Philadelphia Union host first-ever Supporters Summit

CHESTER, Pa. — Just like many other nights, Philadelphia Union supporters made their voices heard from their seats at PPL Park on Wednesday.

Only this time they had a microphone — and were slightly more polite.

In what they hope will become an annual occurrence, the Union hosted their first “Supporters Summit,” an event designed to give fans the chance to ask players, club officials and even MLS Commissioner Don Garber a variety of questions relating to the team and the league.

For Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz — who, along with Garber, manager Peter Nowak, striker Sébastien Le Toux and goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón, fielded questions from more than 200 supporters from Philly’s home stadium on Wednesday — the summit represents an important part of the club’s core mission.

“Today’s theme is one of the eight words that describe the Union brand, which is ‘inclusive,’” Sakiewicz told reporters just prior to the event. “Our club from the very beginning has built its brand on involving media, involving fans and opening our doors.”

Sakiewicz was pleased to welcome Garber, who said he has a “special affinity” for the Union because of the Sons of the Ben, the Union’s first and largest supporters’ group that was instrumental in bringing the MLS franchise to Philly. But that doesn’t mean the MLS Commissioner gets off easy when it comes to dealing with those fans.

“The most criticism I get on social media is from the Sons of Ben because they care about the club,” Garber said. “And I’m a guy in a suit living in New York making the decisions they may or may not agree with.”

Predictably, the commissioner was grilled by Union supporters on topics ranging from the schedule, the growing concern over refereeing, the All-Star ballots that left off some of the Union’s top players and frustration that MLS is still lagging behind the country’s four major sports.

Garber acknowledged some of the issues, specifically saying the league needs to do everything it can to improve the referees — who are under the auspices of US Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association. He further stressed that players and coaches have a responsibility to help maintain the referees' credibility, imploring them not to complain about the officiating the way they have recently. He also admitted MLS sometimes operates differently than other leagues because it’s still evolving, but he still painted a promising picture of future success, noting the recent deal with NBC that he said will help convert the casual soccer fan into an MLS fan.

Sakiewicz was also peppered with hardball questions, some of which focused on stadium expansion, parking facilities and developing the areas surrounding the stadium.

The Union CEO was forthcoming with future aspirations for a three-phase plan to eventually add more seats to PPL Park, which will occasionally be used for other sports and events, but reminded fans that “first and foremost, this is a soccer stadium that will always be a soccer stadium.”

There were some lighter moments throughout the two-hour Q&A session, too, with fans celebrating Nowak’s new Twitter account and asking Le Toux to start one of his own. (The Frenchman said he would open an account next week.) And, of course, there was some good old-fashioned New York ribbing mixed in.

In the end, it seemed to be a valuable exercise for all of the participants — most of all the fans.

“Our fans, in many ways, believe the team belongs to them,” Garber said. “Our job as a league is to ensure we’re communicating with them regularly and effectively.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.