The inaugural game at PPL Park could not have gone any better. The Union broke in their new stadium with a 3-1 victory via a style of soccer that I wasn't expecting and a result that seems remarkable days later. This was the same team that played an absolutely terrible game in Kansas City before the world cup break? The same team that opened their season against Seattle to a 2-0 loss?
I sat behind the goal opposite the River End. My seat was about halfway up the first level just to the side of Kasey Keller as the match got underway (to get a better idea of where I was take a look at the Chris Seitz penalty stop video I posted to YouTube). I have been in a lot of stadiums in my lifetime and can say with certainty this was the best soccer viewing experience I've ever had. The stands are very close to the pitch; everyone is close to the action. The sellout crowd was amped and I feel ~18,500 was a good size to go for. PPL Park was full, loud and without many if any bad seats in the place.
The Union recognized the moment. They all seemed very aware of the gravity of June 27th, 2010 and that 18,755 were there to support them. It may not matter in every MLS city but playing at home in Philadelphia, in any sport, definitely has an impact.
The starting eleven for Philadelphia: Seitz; Salinas, Arrieta, Califf, Harvey; Le Toux, Miglioranzi, Fred, Torres, Mwanga, Moreno. Salinas was in on defense to replace carded Orozco. In my opinion Salinas should be starting anyway. Mwanga got the start again up top.
After the kick off Philadelphia controlled the game for nearly the entire first half. The defense and offense were working and get this: working together. The midfield was calmly possessing the ball and offering good service up around the field. The ball was largely kept in Seattles end with only a few moments on defense that were cleanly handled. LeToux had two great opportunities and Mwanga's shot curved just wide of the post. I felt good about our play but as the first 45 wore on I got worried that the Union weren't going to capitalize on their solid style. All it would take was one quick strike by Seattle to kill this momentum.
That quick counter I feared came in the 45th minute were an odd sequence led to a deflection to the foot of Noonan to a goal. Watching the replay its hard to blame the defense for being out of position. It was a weird play and as a defender I know there is little you can do on a deflection like that. Seattle went up 1-0 just before the half. Giving up that kind of goal right before half after the way we played would normally be a killer. My only hope was that Seattle would continue its lackluster play and the Union could regain their form.
The Union came out in the second half as if that goal hadn't happened and stayed on their game. Applying pressure just like they did so well in the first and playing solid defense. The threats kept building and in the 55th minute Moreno was taken down in the box which led to a penalty that LeToux absolutely buried. PPL Park went nuts and it was 1 all.
Seattle started to apply some more pressure after the LeToux goal. The Union defense had held it together with good clears and quick counters up the wings by Harvey and Salinas. One Seattle attack finally got through and Arietta softly fouled Montero in the box leading to a penalty shot. For whatever reason Montero was not selected as the shooter and Noonan stepped up to the ball. I thought this, like many penalties, was a done deal. We would certainly go down 2-1 and have to climb back in this game again. The penalty happend at the goal I was sitting behind. Everyone was on their feet. I turned to my brother and talked about the odds in this situation. Our only hope was an error by the taker right? He had been a keeper his whole life and reminded me of the picture that still hangs in our childhood bedroom of him making an amazing penalty stop. A good goalie could make a good save.
Noonan takes the penalty. Seitz doesn't guess and stops the shot. PPL Park absolutely erupts. This was a clear game-changer. A goal had been saved and a goalie had shown his mettle. Our section behind the keeper broke out into "Seitz, Seitz, Seitz!" cheers that would last throughout the rest of the game.
The rest of the game seems like a blur after the high of that moment. The Union kept up their and game gradually broke down the Seattle defense. Salinas and Harvey continue to make long runs to create opportunities. Kasey Keller literally saved two sure goals and kept Seattle in it until the 79th minute. LeToux hit a hard ball across the goal mouth that skipped by the entire defense to a waiting Fred who drove it home. Finally the fruits of the style being played were paying off and we had the lead.
5 minutes later another attack led by LeToux led to a fast break pass to Mwanga who took a shot that Keller stopped but followed up the rebound for goal number three to seal it. Mwanga had been threatening all game and you get the sense that he is finally comfortable in Nowak's system and producing results.
After the final whistle blew the crowd went wild and it was official: we won our opening game at PPL Park. The players and coach Nowak couldn't have looked more happy and excited. They knew they were in a special kind of moment. Each of the players came around to show their appreciation for the fans. Sebastian LeToux took it the furthest though by tossing his distinct purple boots up into the crowd. The Sons of Ben could be seen hoisting several players up into the stands a la the Lambeau leap. I stuck around for awhile and many fans didn't want to leave. The team did a post match cool down run around the stadium. Smiles wide.
I'm still smiling. I can't wait to go back to PPL Park.