When Ami Rivera began working as a team ambassador for the Philadelphia Union near the end of the franchise’s 2010 expansion season, she didn’t know much about the Sons of Ben.
And she certainly couldn’t have predicted how much the Union’s first and largest supporters’ group would change her life--from meeting her closest friends and even her husband at PPL Park to making the necessary contacts to start her own soccer business.
But above all else, for Rivera, the Sons of Ben have always been about having fun. And as the supporters’ group's newest president, that’s what she hopes to bring back after a tumultuous couple of years.
“To me, when gameday comes, I just want to have as much fun as I possibly can, from the minute I show up to the minute that I leave,” Rivera told MLSsoccer.com. “I love the tailgates. I get excited for them every time. I like seeing all my friends there. I like seeing people I’ve never met before. I love being part of the march [to the stadium] and having everyone chanting and going through the parking lot. I love tifo--I think it’s the coolest thing that we do."
“I just thought that they were having a really great time," she continued, "even when it was cold, even when it was raining. So hopefully I’m the fun one.”
Rivera served as vice president before taking over for outgoing president Kenny Hanson earlier this month, and thus became one of the only female heads of an MLS fan group. And even from this position, she'll be the first to admit that it hasn’t always been fun recently.
The Union have fought through a tough succession of events, starting with the 2014 replacement of John Hackworth with Jim Curtin as head coach. Then, this year, the Union lost their second straight US Open Cup final, and missed their fourth straight chance at the MLS Cup Playoffs. As all of that unfurled, tensions boiled over when the Sons of Ben held a protest against former Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz, who was later let go this past October.
“It’s been a rough couple of years,” Rivera said. “The protest was probably the hardest I remember having it." In the end, Rivera felt the Sons of Ben handled it “the best way [they] could,” by protesting outside the gates but not inside the stadium.
Of course, there will never be a way to please all of the members of a group with more than 2000 people in it. But in the few weeks since she’s taken over as president, Rivera has already talked to as many past and current members as possible about the best ways to boost morale, improve the tailgates and gameday atmosphere, and stay true to the organization’s principles of giving back to the community through charity projects.
“It really is a labor of love,” she said. “If you love this organization and you love what you do with it, it just becomes a part of your overall life. And it’s become such an integral part of mine. It wasn’t something I was ready to be done with yet.”
Rivera characterizes herself as an optimistic fan, and it’s easy to see why. It was during a 2012 tailgate that she was first introduced to a funny and loud SoB member named Lorenzo, who would later become her husband. And last year, she was connected to Women’s World Cup star Meghan Klingenberg through a mutual friend and talked to her about what she was doing for the Sons of Ben.
Rivera is now also the director of operations for Klingenberg’s soccer camps and foundation, adding to the portfolio of a few professional athletes for whom she works.
At first, Rivera brushed off the fact that she is the first female president of the Sons of Ben. But after a conversation with Klingenberg, who told her how “impressed” she was by it, she began to realize that maybe it is a pretty big deal.
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And if she can now help other girls become bigger supporters of their favorite soccer team--and maybe even help them change their lives like she did--that will make her role as president even more rewarding.
“We are called the Sons of Ben but I am not a son,” Rivera said. “And I remember, maybe two years ago now, getting an email from someone who was like, ‘Why don’t you have a girls' version of your group?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about? We have girls in our group. I’m in our group.’
“And I said, ‘Look, we’re all in this together. The name can be anything you want it to be.' Hopefully this brings that perspective too so that women don’t think it’s a male-dominated thing and don’t think they can be a part of it.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.