The tranquil waters of the Delaware River and the looming Commodore Barry Bridge overhead served as a great panoramic backdrop to pulsating PPL Park and its incessant chants and beating drums raging inside. It was like a gust of cold breeze on a rather sticky, sweltering 90-degree day. Yes, it does look like soccer can sell in Philadelphia. At least the way the Philadelphia Union have presented it.
The Union’s “official” home opener looked like an overgrown waterpark, as fans kicked around soccer balls outside the stadium complex. If you closed your eyes and didn’t know you were in Chester, you might have sworn you were somewhere in a matchbox setting in Argentina, Brazil, or anywhere in Europe. I say matchbox, because PPL Park’s sellout of 18,755 pales in comparison to the usual 50,000 raucous fans they get in England, Germany, Italy and Argentina. It didn’t stop the drum-banging, chant-rhyming Union fans to sound like 50,000, though.
The quality of soccer, well, that’s another story. After being spoiled the last two weeks watching the greatest players in the world, this nice, little stage is more worthy of maybe a Class AA level of soccer as compared to maybe the English Premier League. It’s the one major missing piece that comes with the Major League Soccer, it has no discernible stars that anyone would go out of their way to see.
Sure, David Beckham, or rather the shell of what David Beckham used to be, is with the Los Angeles club. But mostly, the MLS seems consisted of good players, yet not exactly players good enough to play in the best leagues of South America or Europe, which pay considerably more than what the MLS pays. Los Angeles does have USA’s Langdon Donovan, a plus for name and face recognition. But I’ll openly admit, I knew the Union was wearing blue and gold on Sunday in their grand PPL Park opener, and knew the Seattle Sounders were wearing the gaudy, ugly lime green (which seems to be a bad fashion stable for Seattle teams; see Seattle Seahawks).
There’s still an identity gap missing when it comes to mainstream sports fans and soccer in the United States. But there are steps being taken. While down in Baltimore on assignment this past Saturday, I couldn’t help but notice the healthy crowds gathered around TVs in bars at Oriole Park at Camden Yards to watch Team USA battle Ghana in the Round of 16. In fact, the U.S. World Cup game on Saturday was the most watched men’s soccer match in American history, according to Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN channel. The game, which was shown on the ABC, averaged an 8.2 rating, 9.455 million households and 14.9 million viewers, ESPN said in a statement released on Sunday.
According to ESPN, the U.S.-Ghana game was only surpassed in this country by the 1999 women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and China, which averaged more households and viewers, with 11.307 million households and 17.975 million viewers. It was also the third highest-rated men’s World Cup game, only surpassed by the 9.3 rating of the 1994 quarterfinal between the U.S. and Brazil, and a 9.5 rating for that year’s final between Italy and Brazil. The 1999 women’s final had an 11.4 rating.
The Union got off to a nice start on Sunday. The color, the pageantry, the fan-friendly feel says soccer can sell in Philadelphia. Let’s hope it’s a new spring/summer alternative to our melding pot that American cities have become. The Philadelphia Union are still in their infancy, novelty stage, where winning and losing doesn’t matter. Being there and being a part of it does. Sunday’s full house of PPL Park says it may not matter over these next few years. The Union already have 12,000 season-ticket holders locked in this first season. Some fans had no clue what was transpiring on the field, nor cared about the score. The important thing was fans were enjoying themselves. They felt connected to what was taking place on the field.
It was good to see the first game at PPL Park be greeted by a 3-1 Union victory. Who knows how long this will last. One thing is certain–PPL Park is an amazing facility and the Union do a great job in presenting their product.