Follow the river south out of Billy’s city, as the road becomes Second Street. Past the prison and the casinos and the factories and the corner shops selling jerk chicken. Turn in towards the river to the stadium as the sun sets behind you and watch the intrepid faithful warm themselves with small flasks and large fires. See the stands fill up, but slowly and, it must be conceded on this cold evening, barely. Make your way up the stairs and up the stairs and up the stairs again, and just about as your old heart gives out, shake hands with Tommy Smyth and Paul Mariner as they head to the bright lights and big city of the TV boxes.
Head to your stand in the press box where the temperature is a balmy 45 degrees – perfect for keeping meat but somewhat less ideal for typing. Think about how long your fingers will be able to function during the match you are about to watch, between the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution, the inaugural match of the Union’s 2018 season. Think about what in the name of God you’re going to write about and decide that the odds that it’s about the future of soccer in America are about as slim as Brad Friedel calling you down to sub in for Lee Nguyen.
Take Me to the River: The Philadelphia Union, New England Revolution and the Future of Soccer in America
And yet the future of soccer in America is never far from our minds is it? Not simply because we write about MLS (sort of). But because of the dark cloud that is hanging over this season. A cloud called the World Cup. A World Cup that the USMNT will not participate in for the first time in 32 years. A fact that has dominated innumerable off-season arguments about what should be done. What should have been done? Who should be fired? Who should be hired? Who’s to blame? Who’s the future and frankly is there a future of soccer in America at all anymore?
But maybe, just maybe, this game, on the banks of the river where the times that tried men’s souls were turned, and where a team from the cradle of the revolution that spawned this nation faced a team from the city that legalized it, is a harbinger of something more. On the pitch, across the statistics, in the gleam in the eyes of Earnie Stewart as you chatted after the match.
Did it have to do with Anthony Fontana scoring the first goal of the Philadelphia Union’s 2018 season? Anthony Fontana, who came up through the Philadelphia academy system? Who started with Bethlehem Steel as a 16-year-old? Who signed with the Union as a Homegrown player barely two months ago?
Or did it have to do with Auston Trusty starting on the backline? Trusty, who also played for Bethlehem Steel, and who has also played for the US U19 and U20 teams? Trusty, the Union’s second Homegrown signing, who grew up in Philadelphia. And who effectively shut down Juan Agudelo on this cold night.
Or did it have to do with Derrick Jones, the Union’s first homegrown signing, who came on in the second half. Who came up through the Academy and Bethlehem Steel and has played for the US’s U20s.
It’s hard to say. As Head Coach Jim Curtin said, “It is only one win. In a lot of ways, it’s a big win, but it’s only one win.”
And that’s a sensible answer from a man who has a full season to coach through. A man whose team has missed the playoffs two of the past three years.
But one win was all the United States needed in Couva. One win.
And no, even I am not foolish enough to suggest that Fontana, Trusty, and Jones would have punched America’s ticket had they been on that waterlogged Trinidadian pitch. But I do think that the patience and the planning and the persistence that got them into this match bodes well for the future of soccer in America.
“You can reflect back to when Anthony was in the Union juniors when our Youth Academy was just starting,” Curtin said after the game. “There was a 40 x 40 patch of AstroTurf where this young group of nine-year-old kids was on the field that had a dream of maybe someday playing for the Philadelphia Union. It’s a proud night for their families, parents and for our youth academy. I am really happy for Anthony, really happy for Auston and Derrick. To have three of them out there was special.”
Special because they won? Certainly.
“We want to have the mentality that a tie is two points dropped,” Curtin said. “And we train that in practice that ties are useless.”
But special too because of what Auston Trusty said after the game. Special because of how it helps all of us think about the role of MLS in the future of soccer in America.
“It felt amazing and was very humbling. Especially growing up as a young kid in Philadelphia and being able to go out on this field. Because I remember back in the day, I used to buy tickets to go see this team play and see some of the players like Ray Gaddis. He was one of my favorite players growing up for the Union. Having him as my teammate and dreaming about this opportunity and this day as a young kid, visualizing at the games that I could someday be here and playing on this field and starting – for it to happen is truly humbling and amazing. I am thankful from everyone from the academy, to the Steel, to the organization, to the Union. Just everybody, I’m so thankful.”
Was it just one win? Sure. But sometimes, one win is all you need.