Philadelphia the perfect location for budding rivalries
Nestled an equal distance from Washington and New York, Philadelphia has always had sports fans who took pride in its city's teams and in hating teams from D.C. and N.Y.
That hasn't really applied to soccer fans. With no pro team to cheer for in the first dozen years of Major League Soccer's existence, fans from Philly have generally rooted for either D.C. United or the New York Red Bulls/MetroStars. The two-hour drives to see those teams play made them natural draws and helped Philadelphia soccer fans establish some bonds with those non-Philly clubs.
It is safe to say those bonds are being broken. Major League Soccer's expected selection of Philadelphia (likely to be announced Thursday) as its 16th franchise will be a unique one in that the league will be establishing a team in a city that already has MLS fans, but has never had an MLS club to call its own.
Bryan James was one of those Philly fans with strong ties to an MLS cub. A longtime D.C. United supporter from the inaugural MLS season in 1996, James was in RFK Stadium less than a year ago, watching D.C. face Chivas de Guadalajara in the Champions Cup, when he had an epiphany.
With a Philly expansion franchise looking more and more likely, he was going to have to choose between the team he had spent a decade rooting for and the club that would share his home. James made his decision right then and there amidst a sea of D.C. United fans.
"I realized it during that game," James said. "This isn't my team anymore."
Not only did James sever his ties to D.C. United, which he began following while attending college in North Carolina 12 years earlier, but he decided to use the experience he gained as part of D.C. United supporters' groups to start a group for Philadelphia fans.
That group, Sons of Ben, has gone from an idea James hoped would create a group of 100 fans to a group with more than 1,500 registered members. James, now the president of Sons of Ben, believes that somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the group's members supported D.C. United or the Red Bulls before, but have now aligned themselves with the eventual home team, whatever Philly-flavored name it may have.
"Having those teams nearby definitely helped create a connection with Philly fans and MLS and you will see that when the new team is here," James said. "There aren't just soccer fans in the area, but MLS fans who know the league and can appreciate the rivalries that will exist right from the beginning."
Two people who will be looking forward to that rivalry are Red Bulls defender Jeff Parke and goalkeeper Jon Conway. The two Philadelphia-area natives know that the love for MLS already exists and the expansion team will serve to create the types of rivalries professional leagues thrive on.
"It's going to be great because places like D.C. and [New York] already have Philly fans traveling to see games because they love the sport," Parke said. "Now that they're going to have their own team it's going to be amazing, and not just for Philly fans.
"Now, New York fans will have two more games where they can go at it with fans from the other team," Parke said. "The same with D.C., so I'm pretty excited to see how well the team does because I know the soccer fans are there."
"The community will definitely support it," Conway said. "Growing up in that area, it's a soccer-rich area so it's a great city to expand to.
"My family is already getting ready to purchase tickets so it's going to be great."
As to whether Conway might someday be in goal for a team that will open its new stadium just two miles from where he grew up? He wouldn't rule it out.
"Maybe, it's a long time away but you never know," Conway said. "Hopefully I'll still be playing well and get a chance to go down there. Who knows, you never know where the game's going to take you."
With native sons like Conway, Parke, Chris Albright and Bobby Convey potentially returning as players, and with fans like James trading in their long-distance allegiances for a brand-new hometown team, the MLS expansion franchise in Philadelphia will have plenty of support when it arrives in 2010.
That support won't come from only locals, but also from fans in Washington and New York who will be grateful to have another nearby stadium to visit, another neighboring team to root against and another set of fans with whom to share the MLS experience.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.