For Philadelphia's Sons of Ben, love of MLS started with DC United

Sons of Ben - Philadelphia Union - River End

Before the Sons of Ben celebrated the arrival of the Philadelphia Union in May of 2009, Philadelphia-area soccer fans who wanted in on Major League Soccer had two geographically sensible choices: the New York Red Bulls or D.C. United.

It wasn’t a difficult decision. As Union fan David Flagler put it, Philadelphia sports fans would “rather cut off [their] hand than root for anything related to New York.”

For the 13 years before the Union arrived, plenty of current Philadelphia fans headed south on I-95 to RFK Stadium – a two-hour drive from the Union’s current home at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania – to catch MLS games. Sons of Ben member Stuart Campbell remembers being there from the very beginning.

Starting with D.C. United’s second-ever home game at the age of five, the Philly native regularly attended D.C. United games with his father.

“We wanted to see some soccer,” Campbell explains. “[My dad] wanted a team in Philly just as badly as anyone, and I was also disappointed that Philadelphia didn’t have a team, but you take what you can get.”

Some latched on D.C. later, once MLS gained steam as the years rolled on. As the league’s footprint and television presence grew, the draw was no longer just about the sport. It was about whole experience. David Flagler turned on his television in 2003 and was hooked.

“I started watching on TV and saw that D.C.’s support was great,” Flagler remembers. “Lots of people in the stands and the supporters groups were loud, making the whole stand bounce.”

Similarly, another Sons of Ben member, Rich Ransom, latched on to D.C. because “oddly enough, their games were on TV in the Philadelphia and South Jersey area.” Despite the physical distance, D.C. United still “felt local,” and Ransom supplemented his viewership with a yearly trip to RFK. But the possibility of MLS in Philadelphia was never too far out of sight or mind.

For Philadelphia's Sons of Ben, love of MLS started with DC United -

Campbell remembers rifling through MLS Free Kick magazines at RFK and wondering why Philadelphia was absent. Flagler, too, grew fidgety. And Ransom remembers his time fondly, but conditionally: “It was normally a good experience, since there wasn’t a Philly team then.”

In 2007, expansion rumblings began, and the Sons of Ben took it upon themselves to keep the expansion conversation on Philly – often resorting to unusual methods. Be-sides the usual administrative planning, the group took to traveling the Northeast Corridor to, quite literally, make their plans heard.

That’s where Campbell found them, chanting “Philadelphia!” three sections over from him at Red Bull Arena, despite the fact that Philadelphia didn’t actually have a team. After a decade of hitting the road to watch MLS, Sons of Ben founder Brian James informed the then 16-year-old that the group was going to lead the charge to bring MLS to Philadelphia.

“I had no idea that anything was being done to further soccer in Philadelphia,” Campbell recalls. “So to hear about fans doing this and trying to get the league’s attention, I’m like, ‘Right on. I’m all in.’”

Ransom answered the same call, and two years later the long-awaited Philadelphia Union played their first match. A few weeks later, they played their first at home on the banks of the Delaware River.  

Campbell won’t ever forget that day: “If I ever have kids, that’ll be the best day of my life. But until then, that was it.”

For Philadelphia's Sons of Ben, love of MLS started with DC United -

But it wasn’t necessarily love at first sight for everyone. Even though Flagler was one of three people at the first Sons of Ben meeting, he started to get cold feet when the team was formally announced. “I started to wonder if I could jump ship when the time came, and I actually went back and forth a few times,” he admits. “I just had [many] years invested in rooting for D.C. and it just felt sort of wrong to switch, even though it was for a hometown club.”

The Union’s first-ever home game was against D.C. United in a cruel twist of fate, which Flagler admits was rough, but six years later he’s all-in: “I am invested in this club now. Being a D.C. fan seems like 100 years ago.”

Not that there’s any bad blood between the two groups of supporters. Despite the on-the-field rivalry, they’re well-known for getting along, perhaps in part because of old connections.

“[D.C. United] represent to me the formative years of MLS and the formation of my understanding of the game of soccer. There’s something that reminds me of my childhood in seeing D.C.,” Campbell says. “How many people get to say they saw Marco Etcheverry play? I got to see him play. I’m cool with it.”