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See You in March – Philadelphia Union Reveals Schedule for 2012

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The Philadelphia Union has released its schedule for 2012. A downloadable file containing the entire schedule can be found here. With the addition of the Montreal Impact to the Eastern Conference this year, MLS has moved to a conference based schedule. Each team will play 34 games, but instead of the balance schedule we enjoyed last year, we will be seeing the following:

Due to the higher number of clubs in the Eastern Conference, each club will play a total of 25 conference matches. Each club will play seven of their conference opponents three times each (21 total games) and the remaining two conference opponents twice each (4 games). East teams will then play the nine West teams once each. Those nine games will be split either five at home and four away or vice versa. The locations will be reversed in 2013.

Western Conference clubs will play each other three times, totaling 24 matches. They will play four conference opponents twice at home and once away, and play the other four conference opponents twice away and once at home. The location arrangement will be reversed in 2013. West clubs will complete their schedule by playing each of the 10 Eastern Conference clubs once. Five of matches will be at home and five will be on the road. Again, the arrangement will be reversed in 2013.

The Philadelphia Union is also scheduled for pre-season activity including training in Orlando, Florida from February 15-19 and a February 18 match against the Orlando City Lions.

The Union will play the Colorado Rapids, Vancouver Whitecaps, San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake at home in 2012. The Los Angeles Galaxy and other West teams will be faced on the road only. The Union will see East rivals New York Red Bulls and DC United three times – twice at home and once on the road. The Sons of Ben will have twice the fun this year tormenting Pink Cow and Eagles supporters.

The schedule also thankfully keeps weeknight home games to a minimum. We will be at PPL on the following nights: Friday, August 24 versus Real Salt Lake (this barely counts as a weeknight), Wednesday, August 29 versus Columbus Crew, and Thursday, September 20 versus DC. The Union will contend with the Texas heat and humidity with away games at FC Dallas on May, 19 and Houston Dynamo on Jun 30 and October 20. Extreme heat hopefully will only be a factor at the June 30 game.

The Union faces a challenging start to the season with an opener in Portland versus the Timbers on Monday, March 12. The team will have its home opener Sunday, March 18 versus the Colorado Rapids. They follow-up with an away game at the Chicago Fire on March 24 and a home game with the Vancouver Whitecaps on March 31. The Union also have a difficult run into the playoffs in October with late season matchups against the New England Revolution (home), Sporting Kansas City (away) and New York (home). The game against the Pink Cows on Saturday, October 27, will be the last of the regular season.

Although I would prefer a balanced schedule, the conference based schedule is inevitable if MLS has designs on expanding past twenty teams. A balance schedule is difficult to maintain with a large number of teams, and therefore, games. A conference based schedule also helps control travel costs and player fatigue and helps foster regional rivalries. Although no twentieth team has yet been announced, the league was again talking about a second team in New York (because one team isn’t bad enough) around the time of MLS Cup. MLS Cup in 2012 will be hosted by the finalist with the most points during the regular season. This should be a big improvement over the neutral site concept the league has been using. At least the Cup final will be hosted in a city where the fans have a vested interest in the outcome. Changes are also in store for the playoff format, but that will be the subject of another post.

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WPS Under a Cloud

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Women’s Professional Soccer is awaiting a decision from the US Soccer Federation regarding its future as a USSF sanctioned league. WPS now consists of five teams after the league terminated its relationship with magicJack and its controversial owner Dan Borislow.  Borislow is currently engaged in litigation with WPS.

USSF standards for a pro league contain a range of directives pertaining to size, scope, structure, budget and staffing. At present, WPS does not meet these standards. The league now has five member clubs, with eight required by U.S. Soccer to apply for sanctioning, and even further away from the 10-team minimum suggested for leagues in their third years. WPS is entering its fourth year of play. Furthermore, all five teams (Boston,Western New York,New Jersey,PhiladelphiaandAtlanta) are located in the Eastern time zone, contrary to another directive that US teams in the first year be located in at least two time zones. The USSF can grant one-year waivers from these and other guidelines, which WPS has obtained to operate in previous years. A decision may not be reached for several weeks.

WPS came into existence in a period of economic uncertainty and has struggled through the loss of five franchises since its inception. It also faces conflicts next year over unavailable players due to the 2012 Olympics. Despite its problems, WPS puts a good product on the field and maintains the highest density of elite female soccer players of any league in the world. The second place performance of US Women’s National Team at the World Cup produced an up tick in attendance. The league also provides valuable playing experience and training for both US and international players.

