Are We Ready for Some Futbol?

Yesterday's debut at PPL Park was a thrill, but if the Union wants to grab Philly's interest there's only one way to do it: Just win, baby

One day after the U.S. soccer team proved that luck is not enough to win at the highest levels, the Philadelphia Union (finally) made its debut and showed that grit, resolve and a rabid fan base are sufficient for success at a lower tier.

Instead of succumbing to a hangover in the wake of the U.S. World Cup debacle against Ghana, the Union and its fans threw a big party in Chester Sunday evening. The 3-1 victory over Seattle was almost secondary to the christening of PPL Park, which was jammed with 18,755 fans willing to sacrifice hygiene and comfort in sweltering conditions for a chance to be part of soccer history in the Delaware Valley. Their chanting, singing, stomping and general caterwauling provided a sufficient soundtrack in a sport that operates under the premise that any noise (vuvuzelas, anyone?) is better than none. [SIGNUP]

Union fans braved traffic hassles, parking glitches and the lingering stench of violence that had produced four murders in eight days in Chester, the Union’s home, and had led city mayor Wendell Butler Jr. to impose a curfew on five neighborhoods. But tight security and the game’s 5 p.m. start time diminished any fears fans might have felt and allowed them to revel in the true home opener for a team that had been forced by construction delays to play its first two games — in front of large, enthusiastic crowds — at Lincoln Financial Field.

The Union rewarded their loyal legions by coming back from a 1-0 halftime deficit to overwhelm the visiting Sounders, to whom they had lost, 2-0, back in April in their Major League Soccer debut. The team appeared more organized and confident Sunday, and the outcome belied a 3-7-1 record that had included the typical expansion growing pains. The question going forward is whether the good vibes of Sunday’s inaugural game can continue for the rest of this season and beyond. Will professional outdoor soccer, which has had a relatively anonymous history in this town and has been absent from the scene for 30 years, finally take root?

It’s a legitimate question, given the relatively tenuous state of soccer in the U.S. Despite repeated promises that everybody’s favorite youth pursuit would eventually grab the nation’s attention, the sport remains something of a fringe item, as the MLS’ 2009 average attendance (16,120) proves. Every four years, we are gripped by World Cup fever and tune in to watch the planet’s best compete in a passionate quest. We marvel at the skill and the commitment, but after the month plays out, we start counting the days until football — not futbol — starts.

Excitement was heightened this year by (evidently misguided) hopes that the U.S. side would establish itself among the world’s elite. It reached the round of 16 by the slimmest of margins, needing a perilously late bolt of lightning to escape lowly Algeria and then followed script against Ghana, falling behind early and displaying few of the traits endemic to better sides in a knockout-round loss. Maybe a run to the quarters or semis might have energized Americans about the sport, but we’ll never know. That means teams like the Union have to rely on grass-roots support, rather than a national wave of affection capable of rousing casual fans to ticket-buying action.

Fortunately, the Union has done its homework, and its opener proves it. The overflow crowd was not merely comprised of curiosity seekers. Instead, it included 12,000 season ticket holders, a sturdy base on which to build. Among them were the frothing Sons of Ben, a fan club of true believers devoted to the sport and team. Their behavior will establish a vibe that’s much different than what can be found at other stadiums or arenas in the area. That’s a good thing.

The franchise was also smart to cap PPL Park’s capacity at a manageable number that will create demand and ensure that even a gathering of 15,000 won’t appear to be rattling around the place. And if the city can solve the infrastructure problems surrounding the stadium, which center mostly on parking and exit routes after games, there’s the chance for modest expansion down the road.

The final piece will come on the field. Fans of the sport will continue to support the Union, just because they love soccer. But if the franchise wants to energize the region, it needs to win. Subduing the visitors in a home debut is a sound beginning. Showing some consistency and making a playoff run in the (very) near future will establish the culture of winning necessary to shake loose fans’ entertainment dollars.

Sunday’s win and exciting environment were encouraging first steps for the Union. Future success isn’t guaranteed, but the franchise has established a plan that makes sense and should provide the sport with a fighting chance in a region that hasn’t embraced it so willingly before. Soccer is back, and it looks like it may stick around for a while.

No matter how disappointing the U.S. national team might be.

* Is it possible to transfer Jamie Moyer’s focus, concentration and toughness to Cole Hamels? The Old Man showed once again the difference between a thrower and a pitcher. Unfortunately, Moyer isn’t the number-two starter the Phils need for the post-season. Increasingly it appears that Hamels isn’t, either.

* The Sixers have their perimeter set, but that interior is soft and extremely vulnerable. Baby steps, I suppose.

* Don’t be surprised if Villanova star wideout Matt Szczur is back on the field for the Wildcats this fall with an option to join the Chicago Cubs or test the NFL Draft next spring. It’s nice to be wanted, eh Matt?