Positive Vibes in Köpenick.
The borough in the east of Berlin is buzzing with good news surrounding 1. FC Union Berlin. With a new main stand, financial stability and a team approaching the top of the 2nd Bundesliga, the die-hard fans finally see the light after several periods of darkness. Can Union make that final step towards the top-tier of German football?
One of the main reasons of Union’s uprising has been the development of their Stadion An der Alten Försterei. After years and years of talking about stadium renovations, action was finally taken in 2008. Back then, Union did not meet the stadium regulations to play in the inaugural 3. Liga and was forced to move to the unloved Jahnsportpark (in another Ostbezirk, Prenzlauer Berg) for a season. Despite “playing 34 away matches,” as many fans stated it, Union went on to become champions.
While playing on “stained soil,” as the club completed the astonishing rebuild of the Stadion An der Alten Försterei, something remarkable happened: the fans actually contributed both financially and physically in the rebuilding process of their stadium. Now the Stadion An der Alten Försterei is the only fan-built ground in football (at least one of the very few), built by the heart and soul of the people who stuck with the club through much harder times.
Just before the 2013/2014 season, Union inaugurated their new main stand during a friendly against Celtic (3-0 win). The main stand building has a factory-like façade, perfectly suited to a club with a working class reputation. The new Alte Försterei can host around 22,000 fanatic red-and-white clad supporters.
Since their promotion into the 2nd Bundesliga, Union have not looked back. Their progress in the first four years in the league has been steady (12th, 11th, 7th, 7th). Some purists out there may say, “wait, was there progress last season?” The answer is, yes, as Union still contended for the crowded final promotion slot with 1. FC Köln, FSV Frankfurt, TSV 1860 München and 1. FC Kaiserslautern. Crowded indeed.
Union has achieved its current higher level of play by increasing the player’s work rate . For example, off days were almost nonexistent during the last season. However, as the 2012/13 season drew to a close, Union could not maintain consistency. Union had a fierce match against Hertha BSC at the Olympiastadion, in which the club gave up a late equalizer, seeming to signal a slide in the table the following weeks. In the end, Union claimed 34 of their 49 points at home (3rd best), compared to only 15 away points (14th best).
How does Union prevent more away-match agony? Coach Uwe Neuhaus and the board seem to have made the right decisions to set the next step in Union’s development. They invested smartly in players with Bundesliga experience, as well as technical and strategical abilities to change matches.
Arguably the biggest signing is the defender Mario Eggimann, who came on a free transfer from Hannover 96. A fit Eggimann is without a doubt Bundesliga material, which he showed at both Karlsruher SC and Hannover 96. Besides Eggimann, Union added another workhorse with Benjamin Köhler. The Berlin-born ex-Eintracht Frankfurt (et al) midfielder will fill in the space of Björn Jopek, who heartbreakingly tore his ACL in the final match of last season.
For more creativity in the attacking midfield, Martin Dausch was brought over from VfR Aalen. Dausch is an up-and-coming player in the league despite his somewhat matured age (27). He is a versatile midfielder with an eye for the final pass and the ability to contribute with goals. He will provide the link between the midfield and strikers, Adam Nemec and Simon Terodde, who both suffered from a lack of distribution last season. Dausch can be their man.
Sören Brandy and Damir Kreilach are the final newcomers. Brandy, a forward who came on a free transfer from license-endangered MSV Duisburg, is very familiar with the second tier. He is not a 20-goals-a-season striker, but can at times shift a match’s momentum. Kreilach (from HNK Rijeka) is a defensive midfielder, replacing Christoph Menz, who signed with Dynamo Dresden.
All in all, the new players are solid upgrades from a year ago.
The additions will bring experience and, most of all, tactical cleverness to a side that already has a natural leader in Torsten Mattuschka. He is – without a shadow of doubt – the number 1 fan favourite. “Tusche” joined Union in the Oberliga (then 4th tier) and he has established himself as a squad ever since. After Union was promoted to 3.Bundesliga, many supporters thought Mattuschka would be outclassed at the higher level. He wasn’t. The same discussion turned up at the next promotion. Again, he wasn’t outclassed. Now, Mattuschka captains the side with another big promotion goal: to play top-tier football.
In a league without Hertha BSC and Eintracht Braunschweig, there will be a power shift. Sides like Kaiserslautern, Köln, Greuther Fürth and Fortuna Düsseldorf will compete for the top-three places. Union is amongst the best of the rest.
With a fully rebuilt stadium and its attendant commercial benefits, it is now up to the players and the staff to close the narrowing gap even more, starting with a home match this coming Sunday against VfL Bochum.
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