Philadelphia Soccer Is Reborn Today

Philadelphia Soccer Is Reborn Today

Well, it's finally here. The Philadelphia Union will kick off their inaugural MLS season tonight in one of the best sports venues in the country, Qwest Field in Seattle, at 9:30 PM Philly time. 

There have been some bumps along the way, from battles over state and local funding, stadium construction setbacks and opposition to its location, and a league players strike that threatened all the efforts and dollars put toward founding this new team. Some of those difficulties are still underway, but for the most part, the franchise and its supporters have weathered the initial storm, and now they are ready to represent the city and suburbs of Philadelphia. 

In a region dominated by Eagles football, and more recently, championship-caliber Phillies baseball, along with the Flyers and Sixers, the Union have quickly made surprising inroads into building a fanbase. First and foremost, they have captured the existing soccer fans in the area, many of whom had been clamoring for a pro team here—and let's face it, without whom there would be no franchise, at least not yet. The Sons of Ben have led that charge, and done it well while gaining a lot of media exposure for the team, but there are a lot of unbranded fans showing support too. 

Without a doubt, there is still opposition to an MLS club—to any soccer entity—being here. I still don't fully understand the hate on a sporting level, thinking it'd be a lot easier to just ignore that which you don't care for (those who are against it for tax and funding reason are a different story). I ignore LOST and Muse every day. 

But from what I've seen, the franchise isn't begging for universal fan acceptance. They want the soccer fans—those already in love with the beautiful game, and those who someday will be. They seem confident in their product, in their future stadium atmosphere, and they haven't shown any signs of compromising their soccer purist culture to make the team more acceptable on a mainstream level. 

The team has a very classic approach. It isn't flashy, or named after a dinosaur or something from space, and even its colors and logo are simple. Their visual-branding–oriented TV commercials are the furthest thing from overselling or hyping. 

One of the biggest criticisms of soccer is that it is too low scoring, that there aren't enough game-changing events within each contest. Knowing this, while starting a new team and hoping to fill a stadium in Chester, the Union are built on defense, on limiting opposing scoring opportunities. We all love our great Phillies defense, long for the days when the Birds played better without the ball, enjoy big hits and turning the field upside down, but it's offense that really puts asses in the seats no matter what the sport. 


originally uploaded by lancerobson.

The Union's primary focus is on building a successful franchise though, not just selling a 2-hour show for its entertainment value. 

Their coach, Peter Nowak, is known as a hard ass who believes that defense wins games. Sure, a 5-3 loss might appear more interesting than a 2-1 loss or a 1-0 win, but these guys aren't looking for unpredictable, shootout soccer. Nowak wants to control the tempo, dictate the pace, and decide when and how to strike. It's strategy over flash, and maybe the difference between the interest level of the enthusiast and the casual fan. Again though, they're not interested in compromising their soccer values.

Only time, attendance, and dollars will tell if that is the right move in the long term. With ticket sales already exceeding many people's expectations and sponsorships lined up for many team elements, it's hard to find fault in their decisions to date. What remains to be seen is how those soccer fans who have never been interested in the MLS—guys like me—will take to a slower game with less talent on the field than we are used to seeing when we choose to watch soccer. This won't be waking up early on a Saturday to watch Drogba score two highlight goals, or Manchester City take down Man U, or USA in the 2006 World Cup. But it will be a team representing where we live, taking on a squad from some other place, and we've always been into that on every level, from football in sweatpants to the Olympics. It's fun to support your side, and even better when they win. 

I admittedly don't know much about the MLS, nor how the Union will fare in the W-L columns. Some experts think they're not bad though, and having an average-to-good team will go a long way in helping the franchise take root, rather than what we're used to seeing from expansion teams in most other sports. If the latter happens, interest could wane in the half-interested fans, and not grow initially in the soccer-curious crowd. But the crazies won't slog off after a few bad games, or even seasons, which is huge if this season doesn't go well in terms of ya know, winning.

We'll have a bit more on tonight's game later today, with a look at some of the on-field questions facing the team in its first game. 

Best of NBA: Russell Westbrook posts 5th straight triple-double in Thunder's win over Pelicans

Best of NBA: Russell Westbrook posts 5th straight triple-double in Thunder's win over Pelicans

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook became the first player with five consecutive triple-doubles since Michael Jordan had seven straight in 1989 and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the New Orleans Pelicans 101-92 on Sunday night.

