The city’s first Major League Soccer team, The Philadelphia Union, kicked off its local games with a home opener at the Lincoln Financial Field against D.C. United on Saturday.
At 1 o’clock this past Saturday afternoon, the scene outside Lincoln Financial Field was an unfamiliar one. There were no drunken men chanting the Eagles’ fight song and no People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protestors voicing their disapproval of Michael Vick. Actually, there was no football game at all – well, no American football game at least.
Instead, there was what Americans call a soccer match. It was the first time Philadelphia soccer fans would see their brand new Major League Soccer team, the Union, in action.
Since the team’s new stadium, to be located on the riverfront of Chester, was not finished in time, the Linc played home to the game.
The parking lots were not jam-packed like the Eagles and Phillies games, but a ton of people still came out and enjoyed the beautiful weather.
Many Philadelphians have waited years for this, and on Saturday, a Philadelphia MLS match finally became a reality.
The movement to secure the team began a little more than three years ago, when the city and investors started to discuss a potential team in this soccer-crazed market.
As talks went on behind the scenes on the business side, some local soccer enthusiasts started their own support group, Sons of Ben. Named for Ben Franklin, this organization started as a small group of friends and continued to grow. Over time, Sons of Ben established a strong online presence and saw its ideas spread quickly through the region. For Saturday’s game, the group boasted about 4,500 members.
Before there was actually a Philadelphia team, the group organized trips to the MLS Super Draft in Baltimore last January. And a few hundred members made the trip to Seattle for the Union’s first game ever. Even out-of-town fans made the trip for the game.
“I drove all the way down from Boston to attend the home opener,” said Derek Pastuszek, a sophomore film major at Boston University, who was tailgating with his friends before the kickoff. “There was no chance I was going to miss this game.”
After the opening ceremonies, which included an appearance from Vice President Joe Biden, the match got under way shortly after 6 p.m.
The atmosphere of 34,870 cheering spectators was something Philadelphia sport fans have never experienced before. According to MLS Daily, so far this season, MLS games are averaging higher attendance rates than both National Hockey League and National Basketball Association.
Soccer consists of two 45-minute halves with little to no breaks. There are no time outs, huddles or penalty boxes in soccer.
Union supporters stood for the entire 90 minutes of the game. Although it was the first game, fans already had chants and songs in place to fire up their team.
After just five minutes, fans were rewarded by the French forward Sébastien Le Toux, who scored the Union’s first goal of the game. Not only was it the first goal of the game, it was the first goal ever for the Philadelphia Union.
Le Toux went on to score another before the end of the half to assure the Union would have a comfortable lead for the second half.
However, that was not the case when D.C. United scored two unanswered goals to tie the game at two.
It was the only time supporters were silent. They seemed to have lost all hope with only 15-minutes left in the match.
That all changed when D.C. United committed a foul just outside its box to give the Union the perfect opportunity to go one up. The star of the night, Le Toux, stepped up to take the free kick and placed it perfectly in the lower left corner of the net to beat D.C. United’s keeper.
Union fans erupted when they saw the ball slip past the keep and into the net. The goal was enough to solidify the Union’s first-ever MLS win.
Everyone jumped up and down, hugged strangers and high-fived friends. They showed all the signs of real soccer fans with their high intensity and passion for their team.
“It was amazing,” Michael L’erario, a junior business major from Drexel University, said. “I’m at a loss for words right now. I have been a soccer fan all my life and always had to support Liverpool in England. Now I can support a team that I can call my own, the Union.”
When the final whistle blew and fans began to empty the stadium, the Union had clearly made its mark on Philadelphia. Fans, young and old, walked out of the stadium chanting in unity, “Philadelphia!” – followed by a clap, clap, clap, clap – a chant that will be heard in the city for years to come.
Colin Kerrigan can be reached at email@example.com.