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October 01, 2022

A first-time soccer player endures a Union practice

Soccer is fun...and exhausting.

Union Philadelphia
20220929_135822.jpg Nick Tricome/PhillyVoice

I've never played soccer before. 

I mean I've kicked a ball around in gym class growing up a few times, sure. But nothing you would ever consider structured or organized soccer. 

So Thursday afternoon was a lot of new ground. 

The Philadelphia Union held their Media Fantasy Camp and I shot down I-95 to Subaru Park in Chester to take part as PhillyVoice's representative. 

As my aforementioned soccer experience kind of hints at, I'm not a big soccer guy, never was. I have a basic understanding of how things work from a couple of years of playing "FIFA" in college, but nothing to be considered expertise. What I do know is that the Union have been Philly sports' best show in town the past couple of years and that American soccer, especially with the 2026 World Cup on the way, has really been trending up. 

Jim Curtin, who's been the head coach of the club since 2014, also drove those points home. 

Media members checked in and gathered at Subaru Park's Tunnel Club then were shown to the locker room around 1:50 p.m. Each stall had a pair of shorts, socks, a water bottle, and above all else, a jersey hanging with our names and numbers on them ready to go. Mine was stashed away in the far right corner of the room where we entered, and taking that few seconds to see where you are and finally see your jersey, yeah, that was pretty cool. 

After everyone got changed, Curtin entered the room and took a few minutes to introduce himself, give a quick overview of the team and their philosophy, their success, and again, the steady growth of not just the club, but MLS and American Soccer as a whole. 

Then he went to the film. 

The Union are a team built to thrive in transition and he showed us clips, both of the Union themselves and European clubs like Chelsea, to break down how it all works. Our main drill for the day was going to be the focus of that before breaking for a scrimmage. 

When Curtin's presentation was done, Garrison Draper, the Union's VP of Player Health and Performance led us back into the tunnel and off to the side for a bit of stretching, then it finally was off to the field. 

It was quiet, and empty, but walking onto the grass and seeing the stadium from a perspective not many get to was a bit of a surreal experience. Still, things kept moving. It was on to more warmups and some footwork drills. Those mostly went well, though juggling the ball...Yeah, that was a first for me, that needs work. 


Now came time for that transition drill.

Our jerseys were either navy or powder blue and the teams were divided up as such. 

Set up at 4-v-2 at the start of each turn, the team with possession would drive in on offense with four attackers. The other team would have two defenders back with two more teammates waiting on the sidelines out wide. Once the defense forced a turnover, the two out wide would jump in for a breakout pass to get things going the other way, and usually play would just continue until someone scored.

During Curtin's pre-practice talk, he touched on how far soccer training in the U.S. has come. The Oreland, Pa. native joked about how, growing up, his dad would run him through defensive back drills for football to improve his footwork rather than anything specifically tailored for soccer. 

For me, that was ironic, because my athletic experience lies in ice hockey and flag football, and I found myself leaning on those skill sets to get me by as a first-time soccer player.

For the most part, I think I managed to get by. I touched the ball a few times, tried to keep whoever I was defending in front of me, got in the way of a couple of passes, and even tallied an assist. 

But let me tell ya, your cardio gets tested QUICK. The pitch is a lot of ground to cover and once you're out there in live play, you're stuck out there. No whistle, no running to the bench for a change, you gotta keep moving. We weren't even using the whole field for that drill, but still, 4-v-4 was a killer. 

The scrimmage was broken up into 8-v-8, which honestly felt a bit easier, but it could still drain you. I was back on defense to start, so I tried to keep it simple: Keep your guy in front of you and move the ball up quick if you get it. That was working, though toward the end, I found myself jumping up on offense a lot more. Credit to everyone on Team Navy for that, we knew how to cycle out for one another. However, I did get crossed up at one point and did cause a weak turnover in front of our net that led directly to a goal. To everyone on Team Navy and Pat especially, who was playing goal, my bad. I'm sorry. 

But overall, as my first time playing soccer, things went pretty well all things considered. A lot of new ground covered, for sure, and maybe not the last time I kick a soccer ball either. 

The Union also have a couple games left before the playoff run and another shot at the MLS Cup begins, which I have a feeling I might be keeping up with now. 

Honestly, a couple of days removed and still thinking about the experience, yeah, I think soccer may have actually gotten a bit of a hold on me now. 

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