Westbrook finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists. The Thunder have won all five games during Westbrook's triple-double stretch. It was Westbrook's 10th triple-double of the season and the 47th of his career.

Enes Kanter had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Victor Oladipo added 15 points for the Thunder.

Anthony Davis, the NBA's leading scorer, had 37 points and 15 rebounds for the Pelicans. Buddy Hield, who led nearby Oklahoma to the Final Four last season, scored 16 points in his first game back in the state (see full recap).

Rose, Anthony help Knicks hold off Kings
NEW YORK -- Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony each scored 20 points and the New York Knicks held off the Sacramento Kings 106-98 on Sunday night for their eighth win in 11 games.

The Knicks took a 21-point lead in the first half, gave up 18 consecutive points in the third quarter but outplayed the Kings down the stretch to win their third straight overall and improve to 9-3 at home.

Brandon Jennings added 19 points for New York and Kristaps Porzingis finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds.

DeMarcus Cousins had 36 points and 12 rebounds for the Kings, but shot just 9 for 30 and looked fatigued while struggling late while playing the entire second half (see full recap).

Ibaka's big night leads Magic past Pistons
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Serge Ibaka scored 21 points and blocked four shots, helping the Orlando Magic beat the Detroit Pistons 98-92 on Sunday night.

Nikola Vucevic added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Magic.

Pistons guard Reggie Jackson made his season debut after missing Detroit's first 21 games with knee tendinitis. He had 18 points in 23 minutes. Marcus Morris led Detroit with 21 points.

Orlando won for the third time in four games while Detroit had its three-game winning streak snapped.

On Jackson's first possession, the Pistons went to their bread-and-butter play -- he and Andre Drummond running a high pick and roll. Jackson came off the screen and hit a 3-pointer, bringing a cheer from the small crowd. Jackson played the first 5:50 of the quarter as Detroit built a 16-10 lead (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Canadiens avoid winless California trip with SO win over Kings

Best of NHL: Canadiens avoid winless California trip with SO win over Kings

LOS ANGELES -- Paul Byron scored the clinching goal in the fourth round of the shootout, and the Montreal Canadiens avoided a winless swing through California with a 5-4 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday.

Max Pacioretty had two goals and an assist for the Canadiens, who won for just the second time in seven road games. Montreal had only one win in its previous 11 games in California before scoring three times in the four-round shootout.

Alexander Radulov and Andrew Shaw also scored and Carey Price made 27 saves for the Atlantic Division-leading Canadiens.

Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty had a goal and an assist apiece for the Kings, who lost for only the second time in eight games. Peter Budaj stopped 26 shots (see full recap).

DeKeyser gives Red Wings OT win over Isles
NEW YORK -- Danny DeKeyser scored 1:02 into overtime to give Detroit a victory over New York.

Mike Green scored twice and Henrik Zetterberg had a goal and assist for Detroit, which improved to 4-1-2 in its last seven games. Peter Mrazek stopped 32 shots to improve to 3-0-2 in his past five starts.

Anders Lee, Johnny Boychuk and Josh Bailey scored for New York, which had won a season-high three straight. Jaroslav Halak finished with 30 saves.

Detroit's Frans Nielsen had an assist while facing his former team for the first time since leaving the Islanders for a six-year, $31.5 million deal with the Red Wings last summer. The 32-year-old Danish center was selected by the Islanders in the third round of the 2002 draft and had 119 goals and 230 assists over 10 seasons in New York (see full recap).

Late goal lifts Jets over Blackhawks
CHICAGO -- Andrew Copp scored the tiebreaking goal with 4:45 left, Bryan Little got his third goal in three games and Winnipeg edged Chicago.

Copp beat Scott Darling on the stick side with a shot from the right circle that slipped just inside the left post.

Chicago's Artemi Panarin scored with 6:54 remaining to tie it at 1, moments after Copp hit the post, to spoil Connor Hellebuyck's bid for a second shutout against Chicago in less than a month. Panarin completed a give-and-go with Patrick Kane, beating Hellebuyck to the glove side.

Hellebuyck finished with 25 saves and outdueled Darling, who started his second straight game for the Blackhawks in place of No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford. Darling made 30 saves, including three on breakaways.

Little's power-play goal with 43.4 seconds left in the second period was his fourth point in four games since missing 23 with a lower-body injury (see full recap)