Growing up in Northeast Philly in the 80’s, I bowed in reverence to the usual suspects. Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton for the Phillies, Reggie White and Randall Cunningham for the Eagles, Julius Irving and Charles Barkley for the Sixers, and Brian Propp and Ron Hextall for the Flyers. That is also the order in which I was introduced to viewing the four major sports. Baseball was my first love. My dad made sure of that. I would say the first ten sporting events I attended were baseball games at Veterans Stadium. Baseball was king back then. Monday Night Baseball was the highlight of the week, even though the Phillies were rarely if ever included, and deservedly so. Most of the 80’s when I started watching were a struggle for them. Schmidt’s 500th home run was no doubt my favorite baseball highlight growing up. There was no soccer.
I still remember my first Sixers game in the mid-eighties and they were already playing tribute videos for Dr. J with Billy Joel’s “These Are the Days” as the accompanying tune. I could sense I was witnessing something special, being able to watch him live one of the last few times at the Spectrum. To this day, I can recall the Sixers losing to the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs and watching him leave the crowded floor with the game ball raised above his head. That was the first moment watching anything involving sports that had me wiping away tears. Barkley would immediately take over the team and he would have his own highlight reel the following year played on the big screen at the Spectrum, backed by Scandal and Patty Smyth’s “Warrior”. I’ll never forget Randall Cunningham’s plastic man imitation on Monday Night Football versus the hated New York Giants, or Keith Byars sending Pepper Johnson into next week and beyond, or the game that we all hate to remember; the Fog Bowl. I remember hearing live on 610, Howard Eskin announcing the death of Jerome Brown and sitting shocked in my bedroom. For the Flyers, I loved watching Eric Lindros maul over defenders but being so disappointed that the team never reached its full potential. They were oh so close. There was no soccer.
I remember watching the 1985 NCAA Men’s Championship in the kitchen with my dad, and the shock on his face as to what Villanova was doing to Georgetown. I didn’t understand the magnitude of that game for another few years. I also became a tennis fan, watching Boris Becker battle Ivan Lendl at Wimbledon in my living room with my grandfather. It had something about it that I couldn’t shake and eventually I attended twelve consecutive U.S. Open’s, as well as taking a tour of the grounds at the All England Club in Wimbledon. Even golf, yes golf would garner my attention at times. If I put the television on in my room and it was smack dab in the middle of a tournament, I’d watch for hours to see the outcome. How could I forget bowling, an ABC Wide World of Sports staple. There was still no soccer.
Any friends who played sports in the local little league, played baseball and/or basketball. Only one of my best friends played soccer and it was just as unimportant and inconsequential to the goings-on in my youth as anything could have been. Many soccer kids were looked at as not true athletes or not cool playing “that” game. I thought, who can’t just kick a ball around.? Who hasn’t played kickball in gym or kicked one of those big rubber balls in the backyard. Please, don’t waste my time with that. And he didn’t. I honestly can’t say if soccer was ever on tv in the 80’s or early 90’s. If it was, I was ignorant of it. In school, when you’d get to the short section on sports in a history text-book, you of course know what the only mention of soccer was Pele and only Pele. You would have thought he played by himself against himself. That was that.
It was around 2004-05. I was invited to a friend of a friend’s birthday party at Fado in center city. It was in a small corner room and when I think back, the match on the tv in the upper corner was most likely an English Premiere League match. I didn’t know anyone at this party except my one friend, so my focus was on the food, and the match. The rules escaped me. I didn’t even know what a corner kick was and why it was awarded. But, I enjoyed and admired the atmosphere, crowd focus, and the intensity. Would have liked some scoring but that is a point of adjustment for many soccer novices.
Then it happened. It was 2010. A friend of my girlfriend at the time just happened to be the Philadelphia Union’s first Vice President of Marketing and Communications. She offered us tickets to visit PPL Park and take in a Union match. I was indifferent. It had been five years since that party at Fado and any urge to dive further in had evaporated. All I knew about Major League Soccer was that David Beckham played for the LA Galaxy. I couldn’t have named another club or player. I begrudgingly agreed to go with her. Getting closer to the stadium I was really regretting this trip and then I saw the stadium. Hmm, it looks like a real stadium and actually kinda cool. I honestly don’t remember much about the match but I admired the effort and toughness of the players on both sides. At that point, I couldn’t say anything for strategy or style of play. What felt familiar were some of the fans shouting at the referee and getting as angry as I had seen anyone at a Phillies or Sixers game. I was surprised they could care this much about a soccer match. It was an odd feeling but a good one. I shouldn’t be liking this, right?
I instantly developed an affinity for the scoring combination of Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga. Granted, I was new to the sport and hadn’t yet learned the intricacies of the game. I took my one childhood soccer friend with me to one of my next few matches, and as difficult as it was, I learned what the hell off-sides was and why a corner kick was awarded. As I watched more, I realized what warranted a yellow card and what should result in a red card. Then I found myself yelling at the referee and linesmen as intensely as I had at any official at a Phillies, Eagles, Flyers or Sixers game. I started appreciating the intricacies of the game, how everyone on the field matters, and the precision and timing most goals require.
I wanted to spread the word about what an awesome experience a live Union match can be, what it was like to “Doop!”, but I was admittedly hesitant. My core group of friends and family never mentioned and never cared about the sport, except for maybe a nephew playing little league. I wanted to go more (my girlfriend couldn’t go to as many as I wanted to) so that’s when I began mentioning it to anyone whose company I could stand for the 45-minute drive to Chester. I pushed PPL Park more than the actual game at first. I think it’s the best looking stadium of any of the other city teams. Countless friends and family began attending games and the reviews were all positive. A few even bought tickets on their own.
About a year later, I bumped into one of my favorite Union players at a charity event, Michael Lahoud, who was there representing the team. We discussed soccer for several minutes. He was so gracious and made me feel like my opinion mattered. I would later find this was the norm for the local soccer club, especially Le Toux, who is still the most-admired Union player since the club’s inception, and my favorite, both on and off the pitch.
To fill the void during the off-season, I began watching Premiere League matches Saturday and Sunday mornings. I became a quasi-Liverpool fan. Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were terrorizing opponents and lighting up the scoreboard so it was an easy decision. During that time, I also joined a league and played off and on for about a year. I had never played an organized game before and that’s not easy to start at 37 years old. I felt as if I was making up for lost time.
So, after a few years of season tickets, I had gotten fed up with ownership, management, coaches, and the club for poor performance and for letting go of Le Toux . I canceled my season tickets but continued to attend a number of matches each year. Never had I an inkling to directly voice my opinion about the other teams in the city, but I started attending town halls to make my concerns and passion known, and hopefully hear encouraging words from Union decision-makers. And now I’m here. More of a Union fan than anything else. Maybe the Sixers and Eagles are tied but it is really close. I currently write stories on the Union for an outstanding up-and-coming Philadelphia sports site, including getting an inside view via the press-box and locker room on match days. It’s a dream I never thought would become a reality. For the longest time, it’s a dream I didn’t know I would even have wanted.
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Mandatory Credit: Jeff Green