The making of the Union: How Philadelphia is embracing its blue-collar roots in Chester
CHESTER, Pa. – Crossing the Commodore Barry Bridge into Pennsylvania is a surreal experience.
The bridge drops passengers into the greater Philadelphia area, but the charm of one-way cobblestone streets bustling with people, historical monuments and high-rises housing major businesses are nowhere in sight. All of that is 15 miles to the north of the bridge, marked only by the faint sight of the city’s skyline. It may as well be a world away.
This two-mile-long, 49,000 tons of steel and concrete lead 35,000 cars daily between one of the ostensibly more rural areas of New Jersey, filled with farmland and the occasional Wawa – the glorified gas station which the region’s residents worship – to the bleak city of Chester, Pennsylvania. The city, which has a population of about 34,000, claims to be the oldest in the state.
It would be easy to pass over Chester and the shine of the soccer infrastructure which it hosts; the western side of the bridge literally does. Tucked slightly underneath the bridge and hidden from the eye when approaching from the east is Talen Energy Stadium, home of the Philadelphia Union. The MLS franchise has played there since it began play in 2010. (The venue was called PPL Park until 2015.)
After an awkward U-turn of an exit (which, if you overshoot it and try to backtrack, you could end up right back on the bridge headed the other direction), Flower Street dumps you just south of the center Chester. There are rundown houses and few signs of business save for the dollar store at said U-turn and a Sunoco station on the main drag which runs parallel to the Delaware River, about half a mile inland. The streets here are two-way, with cracked pavement; they are empty.
Finding the left turn onto Highland Ave., the way to the Union’s team offices, is a slight challenge, as several blue street signs are covered by overgrown bushes. They are quickly ruled out as turning options, anyway, as a few streets have given way to weeds and all are dead ends.
Just on the other side of the train tracks, however, sits the new Philadelphia Union training center, which opened last week. Keeping in line with the theme, it is dubbed the Power Training Complex, its name derived from a remodeling company with which the team now shares offices as part of the initiative, but also a spectacular and fitting pun. Power. Energy. Union. This is a blue-collar place. And this is unapologetically a blue-collar club.
Molding an identity
“Embody Philadelphia.” That is what Union head coach Jim Curtin lists as one of the core characteristics he looks for when recruiting players. It doesn’t take extensive explaining to understand what that means.
Curtin is a blend of old-school and the modern game, demanding work ethic and effort over all else, but embracing the ways of new maestros – Pep Guardiola, for one. Curtin was a towering central defender who spent nine seasons in MLS before shifting to the coaching side, first as assistant and then, beginning in late 2014, as the man in charge after John Hackworth was fired.
Embodying Philadelphia – or Chester, as it may be – is about embracing that hard-working, blue-collar identity. It means pressing every team, whether at home or on the road. It means finding center backs who are destroyers, not wannabe playmakers stuck in deeper-than-desired roles. Working harder is the foundation for everything else.
“Soccer is a game of mistakes,” Curtin tells a gaggle of media and other special guests who are dressed head to toe in Union training garb while sitting in the film room on the second level of the club’s freshly remodeled training complex. “There are tons of mistakes. You could turn on Germany versus Spain and there would be 100 turnovers.
What’s crucial is how players react to those mistakes. Winning the ball back within five seconds of a turnover is one of Curtin’s guiding tactical virtues. So too is ball possession in the final third of the field, a statistic which more often than not is indicative of the Union’s results.
Putting these ideals into action has been a mixed bag for the Union thus far, by Curtin’s own admission. Coming off a 2015 season which saw the team finish 19th of 20 in MLS, Philadelphia jumped out to one of the more surprising starts in 2016. The Union won its first three home matches and put together an eight-game unbeaten run from late April through early June.
Ahead of the last game of the regular season, though, momentum isn’t on the Union’s side.. Philadelphia is likely to enter the playoffs as the sixth and final seed in the East, tumbling down the table with a six-game winless streak extended after Sunday’s ugly, 2-0 loss at home to an already-eliminated Orlando City.
In Curtin’s 4-2-3-1 formation, based off the Utrecht model, Philadelphia’s play has been a balance of the the gritty and the pretty. The addition of U.S. international Alejandro Bedoya this summer gave Philadelphia its fulcrum in the midfield. A career year from veteran forward Chris Pontius has helped, too. But a leaky defense and a propensity to shrivel in big games leaves the Union a work in progress. The trajectory, however, is upward, even if gradual and jagged.
Curtin credits Earnie Stewart for his role not only in turning the club around, but in guiding him. Upon Stewart’s arrival earlier this year, the coach and sporting director sat down to discuss what the team would look like and how it would play. The question Stewart posed to Curtin was simple: “How do you want to play?” Curtin’s answers, he admits, kept straying toward personnel. “Well, we have a guy who can do this and –” Stewart would interject: “How do YOU want to play?” Once that question was defined, so too was the direction of the Union.
“Hey, what hashtag are we using for this event?” a Union staff member cries out across the room.
Curtin has just entered. He’s an imposing figure at 6-foot-4, with a long and purposeful gait that makes it an exercise to walk-and-talk alongside him. He carries himself with a positivity and seemingly an ability to connect with players – neither of which are givens in the coaching ranks – perhaps influenced by his still relatively recent retirement from playing.
After a quick welcome, Curtin begins to provide a tactical breakdown of the upcoming weekend’s opponent, Orlando, and this film session is running a little long for his standards. He says he keeps all game-tape viewing to eight minutes or less, an idea he took from Guardiola, because players’ attention spans are too short these days with the technology at their fingertips. The statement strikes an ironic chord as a few members of the audience look at him, with the majority either looking down at their screens or looking at him through Smartphone cameras. The scouting report on Orlando is written in depth on the whiteboard behind him, and as eyes and camera lenses zoom in on it, it’s hard to imagine this doesn’t incite some sort of coaching ire within the affable Curtin. Playing with a phone during a team meeting is universal language for asking to be benched.
Alas, these couple dozen men and women aren’t fighting for places in the starting XI this weekend; Curtin shows no signs of irritation at the technology. We are, after all, here to see the Union’s new training facility.