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Firsthand Account: Behind the Stretcher

It was a hot, sunny day in Chester. A beautiful day for soccer.

I arrived at the stadium at 4:30 p.m. My first impression of PPL Park, from its exterior, made me eager to explore its interior. The park looked pristine from the parking lot, where a guy named Kyle and a number of other fans had already gathered to pre-game. (Kickoff wasn’t for another three hours.)

And PPL Park, well, it was the first pleasant surprise of the day. Far from the last. The Commodore Barry Bridge stood guard behind the stadium, a silent sentinel overlooking The Home of the Union. The stadium looked beautiful, different from the ones in downtown Philadelphia because of its solitude. Clean, and new, and way more than I expected — a fine piece of architecture.

As I walked toward the media entrance with my volunteer “All Access” pass in hand, I noticed some food stands on the outside concourse. Nora Lee’s Cafe offered Cajun food, and Los Tacos, Mexican. Neither had started cooking yet, to my dismay.

Upon entering the stadium, a Union employee ushered me into the volunteer waiting room, where I was given a complimentary Union T-shirt and a boxed lunch. Nothing against the roast beef sandwich and chips, but my mouth dreamed of a plate from Nora Lee’s Cafe.

I was part of the stretcher crew for the day. One Union employee told me, “That’s the best job! You get to sit right in the middle of the field, and you don’t have to do anything because no one ever needs a stretcher!”

She was right about the first part.

About an hour before kickoff, the Volunteer Army moved into position. The stadium looked even better from the inside, especially from grass-level. The rows of seats on one side of the stands spelled the word “UNION” in white and gold. The bridge remained visible behind the Supporters’ Section, and the waterfront air wafted into my nostrils. The natural grass felt amazing underfoot; it made me want to don soccer cleats and shin guards and play.

Watching a few Union players warming up only increased my desire to run onto the field and slide-tackle someone. Three of them were engaged in a triangular passing drill, and I informed two volunteers nearby of how I felt left out. Almost as soon as the words exited my mouth, one Union player lofted a pass across the pitch toward his teammate — the one positioned right near us. He moved to his right to try to reach the pass, but it eluded him ... and came straight toward me! I stuck my right foot out and settled the bouncing ball, feeling all the pressure in the world. I swung my foot back, then forward, and hit the Union player with a beautiful assist. (Surely, somewhere in the stadium, an MLS talent scout contemplated signing me to a 10-day contract.)

Three other volunteers and myself comprised the illustrious stretcher crew, and we occupied four chairs directly at midfield, between the Union bench and the scorer’s table.

Twenty or thirty minutes before the game, a red-headed man showed up with a Union employee escort and a couple fans. They stood next to us. The red-headed man was short — maybe five-foot-seven — and wore a black T-shirt, blue jeans with skulls on their pockets, a crazy pair of boots, and a chain wallet. His short hair formed fiery curls atop his head and was accompanied by a matching, groomed goatee. He looked familiar. One of the stretcher crew members turned to the rest of us and whispered, “That’s Danny Bonaduce!”

And he was right. Apparently Bonaduce — the childhood-turned-reality TV-turned-radio star — proudly supports the Union. He kicked off the ceremonial first ball, posed for pictures, and enjoyed himself royally. The Sons of Ben — the organized Union fans who never stop cheering from the raucous Supporters’ Section — shouted “Bon-a-du-ce! Bon-a-du-ce!” in unison.

To my delight, the Sons of Ben were just getting started. Throughout the night, their enthusiasm blew me away. As kickoff approached, a cloud cover rolled in, and the Sons of Ben began beating bass drums and chanting — an awesome spectacle. When the announcer introduced the Real Salt Lake players, the Sons of Ben turned their backs and showed their non-affection. Then they greeted the Union squad with great applause, along with the rest of the crowd, which by that time had filled almost the entire stadium.

