Three Reasons to Look Forward to the Home Finale

Union to face Red Bulls in final game of the season at PPL Park

Saturday’s match against the New York Red Bulls -- the last home game of this inaugural season for the Union -- may mean nothing
in the standings for Philadelphia, but it’s one of the most highly-anticipated matches of the
year for Peter Nowak’s side. Star-power is certainly one reason, as David
Beckham and Landon Donovan showed on Saturday in front of a record crowd at PPL
Park, but there’s more to it. Three subplots in particular make Saturday’s home
finale intriguing.


First, the obvious: The Red Bulls are coming to
town. If Philadelphia soccer fans disliked their neighbors to the North before
this season, how about now that the Union actually exist in the flesh and New
York went out and acquired two of the highest-priced Designated Players in MLS,
Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez. After losing twice to NY within a four-day
period in April (once in a U.S. Open Cup play-in), avoiding a season sweep is simply a
matter of pride.

Preventing the Red Bulls
from winning the Eastern Conference title may or may not provide additional
incentive for the players, but it means something to plenty of Union fans who
have rooted against New York since long before Philadelphia had a team to call
their own. Especially when the Union have an opportunity to impact the outcome
of the Eastern Conference race in their home grounds playing in front of a
sold-out stadium on national television.

And if you want to ignore
all of the aforementioned motivational factors, it’s hard to look past the most
simplistic of them all: three points is three points.

Preparing for 2011

Inevitably, when playoff
contention is no longer mathematically feasible, some percentage of a club’s
focus turns to the next opportunity for meaningful success – in the Union’s
case, the 2011 season.

Most immediately,
a number of players are competing for safety in the upcoming two-team expansion draft,
which will be held towards the end of November. While there are certainly some
locks to be protected -- Sebastien Le Toux, anyone? -- the majority of the squad
is playing to secure roles and roster spots for the club’s second go-around.

Age is certainly
a factor -- all else equal, a younger player is likely to get the nod -- but
expectations will be raised in year two and experience is invaluable. Will
veterans like Alejandro Moreno, Fred and Stefani Miglioranzi see their roles
change at all in 2011? Are youngsters such as Jack McInerney, Roger Torres and
Amobi Okugo ready to assume more responsibility? Saturday’s match vs New York
and the season finale against the Columbus Crew may not be 2011 “tryouts” per
se, but they matter.

The Fans

There have been
a number of feel-good stories for the expansion Union. The emergence of
Sebastien Le Toux as everything Philadelphia sports fans love in a professional
athlete, the opening of a pristine waterfront soccer palace in the form of PPL
Park, Danny Mwanga’s better-than-expected rookie season, and stretches of
quality from a number of other promising young guns all come to mind. So, too,
does the establishment of a true identity as an attacking, hard-working,
never-say-die club. All signs of a promising future, one with certain potential
for playoff contention in 2011.

But, no doubt,
the number one story of the year has been the fans. Led by the Sons of Ben, PPL
Park has received rave reviews for atmosphere, with Beckham remarking that "without
a doubt, it is the way it should be. That is the atmosphere in Europe when you
go to an away game, and I really enjoyed it." High praise from someone who
has played at
Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, Old
Trafford, Wembly and San Siro, among many others.

What stands out above all else is the
connection between the players and the fans. Cheering unrelentingly during the
match and staying long after, there is a special bond developing along the Chester
Waterfront. While a 7-3-6 home record in all competitions is by no means
disappointing, don’t be surprised if that mark improves in future seasons. If
it improves on Saturday vs New York, the support of a fiercely loyal home crowd
will be one major reason why.