By Mercy Payba @mercpay
It was a sunny day in August when I went to my first Philadelphia Union game. I was completely new to MLS, and the only things I knew about the match and the team were:
- The precursor team of Philadelphia Union was Bethlehem Steel F.C. from the 1900s (the Union had a third kit in 2013 with homage to the team and has now gone on to sponsor a new reincarnation of BSteel in the USL)
- That same Bethlehem Steel team had won the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup five times in their day and Philadelphia was gearing up to get their first title, having come close in 2014 as well. This would be their year to add a little more history to the area.
The friend who had invited me out to the game was a bit of a history buff and I was always enthusiastic about soccer wherever it was found so we met in the middle with football facts. I adjusted my expectations accordingly because, well, Philly teams have great fanbases but not-so-great records when it comes to winning.
Our group had seats right in front of the midfield, and we were surrounded by seasoned followers and a few season ticket holders of the boys in blue. We were in good company is what I mean to say, but I was taken by the stadium itself. There is something special about the people that wait, that watch as the teams warm up. They are a banked fire ready to come alive at the sound of the whistle starting the match. This is no different around the world whether it is a rec league or in Camp Nou.
I fell in love with the Union, not when Sebastien Le Toux netted the winner in the second half of the semifinal, not when the funny little DOOP tune played over the speakers or the crowd erupted into cheers and swept us up in the feeling, but in that quiet moment before the game even started. There is a lot I could say about Talen Energy (or as I knew it PPL Park.) It is a smaller venue, and the home crowd has some colorful and self-deprecating chants. You get a lungful of the riverfront mixed in with the general city air that stays in your sensory bank and possibly your throat after a visit. The skyline painted in orange and violet as the sun sets, is the most beautiful sight next to blue smoke rising from the River End signifying a goal for the Union.
I found myself in that strange little waterfront stadium, amongst the blue and gold that fateful August day. When I try to put into words how I became a fan of this team, the Dennis Bergkamp quote comes to mind:
“When you start supporting a football club, you don’t support it because of the trophies, or a player, or history, you support it because you found yourself somewhere there; found a place where you belong.”
As for the more mundane things, I’m a Jersey transplant living in Pennsylvania, went to school near Pittsburgh and came back home to the east end of the state. I watch the Bundesliga religiously and strive to infect all of my friends with the football bug when the World Cup comes around.
I grew up watching my father and brother play the beautiful game. Coming from a Peruvian family, one of the best soccer moments in recent history for me was the third place finish for Peru in Copa America Centenario last year. Philadelphia Union is the only blue team in my red, red heart.
I am a member of the Bayern Red Ladies, an all-women fanclub for Bayern Munich, and am always looking for more people to talk to about my teams in English or Spanish.
Featured image courtesy: Jeff Zelevansky
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