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There’s still a chance for one Philadelphia sports team to bring home a championship before 2021 comes to a close. That hope resides in Chester, where the Philadelphia Union are in the middle of an unprecedented postseason run.
On Sunday, the Union host New York City FC at Subaru Park (3 p.m., ABC) in the MLS Eastern Conference final. A win secures the Union their first championship berth in the club’s 11 years of existence.
Contrast that with the rest of Philly sports. The Eagles are barely treading water. The Phillies had the National League’s Most Valuable Player but couldn’t even make the playoffs. The Sixers are struggling with COVID-19 and injuries, not to mention last year’s embarrassing playoff exit and the (seemingly never ending) Ben Simmons saga. The Flyers … well … the Flyers just aren’t very good right now.
Then you have the Union. After two heart-stopping playoff wins in a row to get to their first conference final, the soccer club has nothing but good mojo on its side. Just pure, unadulterated Doop.
This is uncharted territory even for die hard supporters — who’ll gladly welcome newcomers.
“I want you to be part of this with me,” said Jeff Mitchell. How much do the Union mean to the Roxborough resident? He named his son Benjamin Franklin after the club’s intensely active supporters group, the Sons of Ben.
“I don’t care if you just got into the Union today or 10 years ago,” Mitchell said. “You’re just as much of a fan as I am if you put your money and invest your time in the team.”
Basically, there’s never been a better time to hop on the bandwagon.
Perhaps you’re a bit intimidated by the thought of declaring your fandom days before the biggest match in club history. Perhaps you tune in for a World Cup match or two every couple of years and forget soccer exists in between.
We got you! Billy Penn sought out some of the most loyal Union supporters to get you up to speed. Two things are abundantly clear: This team is as Philly as they come, and cheering for them is a blast.
How’d we get here?
Behind a flawless performance from goalie Andre Blake, the Union defeated Nashville SC in a penalty shootout last Sunday to advance to the Eastern Conference final.
If that’s not dramatic enough, the club won its first-round playoff match on a stunning goal from Jakob Glesnes in the 123rd minute, which set a record for the latest ever scored in an MLS match.
The Union’s origin story traces back to the Sons of Ben, which formed in 2007 with the goal of bringing professional soccer to Philly. To make a long story short, it worked! Despite initial uneasiness about the club calling Chester home — and some as-yet unrealized hopes for its role in the surrounding neighborhood’s revival — fans argue the stadium on the banks of the Delaware River is the most unique sports atmosphere in the region. A documentary about the club’s creation was released in 2016.
The Union only made the MLS playoffs twice in their first eight seasons but have found their groove in recent years behind a mix of young talent and veterans acquired through prudent roster moves. In 2020, the club won the Supporters’ Shield, which is given to the MLS team with the best regular-season record.
“They’ve been building for this moment for five, six years,” said Matt Gendaszek, president of the Sons of Ben.
“There are no egos on this team. There’s no divas. There’s none of that.” added Adam Booth, who leads the supporters group during matches as a capo. “They’re just a bunch of guys from like 12 different nations that speak seven languages and just want to score goals.”
Who are the players to watch?
The Union begin and end with goalkeeper Andre Blake, a 31-year-old from Jamaica whom the club drafted with the top overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. The Embiid to the Union’s Process, Blake is beloved by fans for his otherworldly ability to stop soccer balls from going into nets — and because of his loyalty to Philly through the club’s middling early seasons.
“He’s just been one of the best goalkeepers,” Gendaszek said. “And he’s been with this team through when we were in our darkest days.”
If offense is more of your thing, forward Kacper Przybylko (KATS-pehr Shuh-BILL-koh) of Bielefeld, Germany, leads the club in goals. Other favorites include team captain Alejandro Bedoya, a former member of the U.S. Men’s National Team from Englewood, New Jersey, and Sergio Santos of Brazil, who jumped into the stands to celebrate a goal with fans back in July.
What’s the best way to watch?
If you are free this Sunday and can pony up more than $100 for tickets, go to the conference finals in person. All the fans who spoke with Billy Penn said tailgating and screaming yourself hoarse in a packed stadium is much more fun than watching on TV.
To get acclimated to the Union match day experience, you could stop by the Sons of Ben tailgate. Tickets for non-members cost $15, which includes food and drinks. While you’re there, you may catch members of the club’s front office stopping by to chat with supporters or lead pep talks before a pre-match march.
You don’t have to be a Sons of Ben member to sit in their section, the River End, but capo Adam Booth said you should wear Union colors (navy blue, gold, and signal blue) and expect to stand the whole time. Don’t be, as he put it, a “Stubhuber.” Be ready to help start lots of chants, too.
What should I be looking for during the match?
Don’t focus on the ball all the time. With so few stoppages in play every half, a match develops “like a moving ballet” as players jockey for positioning, said Mitchell, Benjamin Franklin’s dad. It’s also why he advocates for going to matches in person. On TV, you often don’t catch all of the intricacies.
“The movement off the ball is more important than the guy with the ball,” Mitchell said.
Sons of Ben president Gendaszek suggested newcomers stay on the lookout for the Union to utilize quick-striking counter attacks. “Defense is going to create the offense,” he said.
“It’s more like the old Buddy Ryan defense that’s creating turnovers and [the Eagles] are getting touchdowns because of it. It’s a very gritty way of playing.”
What do I chant?
The Sons of Ben’s website has the lyrics to 11 chants, including the beloved “No One Likes Us.” Serving as inspiration to Jason Kelce’s epic speech on the Rocky Steps during the Eagles’ Super Bowl celebration, the chant started with English soccer club Millwall F.C. before coming across the pond to Subaru Park.
To impress the diehards, Booth said to start singing “Four Leaf Clover” when the clock hits 20:10. This happens every match to commemorate the club’s inaugural season.
The most important of all, though, is Doop.
What in the world is Doop?
Doop is the nickname given to the song that thunders over the Subaru Park speakers after every Union goal, “Maria (I Like It Loud)” by Scooter. It even had a stint as the Flyers’ goal celebration song, and some fans have been dying for it to make a comeback.
“People are gonna be jumping up and down, and that’s one thing the whole stadium gets behind. It’s just one of the best sounds in the world,” Gendaszek said.
According to Gendaszek, the Union began using Doop to celebrate goals after the club’s first coach, Peter Novak, showed the song to founding members of the Sons of Ben. Novak had heard the song used during a professional soccer match in Germany, according to Gendaszek.
Years later, Doop has worked its way into Philly vernacular.
“People ask me, ‘What’s a Doop? What’s that?’ The best Philly answer is, it’s a jawn,” Gendaszek said. “It’s a word that you can intermittently throw in and it’ll mean anything.”
“It’s like your secret code word,” Mitchell explained. “If I’m driving and I see a bumper sticker that says ‘Doop’ on it, that’s my family. I’ll ride or die with that person.”
What’s the deal with the mascot?
Its name is Phang, and it is a snake. It has its own supporters group, the Wu Phang Clan. In 2019, Phang appeared on stage with the Wu-Tang Clan during a show in Atlantic City.
Your move, Gritty.
This summer, Phang starred in a video game fighting 16-bit hordes of raccoons to reclaim the Supporter’s Shield from DC United mascot Talon.
Where are some good bars in Center City to watch the Union?
For those who want to take in Sunday’s match at a bar, Booth said he’s had great experiences watching the Union at Founding Fathers (1612 South St.), Fadó Irish Pub (1500 Locust St.) and The Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant (247 S 17th St.).