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The Union are in first place and playing good soccer. Does anyone care? | Observations

Though the team is playing well, last Wednesday’s win over FC Cincinnati drew the lowest attendance for a league game in team history.

The Union's attendance is down nearly 4,000 per game since its inaugural season.
The Union's attendance is down nearly 4,000 per game since its inaugural season.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The Union’s 6-1 rout of the New England Revolution on Saturday proved that the team’s place atop the Eastern Conference standings is no fluke.

It also produced plenty of topics to discuss.

Does anyone care that this team is finally good?

The standout statistics from the Union’s two dominant home wins this week weren’t just goals, assists, and passes completed. In both games, the attendance drew just as much attention.

Last Wednesday’s win over FC Cincinnati drew an announced crowd of 12,890, the lowest figure for a league game in team history. The previous low of 14,784 came in September 2015. Some U.S. Open Cup games and international friendlies have drawn fewer fans, but those tickets are sold outside of season-ticket packages.

Saturday’s rout of New England, which the Union started and ended in first place, drew just 15,565. And that’s tickets sold and distributed, not tickets torn at the gate.

This year’s per-game average of 15,223 through six games is down nearly 1,300 fans per game from last year’s average of 16,518.

It’s down more than 4,000 from the Union’s inaugural season in 2010, which included two games at Lincoln Financial Field, when they averaged 19,254. Attendance is down 3,000 from the average of 18,259 in 2011 (the first full year in Chester).

Why are the stands so empty? A long list of reasons adds up to one big one: The team’s fan base isn’t all that big.

The team’s longstanding emphasis on marketing to families with soccer-playing kids contrasts with marketing to the young urban professionals who are the core of nearly every other MLS fan base.

Talen Energy Stadium’s location in Chester is part of that. SEPTA’s new extra rail service into the city after games is helpful, as are the Union-run buses from Center City bars (which cost $15 round trip per game). Those options haven’t been marketed as strongly as they could be.

There are risks within the soccer-family crowd, too. When the kids care about more sports than soccer, many don’t choose the Union over the Phillies (even before Bryce Harper arrived), 76ers or Eagles.

The Union has also failed to attract the region’s Latino population, as documented in a front-page story in Sunday’s Inquirer. The team landed on A1 again on Monday for their commercial development plans near the stadium.

How can the Union turn the tide?

The answer might be found over the next few days, when soccer bars across Center City will be packed for the midweek UEFA Champions League semifinals and Sunday’s dramatic final day of the English Premier League season.

It would help the Union to show up at those establishments and ask fans why they’re staying away. And if that means taking some lumps, well, that’s the cost of doing business.

If the Union lose Saturday at Toronto FC -- the only team in the East with more points per game -- or when the high-profile Seattle Sounders come to town a week later, cynics might claim the recent success is meaningless.

But this season, the Union are actually good. They aren’t as elite as Toronto and Seattle, but they have talent, depth, cohesion, a smart game plan and the tactical flexibility to win in multiple ways.

And now, after so many years of failure, they deserve local soccer fans’ attention.

Sergio Santos breaks through

Sergio Santos’ Union debut was terrific. Along with his two goals, he had 20 total touches, five shots and one chance created, and completed 7 of 12 passes in 30 minutes on the field. And as an added bonus, his newborn daughter was watching from the stands.

“It was an important game for me, coming back from injury,” the Brazilian striker said afterward, with help from an interpreter. “I’ve had a little bit of a tough road so far. … It was just great to be able to get out there and score.”

Welcome back, Kai Wagner

Though the Union were able to get four points during Kai Wagner’s two-game suspension, the German left back showed how much he was missed in his return. Against New England, he recorded 65 touches, 3 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 chances created, and completed 32 of 38 passes – including a sharp assist on Santos’ first goal.

Veterans play big

Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin played every minute of the three-games-in-eight-days stretch that spanned from coast to coast. That’s an impressive feat for the veteran midfielders, and they both played well in all the contests. Here are their stats:

A classy gesture for Cory Burke

It was nice to see the entire Union team give Cory Burke a shout-out by raising his jersey to the TV cameras after Saturday’s opening goal. Though Burke is gone for at least three months due to visa issues, it’s clear he won’t be forgotten.

“The guys all feel his absence, and they wanted to do something special for him,” manager Jim Curtin said.

There was a bit of levity in the moment, though. The team’s attackers planned the celebration and forgot to tell scorer Jack Elliott about it.

“Obviously, they didn’t expect me to score,” Elliott said with a laugh. “Kacper [Przybylko] just kind of shepherded me, because he might have been [better] odds to score. We stand behind Cory and hope he’ll be back soon.”

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