The sea of red walking down Pattison Avenue suggested something special was going on. So did the license plates. They came from all over. New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, Maryland and Georgia. Even a few from California. One look inside Lincoln Financial Field Wednesday night, that’s all you could see was undulating red on red, sprinkled with a few white dots and some in the Union’s navy blue and gold. Yes, fans came sprouting out from everywhere to see Manchester United play the Union at the Linc.
The Red Devils and the Union competed in what is referred to as a “friendly,” a colloquial soccer term for exhibition. With the chanting and sway of the crowd, you would almost swear you were in Manchester, England, not South Philadelphia.
The score really didn’t matter. The varsity was in town.
It proved people will come out in droves to see professional soccer, especially when the team is Manchester United, the most popular sports team in the world. It also gave Philadelphia-area fans a close glimpse of what world-class soccer is (Man U.)–and what it isn’t (the Union). The Sons of Ben, the boisterous group that backs the Union, were there, looking like a big blue blot amidst the red Man U. faithful. Though, it did seem like a home game for the Red Devils thousands of miles from Manchester.
The frenetic pace of the game was incredible–and the over 40,000 at the Linc were thoroughly entertained. They had to be. In the first half, the Union outplayed the rusty Red Devils, still in their pre-season form and not carrying a full complement of players during this American tour. Even with Man U. appearing occasionally a little winded, you could tell there was a marked difference in the talent level of the two clubs.
The Union have done a nice job in their first year of existence, selling out their little PPL Park–one of the best sports venues anywhere (think the Palestra of soccer)–in Chester. But is it just a novelty, a curiosity for area fans to fill a Sunday afternoon when the Phillies aren’t home?
Manchester United proved soccer can sell in the United States–and in Philadelphia. But Man U. is special. The Red Devils are the New York Yankees, Notre Dame football, Tiger Woods and Los Angeles Lakers’ brands all wrapped up into one celestial package. Fans, whether they are general sports fans or soccer fans, will come from all over to see that. The Union is selling soccer–not stars. Not even the Union player known as “Fred” can compare to Manchester United’s Dimitar Berbatov, Nani, Ryan Giggs, Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes.
Americans love stars. There’s no denying that, regardless of the sport. Look at Woods, for example. How many sports fans do you know that one time had absolutely no interest in golf nor knew anything about the game before Tiger Woods arrived? Americans want to see the best, and will make great strides to witness it. Wednesday night was tangible proof of that. The big regret is that the American talent pool in soccer is shallow. Not enough exciting strikers. American soccer fans know Landon Donovan, though that’s where it stops when it comes to crossover appeal.
Until more stars are built, until brand-quality players are developed, Major League Soccer and teams like the Union will always be on the fringe, counting on a loyal fanbase to follow them. But it says something when large groups wearing red Manchester United jerseys are walking en masse down South Philadelphia streets to see a soccer match in July. It says soccer is growing in this country. It says fans of world-class soccer will continue flocking toward the English Premier League and Manchester United for their soccer fix. It says they want to see the best there is (as we get in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB). Hopefully, Philadelphia won’t have to wait another six years to see it again.