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THE 25th year of Major League Soccer (MLS) has been a challenging one for all involved, but the regular season has had a fitting, almost fairytale ending.
The league that covers the considerable area of the United States and Canada from east to west has, like the rest of the world, had to overcome many obstacles during the last nine months or so.
Sporting challenges have been met as best they can in the circumstances, while the players and the league have also played their part in raising awareness of social issues.
Soccer was especially strong in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
The wider political issues this raised resonated with many throughout the leagues who looked to educate others and use their platform to provide a voice.
On the pitch, just getting the season played at all was a challenge in itself, but it’s one that has been met so far, with the playoffs still to come.
Philadelphia Union finished top of the regular season standings to claim the 2020 Supporters’ Shield — the trophy awarded to the league leaders, and there are few teams in MLS more deserving of the accolade.
“The Supporters’ Shield is a vindication of the Union’s grassroots approach to soccer,” says Jim O’Leary of the Philly Soccer Page.
“When the team started they were holding practices in a municipal park, and now they’ve got the best record in MLS.
“They didn’t take the route of Los Angeles FC or City Football Group’s New York City FC throwing cash at big names and trying to buy their way to the top. They invested in the academy, they built from within, and in doing so improved the community around them.
“Their support of the soccer programme at the nearby Chester High School, the construction of mini-pitches around Philadelphia — it’s about being the rising tide that lifts all boats, rather than just dropping Frank Lampard into the line-up and expecting it to fix everything.”
Teamwork, togetherness and social movements have punctuated every turn of MLS’s 25th anniversary season, and Philadelphia Union have been at the heart of them.
Union is more than just a name. It epitomises everything they stand for as a club and a fanbase. They are a community club in a league littered with “franchises” and “markets.”
As is the case in football leagues around the world, fans at some clubs, from MLS and beyond, create their own identities away from any meaningless marketing and bland branding, but there is an increasing number of teams where fans, club, and community work as one.
As in any country, this can be rarer in the “top” divisions (America doesn’t have promotion or relegation), but though they are not owned by their fans, Philadelphia Union can still be considered a community club.
“The Union are extremely personal in how they engage fans,” says Chris Gibbons from Union podcast All Three Points.
“Including things like allowing fans to design the team’s away kit for 2020 and having the supporters’ group be in charge of the fake crowd noise during home broadcasts.
“Everything has a personal touch. They are a truly local side and engage fans in a unique way.”
Head coach Jim Curtin epitomises the spirit of the club and is always eager to deflect praise onto his players or the fans.
A former centre-back with Chicago Fire, but a native of Oreland on the northern edge of Philadelphia, Curtin has been on the Union’s staff since he retired from playing in 2010, becoming head coach in 2014.
The 41-year-old knows what this league win means, especially in the light of the region’s importance to the recent presidential election, with the Pennsylvania vote eventually signalling the end for Trump as president.
“I say this with all sincerity, I’m more proud of our group for what we did off the field this year than anything we did on the field,” Curtain said on MLS’s Extra Time radio show.
“There are certainly things that are bigger than soccer. For our guys to be a voice that has stayed consistent, a voice that has been diligent, educated, and willing to ask questions and learn, and for our black players on our team to educate some of our foreign and international players, shows the growth of the team.
“When you have a bunch of Brazilians in the locker room cheering that Trump’s gone, it hits you. I think there are certainly some things that needed to change in this country.
“Everything that our group has done has been to move the country forward, to have more equality, and our group did it in a really special way.
“I can’t say enough about how much our players have meant to the league on the field, off the field, and the changes socially that have gone on in our country during this period.”
Union midfielder Warren Creavalle designed Black Lives Matter shirts that were worn by players when MLS returned to action in July.
Months later, these T-shirts were then seen on the streets during the celebrations in the aftermath of the election result — an indication that this grassroots movement and others like it have played their part in removing Trump’s brand of fascism.
Ray Gaddis and captain Alejandro Bedoya have also been leaders on social issues, with Gaddis recently commenting on Extra Time: “This is just our time. There comes a time for every generation that you have to do what’s right for your generation.
“People have fought the good fight before you for things that were important in their time, and the torch is passed to you.”
The work and the words of Creavalle, Curtin, Gaddis and Bedoya and others would be less effective as lone voices, but the backing of colleagues, supporters, the club, the league and much of the region, creates a collective voice that has helped begin turning the tide.
There is still much to be done on and off the pitch, though, for the Union and beyond.
Curtin’s side will now go into the play-offs at the end of the month, while the important efforts from these grassroots social movements will need to continue, with Trump’s defeat providing the impetus to go further rather than think the job is done.
“It’s easy to draw a parallel between the election getting called and the Union winning the Supporters’ Shield on the same weekend,” adds O’Leary.
“They’re both good things, the kind of things you sit awake at night and worry about it going the other way, but even once you get it there’s still so much work left to be done.
“In MLS, as with all other American leagues, the play-offs determine the champion, not the table at the end of the regular season.
“So while the Supporters’ Shield is a significant achievement, the Union still don’t get a star above their crest and they still need to get it done in the post-season for this to be more than ‘a good team’.
“Likewise, it’s a good thing that Donald Trump lost, but Joe Biden is still a far from ideal president, and there is a lot of work left to be done to fix the problems in this country.”
Though the winner of the play-offs is considered the MLS champion, the 2020 Supporters’ Shield could go down as one of the most important in its history.
The fact the actual Shield didn’t make it to the stadium in time and the players had to lift a Captain America shield provided by a fan, with a vinyl print of the Supporters’ Shield stuck on top of it, only adds to the folklore.
Some have suggested this title win should have an asterisk beside it given the unique situation in which this season was played, but if it does have such a mark, it will be one which signifies teamwork, unity, and the overcoming of odds, rather than any notion that this season was somehow easier than previous years.
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