My first experience with the Sons of Ben was about one year ago at the 2010 MLS Superdraft in Philadelphia. I remember watching a constant stream of supporters march from Field House to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, up the escalator and into the draft room.
The SOBs promptly broke into a barrage of songs and chants, which turned the attention of everyone in the room. As the SOBs went back and forth with New York fans, MLS Commissioner Don Garber stood behind me snapping photos, of all things. "Amazing, isn't it?" he turned to me and said.
So it's no surprise that one year later the SOBs would organize a bus trip to the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, just a short trip down I-95 to Baltimore. I had the privilege of joining Philadelphia's supporters club throughout the day, and it went a little something like this:
The journey begins in the parking lot outside of PPL Park. Some of the SOBs stay warm inside their cars, but at least half are standing outside in the freezing cold, discussing everything from possible draft picks to rumors of certain players coming to Philadelphia. I can't feel my hands or feet after about 10 minutes, but somehow they all seem fine. Some SOBs stand in the cold for over 45 minutes.
Three buses depart for Baltimore, Maryland, one of which is rounded out by a group of Union Founding Members. Anticipation pervades the air on the way down, but the atmosphere is jovial. Adult beverages are enjoyed responsibly by some.
The buses pull up to Tir Na Nog, an Irish pub along Baltimore's Inner Harbor. As SOBs stream onto the sidewalk, the group's laundry list of songs and chants is summoned – Come On You Boys in Blue, the Sebastien Le Toux Song (he'll score us a goal or two – or three!), and of course countless renditions of the DOOP song.
The chanting draws the attention of nearby police officers, who seem confused. When we explain to them that we're headed for the Baltimore Convention Center, they laugh, wish us luck, and send us on our way. A Union flag and a "Don't Tread on Me" flag accompany the SOBs as they make their way from Tir Na Nog to the draft.
The SOBs enter the Baltimore Convention Center. Cue non-stop chanting and singing for the next five hours. Down the stairs, up the escalator, even into the bathroom – the soundtrack of the draft might as well have been "DOOP DOOP DOOP DA DA DOOP DOOP DOOP."
We arrive at the doors of the main room where the draft is being held. The SOBs are held up on the far side of the foyer, as far away from the New York fans as geographically possible.
A contingent of about a dozen New England fans appear 25 yards from the mass of SOBs. Our guys and gals outnumber the Revs fans by well over 100, a lopsided battle if there ever was one. New England supporters try their hardest to mount an attack of chants, but ultimately are drowned out by the SOBs.
DC United fans enter the Convention Center. New England and Union fans join forces to remind Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles, DC's two supporters clubs, of their league-worst record and the possibility of the franchise moving to Baltimore.
After United fans enter the draft room, the SOBs and Revs fans share a few laughs, shake hands, then follow suit.
12:00 PM TO 4:00PM
Non-stop singing and cheering from the SOBs, who had the largest contingent of fans in the building. I left the group temporarily to attend to other media duties, but could hear the supporters across the room for four hours straight. Every mention of New York and DC inspired boos and heckling. Philadelphia's first two draft picks, Zac MacMath and Michael Farfan, meet their newest fans before entering a media scrum backstage.
The SOBs head back to Tir Na Nog for a team-organized post-draft party. Spirits remain high.
Back at the pub, I have a chance to sit down with Sons of Ben President Bryan James. A co-founder of the group, Bryan has been the public face of the league's largest supporters club since its inception in January of 2007.
I first ask him about the bus trip and the group's experience at the draft.
"To me, it's amazing that we started something a couple years ago, before there was any hope of having a team, and now we're to the point where we've got people taking vacation days to support the team," said James. "And being given the whole side of the room by the league – it's amazing to me, and I think everyone involved, that we had two full busloads, more on the third bus, as well as probably another 30 people drive down."
I then ask him about the atmosphere of the draft, the placement of the supporters, and exchanges with other fan groups.
"Atmosphere-wise, it's just fun," he said. "It's still amazing to me that they put long-time rivals DC and New York right next to each other, but think enough of us to put us all alone on the other side. It says something about the numbers we're bringing, the passion we bring, the reputation we have for being respectful when we need to, but for being very passionate and supportive of our hometown team."
Though the Sons of Ben were formed years ago, 2010 was their first full year of actually having a team to support. I ask him about the group's growth over the past 12 months.
"I think we learned a lot this year," James explained. "One, we need to spread out the leadership a little bit more so we can fairly represent the fans from (sections) 134 to 140 and beyond. Right now, a great concentration of our leadership is in 137, with additional leaders in 136 and 138. So that's one of the things we're working on this year.
"We learned throughout the year, although we've been doing this for what we thought was a long time, that not a lot of different people had come out to our events during those three years before 2010. So, we had a lot of song teaching to do, a lot of behavior and expectation setting to do. And I'll tell you what: the thing I'm proudest of, although there were some trying results in 2010, is that the Sons of Ben, and all Union fans, never booed the team, because they gave full effort. ... We have a crowd that's really involved with the team, and wonderfully enough, a team that's involved with the fans."
Next, I ask James about the working relationship with the Union front office. He tells me about frequent meetings and discussions on ways to improve communication and gameday atmosphere.
"I think in the cities where they have good supporters sections, they also have a good relationship with the front office. For us, it's something that we work hard at. I talk with the Union once a week, maybe more than that. Sons of Ben leaders meet weekly on Sunday night to talk about things like membership, charitable gifts, trying to get everything in line so we're the best we can be. The team is as proud of us as we are of them."
Lastly, I ask James about the group's proven commitment to making a difference in the community, particularly in Chester. The Sons of Ben recently raised $10,000 for the Bernardine Center, an organization that assists low-income Chester-area residents by distributing emergency and supplemental food and supplies.
"I started that (effort) back in 2007," James said. "I reached out to Mayor Butler of Chester and asked where he thought charitable donations would be most impactful. He directed us to the Bernardine Center, which is a mile from the stadium. We started (in year one) with $1,500 and over 500 pounds of food. This year we raised $10,000. So it has definitely set the bar higher going forward, but we raised more this year than in the previous three years combined."
A roundtable panel discussion begins, moderated by Union play-by-play man JP Dellacamera. The well-respected American soccer voice discusses the selections with Reading United A.C. coach Brendan Burke, University of Delaware coach Ian Hennessy, and University of Pennsylvania coach Rudy Fuller. The verdict is unanimous: all three experts are impressed with the club's overhaul.
WATCH: SuperDraft Special
MacMath, Farfan and Levi Houapeu answer a few questions on camera, and the Sons of Ben provide each with a warm welcome.
Dellacamera wraps up the show by speaking with James and Union CEO & Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz, who lauds the SOBs for their support and alludes to imminent signings.
The post-draft party comes to an end and the three buses depart for Philadelphia.
6:41 PM to 8:30 PM
"Bus 3" is lively all the way from Baltimore to Philadelphia, defying logic – how does anyone have this type of energy for 13 straight hours? I can't help but feel for the bus driver, but he seems to be enjoying himself.
We arrive in Chester, and the Sons of Ben chant something to the effect of, "We love you bus driver!" The buses unload and everyone finds their cars in the parking lot.
Another successful day supporting the club for the Sons of Ben.