Bridging the gap in Philadelphia – Copa America versus MLS

All of the best adventures happen on accident. The journey to Philadelphia was purely accidental. The beginning of my June adventure was to take me from Phoenix to Chicago to Orlando to Philadelphia.

Multiple Copa America games were to be attended, time zones crossed, and possibly a variety of beers to be had.

 

But it is funny what happens to one’s plans when a fever comes about and it is not related to one’s passion of the beautiful game. After just one leg of the trip in Phoenix the Copa cruise needed to be delayed.

No Chicago or Orlando and the first two legs of Philadelphia had to be be scrapped. No one likes a sick journalist including editors having to make sense of pieces being scrapped together using Robotussin.

When trying to make sense of previously scrapped Copa plans a new opportunity presented itself. Lost among the perceiveed hype and fervor of the Copa America and the very real hype and fervor of the European Championships was the U.S. Open Cup.

With the Philadelphia Union hosting the Harrisburg City Islanders just one day after Chile was to play Panama it appeared that there was hope to travel and catch some of summer matches.

The first match, Chile versus Panama appeared, at least on paper, to be a bit of a one-sided affair. Chile are the defending Copa America champions (and depending upon whom you speak with will still be the defending champion after this tournament) while Panama is a side that just finished off getting destroyed by Hurricane Messi.

Before the match the crowd was very pro-Chile. The reason for this is twofold. First, there is a large Chilean population in the Northeastern part of the United States.

Chile, like many of the other South and Central American supporters, will travel large distances at times to see the national team of the country that they were born in.

Second, the names on the back of the jersey seemed to help. Although the South American influence of the match was apparent, so too was the superstar status.

Featuring a side of Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal, Aruto Vidal of FC Barcelona, and Eduardo Vargas of 1899 Hoffenheim Chile undoubtedly carried the superstar status in this match.

This was evident from the number of jerseys being worn by fans at Lincoln Financial Field that still had the creases in them.

Despite Panama taking a shocking early lead and Chile’s three-headed monster putting on a show in their comeback there was a certain lack of excitement to the match.

Even through the extra thick glass in the pressbox there were very few chants or songs that could be heard. A half-hearted attempt to even try the wave, a move that is reviled among traditionalists, was unable to gather steam.

 

Even the players seemed to be pleased with the end result. Sitting in the mixed zone after the match most of the players walked briskly by avoiding any and all attempts to talk about the match.

Luis Tejeda, the young Arabe Unido midfielder, was only one of a handful of players to acknowledge the press. Most just more than happy to put on their Beats by Dre headphones.

Perhaps it was due to their victory but the Chilean players were more interested in talking to the press. Vidal took great pains to speak with each and every member of the press, eager to field questions about Chile’s turn of form, Pizzi’s tactical adjustments, and the challenge ahead of Mexico.

At the end of the match I took an Uber car pool ride home with a young couple. During our conversation they mentioned that they just moved to the Philadelphia area and that this was their first soccer match.

I didnt ask if they will be attending the Union match tomorrow.

Lesson learned about PPL Park: it is not in Philadelphia. It is in Chester. Although the two cities share a metro line they are literally 17 miles apart. While that might not sound like much, the two cities could not be farther apart.

One is a city whose unemployment rate is 6.5%; the other had a rate of over 17% just five years ago. One is considered one of the top cities in the world for technological development; Chester, on the other hand, has widespread problems revolving around crime and the drug trade.

Still there was something charming and loveable about the city of Chester and the Union. As opposed to Tuesday’s match at Lincoln Financial Field, which felt more like a corporate shill for the Philadelphia Eagles and the other area sports teams, PPL Park felt like a soccer pitch and the supporters seemed to be interested in going to a soccer match.

As opposed to the previous evening – where the match felt like a chore to event organisers – the love and excitement for all things Union was engrossing. From the head of media communications Chris Winkler stopping by to say hello, to each and every seurity guard there was a family feeling to the game.

 

Even the supporters were fun and exciting. ‘The Sons of Ben’, the local supporters group who played a large role in earning a Major League Soccer franchise back in 2010, were very much factors in the match singing after every goal and yelling pointed comments at the Islanders and the referees after contentious moments.

Although the Union did allow two goals late, the team prevailed on a soaring free kick from Roland Alberg to earn a late victory over the Islanders.

The Union, who find themselves at the top of the MLS Eastern Conference Standings, would be moving on while the Islanders will head back to USL match play, their hopes of Open Cup glory dashed.

As opposed to taking the SEPTA train system back to my b&b after the match I once again opted to take an Uber. My driver, Kevin, was from South Korea.

When he asked what I was doing all the way down in Chester, I mentioned that I was there for the Philadelphia Union soccer match. His response was rather telling and rather unfortunate, given that I would later learn that he was a soccer fan:

I didn’t know that Philadelphia had a soccer team.

This discrepancy in the footballing culture of Philadelphia is no different than any other city across the United States. The divide between certain supporters who enjoy the spectacle of major international matches and those that enjoy club football is a problem that all cities face.

What is interesting is that despite their perceived differences, both suffer from an issue of lack of exposure.

In Philadelphia, the Union’s footprint upon the footballing landscape appears to be minimal given the proximity of the stadium to downtown and the lack of advertising in the area.

Although it is possible that the team is focusing on different demographics it is rather sad to see no Philadelphia Union jerseys but plenty of Chile, Panama, and European jerseys.

The lack of organisation between all parties leading up to this match was curious. Given that U.S. Soccer is the organizer of both the U.S. Open Cup and the Copa America it is strange that there were no signs at Lincoln Financial Field of the Union or the U.S. Open Cup.

Although MLS has been accused of in the past not caring about the Open Cup, these accusations seem better pointed at U.S. Soccer.

If this is the football association and it is responsible for promoting their own tournaments then it has failed at both the Copa and U.S. Open Cup. The lack of advertising in host cities for two major tournaments would not be tolerated in any other footballing country.

The Field of Dreams approach that U.S. Soccer has used for years to promote the game is finally coming to a head. The supporters expect more out of their FA and for the sake of trying to build the game U.S. Soccer have to do more.

What saved this tournament in the ‘City of Brotherly love’ was the passion and love of the local supporters and organizers. Although the two gamses featured two very different sets of fans, what was evident was the excitement that both groups had for the beautiful game.

The question now Philadelphia faces is tying the two together. There is a larger soccer fanbase for the Union to tap into. As evidenced by the 20,000 strong that showed up for Chile-Panama there are certainly those that will scoff at the level of play of the Union. But there are those, especially with young children, that would gladly attend a game in Chester.

The caveat is though that they have to know about it ahead of time.

Philadelphia, much like many cities here in the United States, has a passion for the game of football and an appreciation for it that is without question. But its identity is fractured by old divisions between those that love the domestic game and those that espouse the joy of the greats who play abroad.

Will the two ever come together, realising that they have more similarities than differences? Hard to tell.

Author Details

Sean Maslin

BPF Columnist, Washington Spirit/D.C. United beat writer and general editor-Prost Amerika, Columnist-Playing for 90. Radio MLS: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/radio-mls/id979377624?mt=2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*