Saturday, April 10, 2010

UNION - 3, D.C. United - 2

Young Roger Torres has proven to be one of the most exciting players on the youngest team in Major League Soccer, and the 19-year old Philadelphia Union forward was a key player in setting up the first goal in franchise history. I was there, but thanks to Vice President Joe Biden, I didn't get to see it live.

My wife and I had purchased a pair of great tickets, just off mid-field on the west side of Lincoln Financial Field, in anticipation of seeing this Inaugural home match, the first for the new expansion Union in front of their home crowd in Philadelphia. Unfortunately for Deb, she got sick in the days leading up to the match, and was still sick on game day.

My eldest daughter, Christine, pinch-hit and accompanied me to the match, and we got to enjoy a nice dad-daughter evening at The Linc. Unfortunately it got off to a slow start. Even though we arrived more than a half hour before the scheduled kickoff and were able to quickly and luckily find a great parking slot despite the crush of fans, our progress into The Linc was halted at the front door, literally.

It turns out that U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden had been solicited by the club to kick-out the ceremonial 'first ball', and thus the security at the front gates was unbelievable. Every fan entering and ever bag they carried was searched and screened, making for a massive holdup at those gates. It took us about 40 minutes to get through the sea of humanity and make our way into The Linc.

As we began to trek around the concourse to our seats, we scanned the food and merchandise concessions, and just then heard the roar of the crowd inside. Torres had been awarded a 'corner kick', blasted the ball inside, and then taken a carom and quickly fed the ball to striker Sebastian LeToux who came streaking towards the goal and headed it home for that first-ever goal in Union history.


The huge crowd of nearly 35,000 fans was whipped into a frenzy while Chrissy and I sighed and headed for the concessions. I picked her up a Union scarf, got myself a Union hooded sweartshirt to replace the Phillies one that I had worn to the field, we got some grub, and then headed for our seats. Turns out the seats were as good as advertised, in the 11th row and just off midfield, so we had a great view of all the action and were right in the middle of the massive, crowd.

To say that the atmosphere was electric would be to downplay things. Philadelphia-area soccer and sports fans did themselves proud at this home opener, particularly the controlled rowdiness in the light-blue shirted 'Sons of Ben' section over at the north end of the field. The 'Sons' stand, dance, chant, sing, and roar throughout the matches, and they were in opening day form throughout this one.

The opponents for this first-ever tilt on the Philly pitch were D.C. United from just down the I-95 road in our nation's capital. Bus loads of Washington United fans had come up to Philly, and were mostly all seated together in the Linc's upper level on the south side, backs to I-95. They roared and chanted and sang for their team for most of the match, particularly in the 2nd half.

It turns out also that Union team manager Peter Nowak was directing his club from the press box in this opening match. The timing of history had interrupted his enjoyment of the festivities.

Nowak is from Poland, and just a day earlier a plane crash had killed the Polish president along with a number of other Polish dignitaries, including a couple who were personally close with Nowak. He stayed off the sidelines in mourning, leaving the direct chore to his top assistant, John Hackworth, but still fulfilled his responsibilities to his team by monitoring and coaching from that press box.

The first half proved to be all Union. After LeToux's first goal he had added another on a mad-dash streak down the sideline, which he finished by burying a well-placed shot to the long side of United goalkeeper Troy Perkins.

With the score 2-0 Union at the half, the franchise put on a nice display celebrating and honoring Philadelphia's mostly failed pro soccer history, inviting back players from those teams of yester-year including the champion Philadelphia Atoms of the early 1970's.

The 2nd half proved to be an entirely different story. A pair of hiccups by Union goalkeeper Chris Seitz, particularly on the tying goal which he dropped at his own feet directly into those of waiting United star Jaime Moreno, allowed the match to be tied up at 2-2 after 68 minutes.

With just 10 minutes remaining, a D.C. foul gave the Union a chance on a free kick. LeToux took the shot and didn't waste his chance, again burying a drive into the back of the net for a hat trick and a 3-2 Union lead.

The hometown Philly crowd remained on their feet for pretty much the rest of the tilt as the home team continually outplayed and outhustled United to most every ball. After 90 minutes and about 4 more in stoppage time had elapsed, the ref signalled the end of the match, and the fans erupted in joy.

The Union players mobbed one another, and then in a fun, emotional display the players ran down as a group to the north end and lept up into the stands into the waiting arms of their 'Sons of Ben' fan club members in celebration of the 3-2 win and as a salute to the great support of the fans.

All in all it was an extremely fun evening down at The Linc with the Philadelphia Union for my daughter and I, further solidifying my new-found enjoyment of what is the most popular sport in the world.

My interest began when the Union were awarded their franchise a couple years ago. It continued as I watched last year's MLS Cup Final in which Real Salt Lake upset the LA Galaxy in the championship at Seattle on television.

After this experience, I would and will advise anyone who has a chance to get out to a Union match and take up the cause of supporting the newest Philly team in moving forward in this great game.

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