Union must not take patience of fans for granted | John Smallwood

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Smoke filled the air inside Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pa., before the Union played Orlando City on Friday.

This particular tailgate group outside of Talen Energy Stadium featured three generations of men from the Fein family.

Jonathan Fein has been a Union season-ticket holder since the franchise’s inaugural season in 2010. The patriarch, Ron, taught his boys to be fans of all of the Philadelphia teams, and the ZOLOs were added when Philadelphia joined Major League Soccer. He doesn’t go to many of the early-season games anymore because of the cold weather, but Friday was an unseasonably warm night down by the Delaware River in the shadow of the Commodore Barry Bridge.

Jon’s son, Dylan, was more interested in getting into the Union’s match against Orlando City SC than discussing the current state of the franchise.

In every sense, the Feins represent what the Union have successfully built over their eight previous seasons. They also represent what is most at stake for the franchise as it stumbles to another slow start to the season.

Ron says he’s worried that because of their continued struggles on the pitch, the Union are in danger of losing some of what has been a rabid fan base.

“They better be careful,” he said. “I do think people are starting to turn away, and they may not be so quick to come back. I don’t know.”

Ron Fein issued his warning before the Union dropped a disappointing 2-0 decision to Orlando to fall to 1-2-2. They have earned just five of a possible 15 points.

The fans can still be an intimidating presence on those increasingly fewer occasions when the Union gave them a reason to believe. But the atmosphere isn’t as intense as it once was. Talen typically now is filled to around 80 percent capacity. Even “The River’s End,” where the hard-core “Sons of Ben” convene, is now littered with empty seats.

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Union Head Coach Jim Curtin watches his team take on Orlando City on Friday, April 13, 2018, in Chester, Pa. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

For the second home match in a row, the players were booed as they exited the field.

“It was another frustrating night for us in front of our fans,” said manager Jim Curtin, a Philly-raised sports fan who knows the expectations in this city well. “I understand the frustration of the fans. The players are frustrated. I’m frustrated. It’s teetering on the edge.”

A slow start for the Union is doubly dangerous because this franchise has no history of finishing strong. The ability to chase things down – be it an individual game or a playoff spot — has never been a strength.

“I’m still hopeful,” said J.R. Meyer, an original S.O.B. who drives over an hour to Union games from Lansdale. “I think they have some of the right things in place, some of the right people.

“I’m cautiously optimistic.”

That sums up all that needs to be said about the Union. In their ninth season, some of the best fans in MLS are just “cautiously optimistic.”

The expiration date on the Union’s expansion label passed by several years ago. Philadelphia has made just two playoff appearances, with no postseason wins.

The Seattle Sounders, who began playing in 2009, and the Portland Timbers (2011) both won MLS Cups. The Vancouver Whitecaps (2011) have made the playoffs four times.

New York City FC (2015) and Atlanta United FC (2017) are legitimate 2018 MLS Cup contenders.

The excuses for the Union have been well debated but the whys don’t matter anymore. The bottom line is Union fans expect a quality MLS franchise and some have gotten tired of waiting.

“I love soccer and I’ll stick with my team,” Jon Fein said. “It’s still a great family-atmosphere event, but [the Union] may have missed their opportunity to have carved out a name for [themselves] in Philadelphia. I’m not demanding an MLS Cup right now but, yeah, the playoffs.”