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PPL Park Provides Powerful Advantage

Is Major League Soccer ready for Philly? That was the question posed on billboards throughout the region before the Philadelphia Union played their first ever match. But some wondered about the opposite; was Philly ready for MLS?

While the Sons of Ben, the Union’s supporters group, spearheaded the charge to convince everyone who would listen that the region was a hotbed of passionate soccer fans, there were still doubters up until April 10, 2010. That was the day when it became hard to deny what Union officials, MLS and Union fans knew all along: soccer is here to stay. In fact, not just here to stay, but here to explode.

The 34,870 who showed up at Lincoln Financial Field to welcome a new era made a statement, one that was felt across the league and throughout the region. It was clear Philadelphia was ready for professional soccer, but with PPL Park still over two months away from being open the Union didn’t truly have a home to call their own.

Well, now they do. And what a home it is.

If there happened to be any doubters left who decided to check out the scene for themselves, they’re believers now. 

The 18,500-seat stadium was jam-packed with 18,755 fans who came from far and wide to experience the historic event. The atmosphere at PPL Park was incredible, as fans of all ages packed the stadium draped in Union jerseys, t-shirts, scarves, and hats. 

“When we first came out it was an unreal feeling,” said Shea Salinas, who manager Peter Nowak employed as a defender against Seattle. “It was a little emotional during the National Anthem with everybody singing, and just thinking about how fortunate I was to be there. I just started to choke up, held back some tears, but it was an unreal feeling and I just felt so blessed to be in (that) atmosphere.”

The Sons of Ben were on their feet throughout the match, singing, cheering, drumming, and screaming for the Union. The atmosphere they created was infectious and only figures to spread more and more to the rest of an already loud stadium with each passing match. Oh, and they didn’t exactly ignore the Sounders' players or the referees.

Some fans even mimicked the buzzing noise of vuvuzelas, showing off their creativity in addition to a relentless approach to fandom. The rowdy crowd didn’t settle down until after the final whistle had been blown and the Union had a check in the win column. There was a crystal clear home field advantage as Philadelphia gave fans the show they came to see, and deserved, dominating the Seattle Sounders in the second half to earn a 3-1 victory.

“It was a historical moment,” reflected Nowak. “The place was just amazing. Everybody felt the tension and everyone was pretty quiet before we entered the field. If you are not motivated playing in front of these guys, with this kind of atmosphere, you should change your profession.”

One match is far from a reliable sample size, but it was all one needed to see to know that opposing sides will not look forward to their annual trip to the Union’s ground.

“It was something really beautiful and we needed it,” said midfielder Roger Torres.  “We were coming to this game from a bunch of results that were not favorable. Playing at home, we always get something good out of it, so it is important for us to keep being home.”

Luckily for the expansion side, the vast majority of their remaining matches will be played at PPL Park. 12 of the club’s remaining 19 league matches will be hosted in Chester, Pa., which makes a playoff run very much a possibility.

Although the Union have played relatively well all season long, they have been unable to get positive results on the road other than a comeback win in Houston. However, this is a completely different team at home, with an undefeated record of 2-0-1 that speaks for itself. They appear to embrace and feed off of the crowd’s energy, a dynamic that was especially evident on Sunday.  

So what’s the number one takeaway from Sunday’s opener?

Trespassers beware.