Time will tell whether a compromise can be reached to allow WPS to continue to operate. It would a shame if the league, which has struggled to survive to this point and wants to operate in 2012, would be denied the opportunity to do so because of USS sanctioning rules. If unsuccessful, WPS will close its doors after three seasons, as its successor WUSA did in 2003. After the announcement of the closing of WUSA, the US failed to win the US hosted 2003 World Cup and has failed to do so since. Success in 2003 may have brought a women’s league back sooner. WPS did not begin play until 2009. Again this summer, I felt that anything short of  a US win at the World Cup would probably spell doom for WPS. I don’t think second place will produce any sustained interest going into next year.  As sympathetic as the Japan win was, it didn’t do any favors for women’s soccer as a whole. The international soccer community would be negatively impacted by the collapse of WPS.

Although WPS does have a dedicated core of fans, this core is small and retention of fans is a challenge. The league suffers from a lack of investment. WPS has learned from past WUSA mistakes and taken action to more tightly control costs, but sustained investment will be necessary to for the league to grow to the point of being self sufficient. To be taken seriously WPS has perform as a business, not plead for support as a “cause.”  To be fair, women’s sports in general in this country have suffered from a long term decline in visibility and reversing this trend will be difficult. Even improved media attention will at best be a short term fix. Money from sponsors and expansion teams will be needed to get the league on the road to survival. WPS finds itself in a bit of a chicken or the egg dilemma. To attract sponsors and investors, these parties must believe that WPS can deliver the eyeballs. However, audience growth and media exposure is often the result of investment. I would like to see the WPS get some additional time to resolve these dilemmas.

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Signalling a Foul – The Union’s New Kits

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The  Philadelphia Union unveiled new 2012 kits. It’s not a pretty picture, folks. The story on the new kits can be found here.  On the positive side, the dreaded C3PU kit is now a bad memory. However, we are faced with overly fussy versions of the original primary and secondary kits. They each contain one color too many as well as unnecessary and visually distracting embellishments.  They are one step short of bedazzled.

I will venture an unpopular opinion here. I am not a fan of signal blue.  I think it is effective en masse on TV on the Sons of Ben. It makes the SOBs easy to see in a crowd, especially at an away game. Its positive attributes end there. It’s not an effective or marketable uniform color. Like other shades of light blue, it is a weak color. Think baby blue, powder blue, signal blue, pink, peach, daffodil yellow. It’s an unflattering shade on most people and is garish for daily wear. I think it’s a hard sell to the majority of men who prefer darker neutrals. Coupled with primary yellow, it isn’t a good look. I was relieved when the Union unveiled navy blue and antique gold as their principal colors. Remember the locally and nationally maligned Eagles blue and yellow throwback jerseys of a few years ago? The SOBs and the Union  have inexplicably decided to revive this look. Just because theses are the colors on the Philadelphia city flag doesn’t mean you need to go there. The signal blue should be limited to use as a trim color on Union kits.

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Much Adu About Nothing – The Union’s Protected List

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Yesterday, during the l-o-n-g wait for the announcement of the MLS teams’ protected lists, I tweeted that I expected the Philadelphia Union to protect the following players: Faryd Mondragon, Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, Sheanon Williams, Gabriel Farfan, Sebastien LeToux, Brian Carroll, Roger Torres, Danny Mwanga, Michael Farfan, and Freddy Adu. This turned out to be the final list with the exception of Keon Daniel being protected in lieu of Adu.

Unlike last year, this list presented few surprises. There were no last minute trades or inclusions of marginal international players. It seemed obvious to me that the Union would protect the regular starters who make up the core of their team.  Taking this into account, only a few protected slots were open to speculation. I expected Mondragon to be protected. Although age combined with a higher salary might be a deterrent to a drafting team, this concept isn’t likely to apply in a situation where the older, better compensated player is a regular starter, in particular a goal keeper.  The Union also likely want to make sure Mondragon stays around around for a few years while Zac MacMath matures.

The inclusion of Keon Daniel was a bit of a surprise but not out of line. He was an integral part of the Union’s midfield during the successful first half of the season and provides size and a physical presence, something the Union otherwise lack. Hopefully any visa problems he has have been resolved.  I had expected the Union to protect their financial investment in Adu, but perhaps they feel he will not be attractive the Montreal.  He has a high salary and hasn’t exactly lit up the field since returning to MLS.

I learned my lesson last year when I left Torres off my probable protected list because of his loan status.  The Union obviously don’t have a problem with protecting loan players, as they did so with Torres and Michael Orozco-Fiscal last year. Michael Farfan  has been a revelation this year and has turned out to be a good value for a second round draft pick. His presence in Philadelphia was no doubt a factor in attracting his twin brother to the Union as well.

