A perfect summer Saturday night, the Delaware River alongside Chester’s PPL Park agleam with lights, the Philadelphia Union’s game against Sporting K.C. just under way, and—whoa! Before the crowd of 18,000 fans even got settled in their seats, the Union was up 1-0 on a goal in the first minute of the match. (Yeah, I know; the official timer put it in the second minute, but I was there.) The speedy score served to highlight one of soccer’s greatest strengths—one that makes it difficult for American audiences to truly get behind the game. With soccer, you get a lot of bang for your buck—so long as you don’t look away.
If you were late to Saturday night’s match—even two minutes late—you missed that goal. And if the game had gone like most soccer matches, that would have been the only score all night. A lot of people think that makes soccer boring. Tell that to the fans at PPL, who were on the edges of their seats all game—when they weren’t on their feet cheering, or holding their collective breath.
People don’t go to the restroom much at PPL, at least not while a match is on. They don’t hang out at the concession stands, or shop the store that sells Union gear. They pretty much stay in their seats. (The exception would be the HUGE youth-soccer team occupying the seats directly to our right; their shiny green shirts ran the stairs all night.) Soccer fans know there probably won’t be a next time if they happen to be turned the wrong way when Freddy Adu connects on a sweet tap of a pass to Jack McInerney. In soccer, you really have to watch the game.
That makes it different from baseball, where even if your team is down 3-0 or 4-0 going into the eighth there’s a perfectly good chance they’ll come back to win it, or football, where the steady exchange of possessions levels out the opportunities. It’s even more different from basketball, where it often seems all that matters is how a team performs in the last two minutes. Soccer demands that you focus a full 90 minutes of your attention on the sweep of play, on the seemingly nonchalant passes from side to side and back to the goalie, then forward and side to side again, until someone glimpses something, a shimmer of possibility, and the break is on. In that instant, soccer is like watching the internal workings of a clock, all the pieces precisely attuned to one purpose. The crowd senses it at the exact same time, and rises in a swell to its feet.
We were lucky on Saturday night. “I’ll be happy if we just get a goal or two and don’t embarrass ourselves,” my husband said before the match against highly favored K.C. Who could blame him? The Union had been through such troubles of late, what with the firing of head coach Peter Nowak, whose crazy patchwork of trades (Le Toux? Mondragon? Catliff? Mwanga?!) left fans scratching their heads. So many new names on the roster; a new coach, John Hackworth, to try to pull things together. Sure, the Union had looked good the week before in a 1-0 loss to mighty D.C. United. But really, no one was expecting much … After that first goal, the Union went on to score three more: another from 19-year-old McInerney, who’d been consigned by Nowak to the bench for ages; a penalty kick by Lio Pajoy; and a gorgeous chip over K.C. goalie Jimmie Nielsen by Princeton University’s Antoine Hoppenot. The Union’s 20-year-old goalkeeper, Zach MacMath, blanked the mighty D.C. offense to earn his fourth shutout of the season. You owe it to yourself to go see these guys. They’re so much fun. Get your kidneys in training first, though. You won’t want to miss a minute of the action in this game. The Union’s next home MLS match is on July 8th against Toronto F.C.