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Win or lose, Subaru Park on Sunday will prove Philly is also a soccer town | Opinion

Not so quietly, the Union have become the in-your-face professional franchise our sports fans can no longer avoid

Rob Tornoe's Philadelphia Union cartoon for Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.
Rob Tornoe's Philadelphia Union cartoon for Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.Read moreRob Tornoe / staff

My second go-around writing about the impact of professional soccer in Philadelphia looks a heck of a lot different from my first.

When I was tasked to write this column ahead of the biggest Major League Soccer match in the history of the Union, I wanted to take a look away from the X’s and O’s of the team and its front office and instead look at the impact it had on soccer in the region.

Full disclosure: I’ve seen this club from both sides. When I was a fresh-faced Union beat writer for the Daily News from 2010 to 2012, I was chasing a franchise still trying to find its identity. From 2012 to 2015, I was working in the team’s communications department, trying to make every granular success seem like the biggest deal — confused all along the way as to why honesty with Philly fans wasn’t the best policy.

As I was told by a former senior director with the club, honesty is not what puts “butts in seats.” They even made stickers for us front-office types to serve as reminders.

» READ MORE: Union facing big COVID-19 concerns ahead of Eastern Conference final

But each iteration of Union leadership laid the foundation for the nationally televised spectacle that is about to take place Sunday (3 p.m., 6ABC and ESPN Deportes). This latest version of said leadership comes complete with a sporting director, Ernst Tanner, who in his three full years at the helm has overseen the team with the most combined regular-season points in MLS.

On the way to doing so, it has built a world-class youth academy putting out American talent on the world stage. Mark McKenzie, Downingtown’s Zack Steffen, and Medford’s Brenden Aaronson are players Philly kids can idolize. Steffen? He’s a goalkeeper for Manchester City, one of the biggest clubs in the world. Aaronson? He’s quietly leading the U.S. men’s national team to its first berth in a FIFA World Cup since 2014.

» READ MORE: Mark McKenzie left the Union for Belgium last winter having grown as a soccer player and an anti-racism activist

Another reason why this matters? For the first time, top academies aren’t poaching the best youth talent from the same affluent club teams. The kids coming up are the right amount of representation for the ones coming up.

The Union built infrastructure, too, that’s attractive to players. There were no full-field practice facilities, guys used to get bussed to a nearby park just outside Chester for training. There was no weight room, just some ropes, a weight rack, and a couple of kettlebells on a tiny turf field before you entered the locker room.

Then, tack on the one constant, which has been manager Jim Curtin, the walking embodiment of a Philadelphian, who has coached this club on both its youth and full team levels, and it’s a recipe for success.

The team takes itself seriously and in turn, casual onlookers have become fans.

“It’s not hard to prove to a Philadelphia fan that you’re worth their time and their money. Just show us you’re trying and we’ll support you,” said Bryan James, one of the originators of the Union’s supporters group, the Sons of Ben. James, alongside original Union brass, broke ground on the club’s stadium site 13 years to the very weekend of Sunday’s MLS conference final against New York City FC.

» READ MORE: Eleven key games in the Union's run to the Eastern Conference final

“Why do you think people stuck around for ‘The Process?’ Love or hate what the Sixers did, look at the last few years. It’s the same with the Union.”

I thought about that and took a look at the last few years and realized he’s right.

Union digital billboards are all over I-95. I pulled up next to a guy on Eighth and Arch the other day who had a Union jersey on. The Flyers and Sixers stole the #DOOP song used after the club’s goal celebration.

I remember when soccer was the punchline of Philly sports talk radio.

Now the same stations are interviewing coaches, analyzing players, and hosting fan reaction polls on social media.

The success this team has been able to amass — three U.S. Open Cup finals, a Concacaf Champions League semifinal, the Supporters’ Shield last season as the league’s best regular-season team — regardless of whether or not you understand the nuances of all of those tournaments, people recognize that these things are a big deal.

The Union were two games away from playing reigning UEFA Champions League winners Chelsea — whose roster includes Hershey’s Christian Pulisic — in the upcoming FIFA Club World Cup.

When you remember that, it does blow your mind.

In a city where the Eagles are a second family to most and the Phillies, Sixers, and Flyers have a seat at the table, talk to people not just in soccer circles and the Union are no longer the distant cousins you knew about but rarely met.

In my beat writer days, I used to write this column called “Union Meeting” each week, and at the end of each story, a reader named “IgglesBob” every week, without fail, left a comment reading, SOCCER BLOWS.

An official in the team’s front office told me the club sold out all 18,500 available seats for Sunday’s game in less than an hour after release. As of Thursday, the stadium is at near capacity with standing-room-only options.

So I beg to differ, IgglesBob.