Friday, March 26, 2010

Philadelphia Union


There was a big local football event last night that was covered fully by ESPN2 for hours in prime time. No, I'm not talking about the Philadelphia Eagles and trade talk involving Donovan McNabb or their other quarterbacks or their upcoming draft. I'm talking about the game that the entire world outside of the United States knows as 'football', but that we here refer to as 'soccer'.

A new era dawned for our sports-crazed town when the Philadelphia Union stepped on to the pitch at a jam-packed and rowdy Qwest Field in Seattle to take on the host Sounders in the Union's first-ever official MLS regular season match in franchise history.

The sport of soccer has been the fastest-growing sport in America for two decades now. Youth programs have exploded across the country since the 1980's. Yet still the game has generally floundered here at the pro level as it has attempted to emerge from the huge shadows cast by Major League Baseball, The NFL, the NHL, and the NBA. Those days may fast be coming to an end.

The youthful generation that grew up playing the sport is now reaching the age where the spending power of their pocketbooks and their interest in watching such events is opening up a legitimate place in the market for Major League Soccer to succeed and now even expand here in the States, including now finally returning the game to the Philly market.

Soccer's professional history in Philadelphia has been mixed but ultimately futile in the past. On April 16th, 1967 the Philadelphia Spartans took to the field at Temple University and shutout the Toronto Falcons 2-0 in front of more than 14,000 fans in the inaugural game of the fledgling National Professional Soccer League. It would ultimately mark the only season in the team's history.

At the end of that season, the NPSL merged with United Soccer Association to form the North American Soccer League (NASL), but Pennsylvania lost out completely when both the Philly and Pittsburgh teams from the NPSL were folded. NASL would last from 1968 all the way through 1984, and would see a return to Philly of pro soccer as well.

In 1973 the Philadelphia Atoms were born for their first season of play in NASL at the new Veteran's Stadium. Led by one of the earliest big American stars, goalkeeper Bob Rigby, the Atoms won the East Division and then won the NASL championship in their first season of existence when they downed the Dallas Tornado 2-0 in the title match.

The first-year success of the Atoms did not last. The club played on for three more seasons, the final one at Franklin Field, and never again recorded a winning season. The franchise was finally placed in 'receivership' by NASL, and Philly would find itself completely without pro soccer for the 1977 season. Few seemed to know, and even fewer to care.

Then in 1978, NASL returned pro soccer to the city with the birth of the Philadelphia Fury. The Fury was owned by a rock star group that included Paul Simon, Peter Frampton and Rick Wakeman and would be an 'indoor' team playing at the Spectrum. Rigby played for the Fury, but the team itself failed to secure a winning record in any of it's three seasons and drew just over 18,000 total fans in those years. The team was sold after the 1980 season and moved to Montreal before being dissolved after the 1983 season.

It was a long dry spell for pro soccer fans in Philadelphia at this point before finally in 1996 the indoor Philadelphia Kixx were born in the National Professional Soccer League. The club would go on to win two titles in the Major Indoor Soccer League in 2002 and 2007. The Kixx continue to compete in indoor professional soccer, playing to a mostly niche audience.

The wait for real, full-blown, world class outdoor-style professional football/soccer stretched for almost three decades until finally it was announced that Philadelphia had been awarded a franchise in Major League Soccer. MLS had begun in the early-90's, and has proven to be the most successful and stable professional league in American history.

The Philadelphia Union name was selected by a combination of fan and ownership input, and a site was chosen on the banks of the Delaware River in Chester, PA for building a brand-new 18,500 fan capacity state-of-the art outdoor soccer stadium. That stadium, PPL Park, is near completion and should open this summer. The Union will play their first two home matches, including the April 10th opener vs. DC United, at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philly.

For last night's franchise debut, the Union could not have been given a more formidable task. The opponents were the Seattle Sounders, one of the leading contenders for the Western Division and overall MLS titles in 2010. The Union took the field with the youngest roster in MLS, while the Sounders field a lineup of strong, skilled, experienced stars.

Seattle was an expansion franchise just a year ago, and proved to be the most highly successful such franchise in league history. Fans flocked to Qwest Field and made noise from start to finish. The team responded with a winning record before being shocked out of the playoffs. This year, Seattle and their fans are primed for a run at the MLS crown, and last night both the team and the fans were in roaring form.

Manager Peter Nowak's young Union actually came out pretty strong, mostly setting the pace for the first 10 minutes. But a breakdown in their defensive zone in the 12th minute resulted in a fairly easy goal for the Sounders' Brad Evans. The Union had yielded the first goal in team history and were down 1-0 on the road, and momentum for the rest of the first half shifted overtly to the Seattle side.

As the Sounders continued to apply pressure to the Union side and halftime approached, things went from bad to downright ugly. In the 41st minute, Union defender Toni Stahl's rugged play dealt them a fatal blow. Already yellow-carded (warned) once for rough play, Stahl received his 2nd yellow and the accompanying automatic red-card (ejection), leaving the Union to play the rest of the match a man short.

This was a bit too much for the youthful expansion club. Less than two minutes after Stahl's exit, Seattle star Fredy Montero banged in a shot from close range, and the host Sounders had a big 2-0 lead. The Union appeared on the ropes and were lucky to get to halftime trailing by that same margin.

Having to play an entire 2nd half on the road in a steady rain against a more experienced opponent in front of a vocal crowd and already down 2-0, things looked bleak for the Philadelphia side. However, the team acquitted itself well for the most part. The shorthanded situation generally kept them from any real, quality scoring chances, but they were able to dodge some bullets and play securely enough that the same 2-0 halftime score would end up being the final.

The bright side for the Union on the field came from the performances of a number of players. Goalkeeper Chris Seitz was generally steady and showed that he can succeed if given a full opportunity as a starter protecting the Philly nets and leading the back end. Forwards Sebastien Le Toux and Alejandro Moreno looked good and each had bright moments on the offensive end. Tiny American teenager Jack McInerney showed steely-eyed determination, speed and skill in a late cameo appearance.

The Union were also forced to play the entirety of their inaugural game without Fred, the 30-year star Brazilian forward who is expected to be a huge part of their team. Fred was serving a 1-game suspension for an incident while playing at the end of last season for D.C. United, and will return to the Union lineup for their home opener on April 10th at the Linc against his former team.

So professional soccer is back in Philadelphia. The Union will play approximately once a week now through a 28-game season that will end in October. There will be a 2 1/2 week break in mid-June for the playing of the World Cup. The team may be young, but it has talent and showed under extremely adverse circumstances last night that it has heart as well. That characteristic is something which will serve it well in this always tough sports town.

I turned in to the MLS Cup championship last fall and watched a thrilling game as Real Salt Lake battled David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy to a 1-1 tie in regulation, then won 5-4 on penalty kicks. That game and the pending birth of the Union have me excited about and interested in pro soccer for the first time in my life. My wife and I will be attending the Union's first-ever home opener, and I'll be following them regularly.

It's time, Philadelphia. This is a truly great sports town, and there is really no reason that we cannot devote a portion of our loyalty and attention to this extremely worth game. The franchise seems to have made a longterm commitment to our area, so we can safely put our affections into it's hands. Go ahead, watch some games. Go to a game or two. Let down your guard, Philly, and embrace the new kids in town, the Philadelphia Union.

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