I am! So are the legions of dedicated fans the Philadelphia Union has grown in its first three seasons with Major League Soccer. The excitement is building as the club’s Saturday season opener draws near. Honestly, Union fans are among the most dedicated I’ve seen in any sport.
But in this first Union blog, I’m aiming in another direction: toward those of you who haven’t yet taken the plunge. True, there are a lot of sports and entertainment options locally, but the Union offers an experience that’s right up there with the rest. So, here’s my sales pitch.
Philadelphia Union soccer is very accessible. The club’s home opener is on 6abc at 4 p.m. this Saturday and virtually all of the team’s matches are televised this season across various locally-seen outlets including 6abc and ESPN.
Our home “pitch” is at beautiful PPL Park along the Delaware River just south of the Commodore Barry Bridge in Chester, with easy access from I-95. It’s a smartly designed facility that’s big enough to be impressive, but small enough to mimic the intimate feel of most English soccer stadiums. There are about 18,500 seats and there’s not a bad one in the house.
A Union game is kid-friendly. Most kids have played soccer, after all, so they know what it’s about. And kid-oriented activities are often set-up on the lawn outside the main gates prior to the game, from toddler soccer to live music, and there’s an impressive array of food options in the concourse.
As for the game itself, forget every video you’ve ever seen of marauding European football fans. This is not a rowdy atmosphere, just lively. The heck-raising Sons of Ben are all packed into the River End section of the stadium and provide a fun and very different experience than what you’ll find at other sports venues. Toe-tapping songs are sung throughout and everybody does the “doop” song whenever the home side gets one in the net.
And MLS Soccer is not as taxing on your time as other sports; games only last about 2 hours, including the half-time break. And with no time outs, the action never stops.
Finally, the team looks much improved this year. In case you missed it, last season was filled with off-field drama including some unpopular trades and the eventual sacking of the former manager. This off-season, new manager John Hackworth and his staff have gone about correcting the past, holding on to the core of young talent that really started clicking during last season’s second half, and adding three key veteran players. Abington, PA, native Jeff Parke is a defender who starred with Seattle. Conor Casey is the kind of player Philadelphia loves in any sport, a hard-nosed, gritty guy with a scoring touch who starred for years with the Colorado Rapids. The biggest move was to bring back all-time Union goal leader, Sebastian LeToux, the flying Frenchman who wears you out just watching him as he applies his all-in energy style to every game.
I can’t guarantee a fast start this season. The Union’s first two opponents have been among the league’s elite clubs recently. And in soccer, it sometimes takes a bit for new additions to get to know each other, much like new line mates in ice hockey. But there’s a very good chance for a couple of hot streaks out of this team this season, as well as the club’s second play-off berth. Remember: you get 3-points for a win in the MLS and a club can pretty quickly vault through the standings when things start going right.
NEW FAN TIP: Soccer gets a knock sometimes for being too low-scoring. First of all, that’s not always true. Two seasons ago, I was one of the lucky fans who got to see the Union come back from a 4-1 deficit in the second half! Still, goals are usually hard to knock-in. Watch about five or six Union games and you’ll find that this only adds to the drama, especially when the club is playing well, pressing the other side’s defense, and coming oh-so-close. The good news is that the Union have traditionally been pretty strong defensively. With the additions of a couple of veterans up front and the return of young spark plugs like Jack McInerney and Antoine Hoppenot, hopefully, they’ll be even more dangerous in offensive end this year, too.