Who among the unprotected players, if anyone, will tempt the Montreal Impact? The most likely suspects would be Kyle Nakazawa and Justin Mapp. Nakazawa is a young, inexpensive and serviceable midfielder while Mapp, although older and more expensive, is probably the better player if he is playing well and is a natural left footer. If we are lucky, they will take Stefani Miglioranzi.

In other news, I congratulate the Los Angeles Galaxy on winning MLS Cup. Cough, hack, gag.  Let’s hope we have finally seen the last of the Beckhams.  MLS may have grown in the past five, but I wouldn’t attribute it primarily to Golden Balls. I don’t watch MLS soccer because of Beckham, do you? At least the Union lost in the playoffs to a team which eventually made the finals. The Union will return to defeating Houston during the 2012 regular season.

A fuss has been made about the Impact’s website being in both French and English. I’m not sure why MLS communications haven’t been in French since Toronto entered the league. Isn’t MLS the top professional league for both the US and Canada and isn’t French an official language of Canada? I would have thought that this meant that all MLS materials would be issued in both languages. Let’s hope progress is finally being made on this issue.

Well, Montreal Impact, Bonne Chance, you’re going to need it. Let me make a few suggestions for players you might be interested in …

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One Fan’s Perspective on the 2011 Season – Off the Field Edition

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The Philadelphia Union played their Hurricane Irene rescheduled game against the New England Revolution on Wednesday night.  The game was as wild as the recent weather. The Union came back from a 4-1 deficit at half time to get a draw.  Despite the great come from behind effort, the Union really needed a win.  A playoff contender should be able to beat the worst team in the Eastern Conference at home, and any other result is unacceptable.  The Revolution are so bad they can’t even hold onto a 4-1 lead.  At least I’ve never seen a Union player planking after a goal.

Soccer players and fans aren’t a bunch of sissies when it comes to a little rain. Anyone who attended the rain soaked home game against the Seattle Sounders will attest to that. I was more than willing to draw the line at a category one hurricane, especially one that produced a tornado warning for Chester. Irene also brought to mind an issue I had long thought about – what exactly is the contingency plan in case of flooding at PPL Park? As much as I don’t want to acknowledge it, PPL Park will flood one day. After all, there have been times in the past when the Delaware River has been in the business district in Chester.  Is there insurance or are there funds available to cover damage to the stadium? How quickly could the stadium be recovered and what if any contingency plans exist for an alternate site for games? This is the price we pay for the scenic riverfront location of PPL Park.

The 2011 season has seen a number of positives off the field for Union fans.  Attendance has been strong, with most games selling out. A full stadium is important for creating atmosphere at games. Strong demand is also great for season ticket holders who may occasionally have an extra ticket to get rid of. I, for one, have not had any trouble getting rid of my extra ticket this season when necessary, unlike last year. The Union has done a good job of holding the line on pricing on tickets and concessions.  The second dollar dog night of the season on Wednesday was much appreciated. This has been a regular promotion at Phillies games that has been adopted readily at PPL Park.  As the economy continues in the doldrums, let’s hope the Union have the sense to continue to keep prices down and soccer one the best values out there for your dollar.

The team has done a reasonably good job of marketing and promotion, and even soccer apathetic sports fans I have talked to have heard that games at PPL Park are a good time. The implementation of the season ticket cards this year has been smooth, and I find them a convenient way to manage my tickets. I would like to see their use expanded to include accessing parking passes and making concession purchases. The Comcast deal for local television coverage has also been a positive, and I feel that local broadcasts are now easier for the casual fan to find.

On a less positive note, the parking situation at PPL Park remains mixed. I like the proximity of the lots and the prepaid parking. However, I wish progress could be made on paving all the lots.  Ingress/egress from the lots remains about the same. I park in lot A, after a season in lot C last year, and in general find it easier to get in and out than lot C. As a non-tailgater, my only complaint is the flagrant and persistent violations of the tailgating rules that make for a dangerous situation in Lot A prior to games. I would prefer all tailgating be confined to one lot (Lot C) or at least confined to a specific section of Lot A.  I wonder about the future of the parking situation if the stadium expansion plans are realized or the rest of the proposed riverfront development adjacent to PPL Park is built. It is hard to imagine sufficient parking without the addition of significant parking structures. I would not like to go back to remote parking and shuttles.