We could count each player’s nose hairs from where we sat, but I’d honestly rather have been cheering in the Supporters’ Section with the Sons of Ben. It looked like so much fun, reminding me of a fanatical student section at a college basketball or football game. Benjamin’s progeny stood on their feet almost the entire game, leading the stadium in a variety of chants (some of them politically correct, and others not so much). Their level of self-imposed fandom rarely appears at American sporting events these days, and that made it a terrific sight.

In the eighth minute, Union rookie Danny Mwanga received a skilled pass from Sebastien Le Toux’s pink-cleated right foot. Mwanga — an impressive physical specimen and athlete — took the pass, dribbled into the 18, and finished with authority. The Union led 1-0 at that point, and the 16,128 fans in attendance went wild. It hit me at that moment, when the Union established an early lead against the defending MLS champions in front of their packed, home stadium crowd, that this Philly soccer thing was for real.

When I first heard about the birth of the Union more than a year ago, I never anticipated what I encountered that August evening. Even though Real Salt Lake’s lightning-footed Fabian Espindola scored an equalizer within 10 minutes of Mwanga’s goal, and the match finished as a 1-1 draw, the game as a whole was a home victory in my eyes.

For one thing, Union Manager Peter Nowak clearly knows the game, and it was a privilege being close enough to hear his interactions with the referees. (He gave them quite an earful, which their officiating warranted.)

[inline_node:287612]And the players — they grip you. You won’t find them atop the MLS standings this year; expansion squads, no matter the sport, rarely experience winning inaugural seasons. But the Union players compete, and they excite, and they endear themselves to you. Players like leading scorer Le Toux, experienced midfielder Fred, miniature locomotive Roger Torres, rugged defender Danny Califf — the fans have a connection, a bond, with them. And the feeling is mutual, as the players waved and clapped and showed their appreciation for the crowd after the game ended.

From a volunteer standpoint, the coolest part of the evening occurred during the game’s 41st minute. A Real player went down near his own goal, across the field from where myself and the other stretcher crew members sat. Remember how they told me that my services wouldn’t be needed? Well, after a minute of the Real player writhing on the ground, the referee turned to us and called, in a foreign accent, “Stretcher, let’s go!”

And away we went, running toward the wounded player. It was a rush. The four of us could feel that we were the surprise center of attention in a stadium full of thousands of people. All of a sudden, we mattered. Then we arrived at the RSL player’s side, placed the stretcher next to him on the ground ... and he was up in a flash, good as new! The crowd booed him, and we ran back to our posts. We gazed triumphantly up at all the fans watching us, with at least a couple hundred of them applauding our efforts. It was terrific.

Once more, near the end of the game, the ref called us into action. And again, the Real player suffered only from an injured competitive spirit; he popped up as soon as the stretcher crew neared him. Amazing how that happens.

All in all, it was a thrilling experience. On my way out of the stadium, I talked to a pair of Union fans — Chad and Josh Metzger — who have attended every game this season. They’re exactly the type of fans I never imagined I’d find this early in the Union’s existence.

They’ve been MLS fans for years, and Union supporters from Day One. “You couldn’t get (the Union) started fast enough for me,” Josh said.

“As soon as it went on the computer that tickets were going on sale,” Chad added, “we were there.”

The Metzgers, like me, loved how the stadium and team turned out. They told me this was the first game they’d attended where the other team lacked a cheering section, meaning that I missed out on an exciting crowd dynamic. They said they’ve followed a number of the Union players, and Nowak, since they played for other clubs.

I asked the Metzgers what they would say to people who don’t know much about the Union.

“They need to experience a game,” Josh said.

“Really,” Chad agreed.

“There’s a lot of people that think soccer’s a very boring sport,” Josh continued. “It really isn’t. They need to experience a game live. It’s a — you can’t really explain the experience. It’s something you have to see.”

I couldn’t agree more. Just don’t fake an injury, or they’ll send the stretcher crew after you. And trust me — you don’t want that.