the year.
Circumstances are different now, not least because of Orlando’s ferocious weather. It remains to be seen whether the Union’s fast-pace pressing style will hold up in high heat and humidity.
But the pieces are there, from Mark McKenzie in back to Jamiro Monteiro in midfield to Przybylko up top. Manager Jim Curtin has raved about midfielder José Martínez’s work in practice, and forward Jack de Vries could become the team’s next academy product to make an impact.
“I truly believe that our starting 11, we can compete with anybody in this league,” Union midfielder and captain Alejandro Bedoya said. “We’re going to really see what everybody can bring to the table. In this format, I think it allows for guys who maybe don’t play as much to take a big role, and to show what they’ve got.”
Hold your nose and cover your eyes if you want. Certainly hope that no one else gets sick, a sentiment everyone will agree with.
Come Thursday morning, a city that defines itself by sports will have a local team to watch again. That matters, and it matters that the Union are going first.
Union sign radio deal
For the first time in team history, the Union have a radio broadcast that isn’t just a simulcast of TV.
The team announced Wednesday that its games will air on Philadelphia-area Fox Sports “The Gambler” stations. Frequencies are 1480-AM and 105.3-FM HD2 in the city, and 102.5 FM in Reading. Online streaming is available via foxphlgambler.iheart.com and the iHeart Radio mobile app.
Dave Leno and Sébastien Le Toux will call Thursday’s Union-New York City FC game. Sean Brace and Joe Tansey will contribute to pregame and postgame coverage.