The Union would benefit from better mechanisms for soliciting feedback from fans. As I have noted in this blog previously, the surveys the team conducts are not blinded. I have serious concerns that this could affect the integrity and accuracy of the results. The recent Supporters Summit was limited to members of the Sons of Ben. Although the Sons of Ben are a huge positive for the organization and do have a dialogue with the Union, they are not a general advocacy group for fans. They have a very specific and narrow agenda as it relates to off the field issues and that doesn’t always reflect the opinions of all fan contingencies.  The general impression I get is that the Union are not that concerned about the other 16,000 fans in the stadium that are not in the River End.

The continued existence of Major Molly’s Army is still a thorn in the side of this blogger. Although I understand the need for a promotional team, I don’t see any legitimate reason for this team to be single gender. This is one situation that the Union can easily correct over the off season and let’s hope that they do so.

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It’s Squeaky Bum Time!

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As we enter the second to last month of the MLS regular season, I would like to make a few observations. The Union’s once secure hold on a playoff spot has become tenuous as of late. Despite the roster changes over the course of the season, many of the same problems that were apparent in May are still rearing their ugly heads:

1. No regular starting eleven: Putting aside necessary changes for injuries or suspension, the Union have no regular starting eleven or formation. The result has been confusion in midfield, lack of chemistry, and the inability to move the ball forward.  Every week, it seems fans were are greeted with a new, bizarre lineup. At least this keeps bloggers and journalists guessing.  As a second year team, the Union are still a work in progress.  I would like to see less turnover this off season and more progress toward a settled, cohesive structure.

2. Lack of scoring: This has been a concern since game one this season.  The lack of offensive production is in part a result of the roster merry go round.  It may also be due to lack of the right talent.  Sebastien LeToux scored his first goal in open play this season against Real Salt Lake.  With the end of the Carlos Ruiz experiment, we need stepped up production from LeToux, Danny Mwanga, and Jack McInnerney.  Veljko Paunovic has been an on and off player.  Freddy Adu can  make his return to MLS meaningful by providing the missing attacking link in midfield.

3. Dropping points at home: Although the Union maintained an unbeaten record at home through most of this season, they did drop points in the form of draws that should have been wins.  Their away record could be better, but this could said of most teams.  The team need to take better advantage of the atmosphere created by the Sons of Ben and the home fans and get full points at PPL Park.

4. Best Defense: The improved defense has been one of the bright spots this season. The loss of Jordan Harvey seems to have been absorbed. Gabriel Farfan has been a mixed bag at left back, but so was Harvey. It is probably a wash.  The key moving forward will be keep the starting four healthy and suspension-free, as there is still a lack of depth here.

With the end of the regular season upon us, it’s “squeaky bum time,” as they say England. At least the Union have 1-2 games in hand over teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings. I can realistically seeing the Union taking as many as 18 points from their remaining games. The may need as many points as they can get.

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Liar, Liar …

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It has come to light in the last day that Everton and U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard will not be available for the friendly with the Philadelphia Union. Accoding to the Union, they were only informed of this fact a few days ago after previous representations to the contrary. To be blunt, Everton probably has minimal marketing value in the U.S. without Howard. The Union claim that they would have pursued other opportunities had they known of Howard’s absence.

Everton say that Howard is being rested after having played in the Gold Cup for the U.S. this summer. The team is well within its rights to rest its player, but they need to be upfront about their intentions. If Everton made representations that Howard would be available for the Union game, they now need a better excuse than he’s being rested. It’s a friendly. He can’t stand in goal for twenty minutes before being substituted? This scenario reminds me of Valencia backing out on their tour dates last year. Do European teams think they can get over on MLS? If so, they’ll only get away with it once.

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The Union Know Who You Are – If You Care About Your Privacy

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I recently completed a season ticket holder survey for the Philadelphia Union through a link I received via email. I had participated in all of the previous surveys I had received, believing that it is important to provide the Union with feedback from customers.

I had assumed, perhaps naively, that these surveys were blinded, i.e. the Union couldn’t trace specific responses to individual respondents. However, I received a phone message at the end of last week that clearly conveyed to me that the Union were aware of the specific negative comments I had made in the survey.  I was infuriated.  It was a good thing I didn’t actually take the call. None of my comments to the survey were rude, but that conversation very well could have been.  I think some hapless intern dodged a bullet there.

The Union has a valid interest in verifying your identity in determining whether you are eligible to take a survey, in this case that you actually are a season ticket holder. Beyond that, the responses should be anonymous.  This is analogous to the situation when one votes.  From my job, I know that blinded surveys and studies are important for improving statistical validity.  It is increases the likelihood you get honest and accurate responses.  Accurate feedback is especially important since there is no general advocacy group for Union fans.

