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Apr 9, 2010

Fans essential to Union's inception

With the Philadelphia Union's first-ever home match set to take place this Saturday against D.C. United, the sense of anticipation is reaching a crescendo for Union fan Bryan James. But rather than worry about the state of the club's back line, or whether the Union attack will break through for the first goal in team history, James has something else on his mind: His fellow fans.

Or more specifically, the Sons of Ben, an independent Philadelphia supporters group of which James is the president. Much like Union head coach Peter Nowak, James is intent on making the best impression possible this weekend at Lincoln Financial Field. But though Nowak will be worried about the 18 players on his game-day roster, James' focus is on the 2,000 or so Sons of Ben who will be among the expected crowd of 30,000.

"For 1,500 of these people, it's going to be the first time that they've actually come out to an event," James said via telephone. "While we've had 500 or so come out over the years to games and viewings, for the rest of these people, it's going to be like 'You guys are really standing for 90 minutes? Oh, OK, I think I can do this. And what are the lyrics? How does this song go?' I'm more worried about us stinkin' than the team."

Such fretting seems typical Philadelphia, but if the group's track record is anything to go by, James needn't be concerned. Back in January of 2007, after floating the idea on some message boards, James, along with friends Andrew Dillon and Dave Flagler, founded the group over lunch at a Philadelphia watering hole. Rather quickly, the idea became a movement, and membership swelled into the thousands, as did season-ticket requests. And though the process of landing an MLS expansion team has plenty of moving parts, the momentum they generated played a huge role in the city's bid "to form a more perfect Union."

"The Sons of Ben were a critical element of our success in acquiring the team, because they sent a message to the other owners in the league and the league itself that Philadelphia was going to be a well-supported market," said Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz. "That speaks very loudly because when you're up against other cities to be the 16th team, we were able to point to a group of people that we didn't have anything to do with who were supporting MLS in this marketplace."

Along the way, the Sons of Ben attended all manner of events in a bid to hone their edge. In the summer of 2007, they caravanned up to the Meadowlands for an MLS match between the New York Red Bulls and the Kansas City Wizards. Their sole purpose? Heckling Red Bulls fans, of course. One hundred of them attended the 2007 MLS Cup, even though their team was still nothing more than a gleam in their collective eye.

Back on March 25, about 70 members were able to cheer their team on for real, making the cross-country trek to Seattle for the Union's inaugural match against the Sounders. In between renditions of "Diving Montero" (an ode to Seattle forward Fredy Montero sung to the tune of "Guantanamera"), they watched their side fall 2-0. On Saturday, the rest of the group will get to join in while noting how far they have come.

"It was like a pipe dream three years ago," Dillon said. "Now, thinking that two days from now I'm going to be walking into the Linc and watching the Union play, it's surreal. You could push me over with a feather right now."

Yet the group realizes that the ante has been upped. The intense rivalries that Philadelphia has in other sports with cities like New York and Washington, D.C., look set to replicate themselves in MLS. According to a United spokesman, more than 1,000 fans are expected to make the trip north. The irony here is that prior to Philadelphia being awarded an MLS franchise, many members, James among them, supported D.C. United.

So will there be any conflicting emotions Saturday?

"If they still had the players who I really liked when I was cheering for D.C., the answer would be 'Yes,'" James said. "The Ben Olsens, the Marco Etcheverrys, Eddie Pope, even Mario Gori, they're long gone. I don't even recognize the guys that are on the team now except for Jaime Moreno."

There will be stumbles to be sure. Already disagreements have emerged over how best to incorporate the Mummers, who host a parade every New Year's Day in which various groups compete against one another by playing music and dressing up in outlandish, Cirque du Soleil-like costumes. The plan is for one group of Mummers, called the Polish American String Band, to add to the atmosphere by performing inside the stadium. Dillon isn't sure he wants to listen to the group "for the whole 90 minutes." James counters that incorporating the Mummers will make for an atmosphere that is unique to the city.

"Music and guys aren't antonyms in Philadelphia, and that's why I think soccer is going to work here," James said. "The guys that are Mummers are union workers, guys that do labor trades all day, and who also happen to be skilled musicians with the passion to rehearse full skits for a once-a-year kind of deal. The fact that the Eagles are one of the few NFL teams that has a fight song; it's always been a musical celebration town with a very passionate fan base. All of those traditions are going to merge very well, and end up really surprising people with how well soccer does in this town."

Chances are that any issues that arise will become secondary as kickoff approaches. The group is sponsoring an informal, bring-your-own tailgate, as well as a pregame party at a local bar. The Sons of Ben will then convene to march into the stadium, but not before engaging in a little practice for the newcomers. Then once inside, the singing and chanting is expected to continue for the entire game.

James said, "For a lot of people, I'm sure they're going to be reaching for water, beer, soda -- or cough drops."

If that's the case, then such fervor will make for the best kind of first impression.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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