The Soap Box: Union fan speaks out

Sons of Ben leader Mike Naioti talks all things Philly

MLS fans, show some
brotherly love. You have a new contingent of supporters hunkering down at
McFadden’s at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Saturday in anticipation of
the Union’s home debut against D.C. United, and you now have a new forum for
all things involving your club.

The Soap Box,
MLSsoccer.com’s newest weekly feature, opens with the thoughts of Sons of Ben
top supporter Mike Naioti, who shares his take on the Union’s home opener, Danny
Mwanga playing out of position and why everyone in Philly loves Peter Nowak.

MLSsoccer.com: Honestly,
tell me what you think Lincoln Financial Field is going to be like on Saturday.

MN: I think we’re
all a little bit nervous about it. They’re telling us there’s going to be more
than 30,000 fans there, but I think there are a couple of issues that might
sort of prevent that atmosphere from being everything it can be for the first
game. You’ve got Joe Biden coming in with all the security involved with that,
and Lincoln Financial Field is generally just a more conservative environment
for games. I think once we get into our own place at PPL Park, then I think you’ll
start to see what our fans can do and the true soccer culture and a localized
atmosphere we can create. But we’ll do what we can do tomorrow.

MLSsoccer.com: Is
there a misconception about Philadelphia fans?

MN: If you support
a Philadelphia team, it’s one of the best cities in the country for sports. I
think if you’re coming in as a visiting fan, it can be a bear to get around and
have a good time, because Philadelphia sports fans are vocal and they support
their teams. A lot of the national media has a tough time accepting things
about Philadelphia fans, but I think that at the same time, we love our sports.
It’s something we look forward to and carry in our day-to-day working lives,
and at the end of the day we take a lot of pride in our teams.

MLSsoccer.com: Will it
be tough for the Union to carve out their niche, to crack the sports scene
against the likes of the Phillies and Eagles?

MN: I think the league
has done a great job over the last 10 years in refocusing its goal and not
trying to convert the fans of other sports, but to focus on the soccer purists
and the soccer fans in their market. Soccer has a history in Philadelphia and
has always been a strong region for the sport, and there’s a strong fan base
already built in here to really make it a success. I think we’re here to stay
for sure.

MLSsoccer.com: Take
me through your day on Saturday.

MN: A lot of us
have our own plans for Saturday, but I have four or five people coming to stay
with us for the game and another 15 or 20 people who’ve never been to a soccer
game in their lives and are really excited to see one. We’ll head down at
McFadden’s at Citizens Bank Park around 1 p.m., that’s going to be the
headquarters for the Sons of Ben for the first game. And then we’ll have a
large part of the group tailgating through the parking lot, that’s a
Philadelphia tradition. And all the future home games will have all those Sons
of Ben tailgates.

MLSsoccer.com: What were
your expectations for the season opener?

MN: For the most part, we didn’t know what
to expect. A couple of us went down to North Carolina during preseason to see
how they were going to play, but the team wasn’t really settled. Given some of
the roster situations, we knew Fred was going to be out and some of the other
guys would be unavailable. The lineup was a surprise throughout the midfield,
but the physical style of play that we expected was there completely. Toni
Stahl’s red card obviously changed the game, but I thought we played strong
even with a man down. We definitely saw some glimpses of some quality play in
there.

MLS soccer.com: And
Danny Mwanga?

MN: I thought he
was out of position, to be honest. When we saw him in North Carolina he was a
holding striker who could use his size to create opportunities for the guys
around him. But in Seattle we saw him in a midfield role, as a more of a
controlled midfielder and a play developer, and I don’t think that’s his
strength. He’s built to be a striker, and he’s got a nose for goal.

MLSsoccer.com: How
have the fans embraced Peter Nowak?

MN: Across the board,
we love Peter Nowak in Philadelphia. Since we got the chance to meet him, he’s
been extremely forthcoming with us in telling us about what the Union’s
identity will be and what kind of players we’ll have, and that candor has
allowed us to get a good feel for what kind of coach he’s going to be.

MLSsoccer.com: And
his comments on Freddie Ljunberg after the season opener?

MN: After that
Seattle game, I think it’s one thing to see how that game plays out, and it’s a
different thing to talk about it afterwards. But he’s the bus driver here, so
if that’s the way he wants to express himself, that’s okay. There were a lot of
people who felt the same way and knew exactly where he was coming from.

MLSsoccer.com: What’s
your take on Fred?

MN: I’m really
excited to see him in the midfield. I think that’s the big question for me, if
Fred can be the kind of player the league has expected him to be. He didn’t
really get that chance in D.C., being put out on the wing so often. But if he
can be the controlling midfielder we expect him to be, then I think we’re in a
very solid position. If not, that’s my one roster move, to try and find a true
game-changing midfielder who can be the rock in the midfield.

MLSsoccer.com: Do you
guys have any expectations for the new DP rules?

MN: We’re all
excited at the prospect, but with the kind of coach Peter Nowak is, he’s not
just going to go get somebody to fill seats. He’s going to work his players
hard and demand a lot of strength and stability from them. It’s rare to find
that kind of drive and push from another player brought in from another league
around the world, the kind of player that would make the move to MLS. There are
rumors about David Trezeguet, and I would love to see a player like that with a
hard-nosed, aggressive mentality. Somebody like that would fit in with the
atmosphere that Nowak is creating.

MLSsoccer.com: Lastly,
tell us what’s going to happen in the opener. Will Philly wait another week for
the first win?

MN: We’ll have
the home field advantage, and I think with the 30,000 fans all waiting for the
first goal, the first win, I think we’re going to have something nice to
celebrate at the end of the night.