I’m Sticking to the Union!

Who cares about the Eagles? I'm at my first pro soccer game!

I went to my first pro soccer game yesterday. I bought tickets to the Union playoff game against Houston as a birthday present for my husband, Doug, and he and our son Jake and I drove down to Chester. None of us had seen PPL Park before, except on TV.

It’s a beautiful stadium, even though all you could see of the Chester skyline from our seats were a few smokestacks and I-95 looming overhead. But the sun slowly set in a blaze of gold and pink behind the section where the Sons of Ben were cheering and banging drums, and a crescent moon rose, and the game unfolded in front of us like a marvelous gift.

Jake and Doug both referee soccer, so I’ve watched a lot of games. I actually think one of the reasons soccer isn’t more popular in the U.S. is that we’ve all watched a lot of games—peewee games and middle-school games and high-school games that frequently don’t feature a lot of good ball-handling and don’t give a sense of the ebb and flow that goes on in those 90 minutes when really good players are doing their thing. Doug says it would be like judging pro baseball by watching a T-ball game. A lot of people I know complain that nothing happens in soccer, because there are so few goals. And granted, the rhythm is very different from that of basketball or football, or even baseball—another game that’s often accused of being boring and slow. But in soccer, the game doesn’t stop—or at least doesn’t stop for more than a few seconds at a time, while a player writhes on the ground in agony—or is it only feigned agony? When you watch a televised match, it takes a while to realize: There aren’t any commercial breaks until halftime. Maybe that’s the real reason soccer hasn’t caught on over here—corporate America can’t quite figure out how to co-opt it for profit. Right, Budweiser?

So the Union lost, 2-1. I was disappointed. But my disappointment didn’t have the bitter taste of a Phillies or Eagles loss. I felt as though I’d watched … well, a beautiful game. There are moments in soccer that are unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced in sport—those moments where you can see potential, an opening, possibility, and the crowd rises to its feet in anticipation long before there’s any shot on the goal, sensing that something is about to take place. It’s not like when Phils fans stand up to clap and cheer Ryan Howard as he stands in the batter’s box, or like when Andre Iguodola steals the ball and makes a fast break, or when Michael Vick rears back and gets ready to let one sail. It’s entirely anticipatory—more like when you’re playing chess and a series of moves unfolds in front of you, and you catch your breath and say to yourself: Yeah. This is going to be fine. Sure, lots can go wrong before checkmate. But at PPL, when you glimpse it, you stand, and everyone around you stands, and you hold your collective breaths and watch, and Le Toux or Adu or Torres lets one fly, and—

Okay. A lot of the time—an unbelievable amount of the time—it sails 30 feet over the crossbar. But every now and then, it slips past the goalie, and the Sons of Ben launch into the Doop-Doop song, and you sing along, and the sun is setting over Chester, and you realize: Loving the Union doesn’t mean you love the Phils or Eagles any less, just like having a second child doesn’t mean you love the first one less. Sports love is infinitely expansive.

The final game in this stage of the playoffs is Thursday, in Houston. Come on the U!