The issue I had raised in the survey that prompted the phone call has been covered several times in this blog and on social media, so it is not a secret. My identity is readily ascertainable from this blog. If I wished to raise this issue more directly with the Union with my name attached, I would have written to them.  I do not feel better about getting a phone call from the Union in response to what I thought was an anonymous survey; I feel violated.  I will not be responding to any surveys or providing feedback in the future.

 

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Bagels and Lox for Everyone

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The Philadelphia Union announced yesterday that they have traded starting left back Jordan Harvey to the Vancouver Whitecaps for a box of smoked salmon, a scrimshaw whale’s tooth and a First Nations’ ceremonial eagle feather.  In MLS’s world of cryptic parlance and partial disclosure, this is also known as “allocation money.” When I first read this shocking and unexpected development, you could have knocked me down with, well, a feather.

Harvey had been a regular fixture on the Union’s backline since the team’s inception and had played in every game but one. He was part of what had been a stable and effective back four this season.  Just when you think the Union is dangerously short on dedicated defenders, they go and sell one, and to think that I was beginning to feel that blogging for a successful MLS team was becoming boring.  The Union now have only four players officially rostered as defenders. Midfielders Keon Daniel, Gabriel Farfan and Michael Farfan have been used in the back this season. Ryan Richter has also been given a run out on defense, at least in reserve games. The cherry on top of all of this is that starting central defender Carlos Valdes will not be available for the game this weekend.

This move at this point in the season seems dangerous.  The team had been going well, although they had failed to pick up as many points during their recent run against Vancouver, Kansas City and Chivas as I would have liked. The Union are now in the middle of a consecutive stretch of three away games.  They have struggled to establish a regular starting eleven and formation. I don’t see a coherent plan for replacing Harvey, and the lineups I can envision are unnerving. For those that are upset about the value received in this deal, all I can say is that MLS players, save for a few, are not really worth that much in trade.

Situations such as the Harvey trade underscore why I will never buy a jersey with a player’s name on it.  The nature of modern professional sports is that player’s stints with individual teams tend to be short. I support soccer clubs as institutions and deliberately do not become attached to specific individual players. I am not a fan of professional athletes in general. This is not a reflection on the Union or any of their players, but stems from my observations of American athletes in the more popular professional sports over the years. If you recently shelled out money for a Harvey jersey, you have my condolences.

Speculation about what all this may mean is rife. Are the younger players ready to step up? Are the Union thinking of bringing in a big name defender? Trading Harvey will create some salary cap room, but he was not earning that much more than league minimum and was very good value for money.  The Union also have not used all their available roster spots.

In other news: I will be at the Philadelphia Independence game this weekend. This may be the last one of the season for me, unless there is a playoff game. There is just a lot going on. Real Madrid have announced some modifications to their roster for the World Football Challenge. As a Real Madrid hater, I am not all that interested in their peripheral players, so I am not bothered by this. It just increases the chances it will be a competitive game. It has been announced that the U.S. Men’s National Team will play Mexico at Lincoln Financial Field.  If only the Gold Cup final had been played here.

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The Dreaded Nil-Nil Tie

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I replayed the Philadelphia Union – Sporting Kansas City game from midweek as I got ready to leave for PPL Park tonight.  I don’t feel like there is a lot to say here.  It was another disappointing result against a team we should have taken more points from. You really have to beat a last place team at home. Again there was fiddling with the lineup, which, again, did nothing to help resolve the Union’s offensive woes.  This team would really benefit from a stable starting lineup in a 4-4-2 formation. The Union also continue to be plagued with problems on set pieces, missed-timed runs, and poor finishing.

The nil-nil tie, along with diving and low scoring, is one of the obsessions of soccer haters in the United States. These scoreless draws can be entertaining games, but I don’t feel that this was the case here. There were too many missed chances and too much sloppy play. The highlight of the game was the crowd chanting “USA” when the result of the Gold Cup semifinal against Panama was posted. A close second was the response of the River End to the incident in New England in which supporters were arrested for obscenity for the “You Suck, Asshole” chant. All though I am not a big fan of this chant, I am disturbed by what seems to be an over reaction by the ownership and security of the Revolution. Self policing by supporters should be the way to handle this issue going forward.

There was a good crowd of 18,127 for the game considering it was a weeknight against an opponent that wouldn’t have been much of a draw. You could also practically swim through the humidity. There was also the conflict with the U.S. Men’s semifinal.  There will be a conflict again tonight with the Gold Cup final. The Union have to be pleased with their attendance figures this season. I know I am – at least I can sell my extra ticket when I need to.

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