Philly's most passionate sports fans are nuts about a team that doesn't yet exist.
And then there's the national-team-supporting Sam's Army, who turned up at a 2005 game against England wearing T-shirts reading: "TEA IS FOR PUSSIES," "BEACH BOYS KICK BEATLES' ASS," "BECKHAM IS A FAIRY," "FDR CAN'T SAVE YOU NOW," "MAGNA CARTA THIS ... " and "WE OWN MAN U."
They also taunted the English goalkeeper for an entire half with the chant: "We've got dentists!"
American soccer fan culture is as diverse as America itself. It cherry picks whatever the hell it wants from Europe, the Caribbean and Central and South America, and adds its own unique touches. Portland, for instance, just retired a real-life goddamn real chainsaw-wielding real Douglas fir-climbing real-life lumberjack mascot called Timber Jim.
How American is that?
With fans like these--fans like the Sons of Ben--who the hell needs David Beckham?
But don't think American soccer fandom doesn't know it's got a way to go. At the England/U.S. game in Chicago in 2005, the hundreds of chanting, drumming and singing members of Sam's Army were drowned out at one point by thousands of English men and women lustily singing (to the tune of the Welsh hymn "Bread of Heaven") "Are you Scotland in disguise?" The dude next to me stopped drumming, pointed at the away fans with his drumstick, and said, "Now that's what I'm talking about."
In March 2007 the Sons of Ben, then some 30 strong, decided they needed to get on TV. So they turned up with a flag and a big bass drum at a Philadelphia Kixx indoor soccer game at the Spectrum. They took the place over and were drowned out only once, by the massed singing by prepubescent Kixx fans during the obligatory third-quarter playing of the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song.
Momentarily stunned, the SOB bounced back by taunting Sagu, the visiting Baltimore goalie, with a mournful "Sagu SquarePants." Sagu visibly wilted, making a rout all but inevitable. It was a moment of genuinely spontaneous fan wit, and it marked the moment the SOB had arrived. The TV cameras swooped, and the press--both national and international--slowly started to snowball.
MLS veteran executive Nick Sakiewicz is one of a number of people who've been trying to bring a franchise to Philly for years. He remembers getting on a plane with a copy of the English soccer mag FourFourTwo and coming across an article about the SOB trip to the Kixx.
"I thought, 'Hello, what the hell is this?'"
Last month Sakiewicz turned up at a "meet the owners" night at the Dark Horse. Hundreds of SOB--scores of them having just joined in the previous week or so--showed up to meet him. There was a guy from Sweden, loads more women and a whole office of people who came en masse. And it was clear that the white, male, middle-class bias of the early membership was breaking down.
"Honestly, how can you not want to be an SOB?" says 37-year-old soccer newbie Sandra Drain. "Philly needs a soccer team to make us whole. This city is a melting pot if there ever was one. For those who are not yet fans, this is an open door to the world."
"Soccer is an international sport," says 47-year-old Diane Sharpe, "and Philly is an international city."
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Though the media haven't been invited, it's hardly a secret that MLS is coming to Philly. It's all very exciting. Sakiewicz stands on a chair to address the SOB, who break into a spontaneous chorus of "There's only one Nick Sakiewicz!" to the tune of "Guantanamera."
"I've been in this town 13 years," says Sakiewicz, "and I know damn well that if we hit a losing streak, you guys will be booing me."
When it opened for business in 1996, MLS was hailed as the Zion of the exiled American stars who’d long been forced to toil in distant lands. After that, washed-up greats arrived to great acclaim, only to disappoint fans with underwhelming performances and a distinct lack of interest. But surge of young American talent has given the league a much needed, albeit temporary, shot in the arm.