On Saturday night, the Union’s minor-league club in the second-division USL Championship became the first Philadelphia-area sports team to play a game in the region since the coronavirus pandemic began. Union II, as the team is known, hosted the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and lost, 6-0, at Subaru Park.
The score mattered less than other parts of the proceedings - indeed, less than the fact that the game was happening at all. The USL is the first American soccer circuit to have its teams playing games in home stadiums instead of in a neutral-site bubble, with conferences divided into regional groups to cut down on travel.
At the stadium, players and coaches wore masks on the bench, everyone got their temperatures checked on arrival, and Union II couldn’t use its usual locker room because of social distancing rules. The stands were empty, and will remain so through at least the end of July.
“We’re following the protocol, we’re getting used to it,” Union II coach Sven Gartung said. “We have to take care of each other. So there’s no question about wearing a mask, for example, and just following the rules.”
Union II’s group includes Pittsburgh, Hartford Athletic, and the New York Red Bulls’ minor-league squad. Fortunately, those are all bus trips. There will be only one flight, a cross-division game at the Tampa Bay Rowdies in September. Atlanta United’s minor-league team will fly up here in the same month.
You can be sure that MLS is watching how the USL fares as the big league aims to play regular-season games in home stadiums after the ongoing tournament in Orlando ends.
“We know what to expect with these bus travels,” said Gartung, a Germany native who took the job in February. He did his share of bus trips while overseeing the academy of German club Eintracht Braunschweig a few years ago.
"In terms of our health and the protocol, it makes more sense what we are doing now," Gartung said. "If we can avoid tricky situations in terms of the pandemic, then we should do that."
As for the game, a Union II lineup, composed almost entirely of academy products and current amateurs, gave up the opening goal in the 29th minute. Things went downhill from there.
But Gartung was happy to be back home and back on the field.
"As long as it was 0-0, it was fantastic to play there," he quipped.
Gartung knows it might not be the last lopsided loss he suffers. His job is to give the Union's prospects playing time in live games and let them sink or swim.
The average age of his starting lineup Saturday night was 19. One of the starters, 18-year-old Nathan Harriel, made his professional debut after signing his first pro contract on Friday. The substitutes were a 16-year-old, two 17-year-olds, an 18-year-old and a 21-year-old. Midfielder Zach Zandi, 24, is the oldest full-time player on the roster. (There was one other 24-year-old, goalkeeper Todd Morton, until he decided earlier this month to retire from playing.)
By contrast, Pittsburgh's youngest player is 22 and its oldest is 32. Steevan dos Santos, who scored two goals as a second-half substitute, is 30.