PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Union didn’t walk off Lincoln Financial Field with a victory after facing Real Madrid in Saturday’s international friendly — but they may have gotten something even better.
“I think that we probably won some fans tonight,” Union coach John Hackworth said following Real’s narrow 2-1 decision at Lincoln Financial Field. “And I think we did that not just from the score line, but from the way we played. We weren’t scared to play and to try to play through them and possess the ball and run combinations and get numbers forward. Any fan that watched walks away and says that it was pretty entertaining.”
Of course, the Union already have a strong and passionate fan base — a group Hackworth called “the best fans in the whole country” in the same press conference. But as evidenced by the majority of Real Madrid jerseys in the crowd Saturday, there are still plenty of soccer supporters in this country that haven’t given their local team a chance.
It was the same way last year when Manchester United fans outnumbered Union supporters when the two squads met at the Linc. But after Philly hung tough in a 1-0 loss to the EPL giants, then-Union president Tom Veit said, “I think we got a lot of converts tonight.”
Good performances in marquee international games can do that.
“I think what you see is that MLS clubs can compete, and there are a lot of young guys who are willing to play the way that we ask them to on a daily basis and have the confidence and swagger to go out against some of the world’s best players and bang it around a little bit,” Hackworth said. “I think the league is continually getting better, but so does the rest of the world, and [Saturday] was a good showcase for our guys.”
The Union are now an impressive 3-2 in international friendlies with their only losses coming to Man. United and Real Madrid. They defeated Everton FC on Wednesday, and knocked off Celtic FC and CD Guadalajara last season.
Admittedly, it can hurt the league when a good team like Seattle lose to Manchester United by seven goals, as what happened last week. But the Union — and other teams — are showing that, for the most part, the playing field is fairly level.
“It’s helping raise the profile of MLS and really showing MLS teams can compete,” Union defender Danny Califf said. “That’s only a good thing.”
And it’s only going to help the Union reel in new fans, especially as the city continues to host marquee games.
“You look at the games that Philadelphia is attracting — it’s fantastic,” Hackworth said. “We have USA-Mexico in a couple of weeks here, and to attract some of the international games that we’ve had, the World Cup lead-up games last year, Man. United — the support coming out is fantastic.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.