The Philadelphia Union will play Sunday in the biggest playoff match in club history.
If they win, they move on to the Major League Soccer championship final for the first time.
During the Union’s 11-year history, the team has missed the playoffs six times, finishing toward the bottom of the league table. But last year, the Union took home its first piece of hardware: the Supporters Shield, awarded to the MLS team with the most regular-season points, which are given for wins and draws.
Through all the team’s ups and downs, the Union has been supported by enthusiastic fans. They sit in a rowdy section facing away from the Delaware River at the stadium in Chester, singing, banging drums, operating smoke machines, and hollering support for the entirety of every 90-minute match. They call themselves the Sons of Ben, or SoB for short, a reference to Ben Franklin.
The SoB started in the mid-2000s, soccer fans who really, really wanted a pro team in the Philadelphia market. SoB president Matt Gendaszek explained the origins of the group, which predates the team itself.
“This is probably the most Philadelphia thing ever, but it was three guys who got together at a bar and were basically not happy that Major League Soccer had overlooked such a huge media market and a city that’s got such a rich soccer tradition,” he said. “They said to themselves, ‘We should start a support group for a team that doesn’t exist and make as much noise as we can so Major League Soccer has to take notice.’ And what they did was they organized the group.”
Gendaszek said the SoB traveled around the city supporting soccer across the area, attending college soccer and semipro indoor soccer matches, eventually growing its membership to over 1,000 diehard supporters, all clamoring for Major League Soccer in Philadelphia.
League officials took notice when the group crashed the MLS Cup Championship in 2007, Gendaszek said.
“The SoB walked in with all of the other supporters groups that had teams, and they actually just told the security, `Oh, we’re with the group from Philadelphia.’ We didn’t have a team!” he said. “And that’s what got the notice of our current owner, Jay Sugarman. They said, ‘Wow, there’s probably a built-in fan base in Philadelphia. We should really consider bringing a team there.’”
Shortly afterward, Philly was awarded its first MLS team in 2008, with play beginning in 2010. The SoB’s efforts to bring a team here were even turned into a documentary.
Since its inception, the SoB has evolved from a gang ravenous for soccer to a legitimate 501(c)(3) charitable organization that holds fundraisers across the region for groups including ACCT Philadelphia, Special Olympics Pennsylvania, and St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which supports childhood cancer research.
SoB members are a tightknit bunch, and the bonds formed within the group often extend beyond the tailgates.
Philanthropy director Krystal Kane said she was floored by the outpouring of love she received from the group when her husband received a life-altering medical diagnosis.
“This past summer, my husband was unexpectedly diagnosed with [multiple sclerosis], and so many SoBs reached out to both of us to check in on him, offered to get us groceries and run errands, and asked what they could do, and really meant it,” she said. “And on a much, much happier note, everyone has been so excited to welcome our impending new baby into the family once I have her next week.”
Kane said the community always steps up when called upon for charitable causes.
“I put up a social media message that I wanted to do a school supply drive for kids in Chester through the Bernardine Center, and received hundreds of dollars and bags upon bags of supplies for the kids in just about one week,” she said.
Jess Gusler, SoB vice president, never watched much soccer at all growing up. Now, thanks to her brother, who’s had season tickets for years, she’s a diehard.
“He would always be in the backyard, or basement depending on the weather, making mini banners, or tifo. Humming chants, and coming home with a different scarf almost every match,” she said. “Naturally I was curious as to what the heck was going on, and after my first match, I was hooked too.”
Gusler said the group always steps up when members need help.
“This is my second family. There isn’t a person in the group I wouldn’t help if they asked. I’ve been to weddings of people who have met because of the group. Watched members’ babies grow up, and some are in college now,” she said. “If I’m having a bad day, I know I will have 20 different shoulders to cry on. We stick together. We are there for each other.”
Now, with the Union eyeing its first cup final match in club history, the fan base has never been more excited for a game. Capitalizing on last year’s success, members think the team is finally ready to bring home the cup.
The Union’s success this year comes from the team’s versatile roster, Gendaszek said.
“This has been one of those years where if the offensive guys … if they can’t put the ball in the net, our defensive guys will do it. And it’s been vice versa, where we’ve seen some of our forwards making incredible defensive plays to keep a goal out. So it’s been a total team effort, and it’s been a group of veterans and youth,” he said
Despite the Union’s opponents having more money to attract more high-end talent, Gendaszek said the team has the exact right group of players to pull off a victory against New York City FC.
“We don’t have this multimillion-dollar payroll, but every guy on that roster looks up and down every other roster and says, ‘We’re every bit as good. You can’t say we don’t belong in this field and we’ll show you.’ And you see that determination on the field,” Gendaszek said.
He hesitated to predict a final score, but Kane confidently predicted a blowout.
“My default answer to this is 3-1, Union,” she said. “I’m usually correct when I say this!”
The fateful match against New York City FC is set for 3 p.m. Sunday at a sold-out Subaru Park in Chester.
Saturdays just got more interesting.