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Thanks to Arsenal, I’m a fan of the Philadelphia Union

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SB Nation’s new campaign “Come fan with us” is an invitation for fans to connect with the team sites. Our Academy and College Editor Matt Ralph tells his story of becoming a Philadelphia Union fan.

Arsenal vs Southampton at Arsenal Stadium in Highbury, London on October 17, 1998
Matt Ralph

To explain my Philadelphia Union fandom, I need to first rewind the clock to October 17, 1998.

I was a sophomore at Lebanon Valley College at the time, spending my fall semester in London, when my theater professor invited me to go to a soccer game. I knew a little about soccer at the time - and had played for my local club in South Jersey - but when I walked off the tube stop at Highbury I was transformed into a magical world of sport I had never experienced at any of the hundreds of baseball games I had attended as a kid.

That was all before I even got into the stadium.

The camaraderie, the singing, the unbridled passion, the raw energy was everywhere I looked. It was a neighborhood block party, a music festival and a sporting event all rolled up into one magnificent spectacle. To give some perspective of the time that has passed since then, a teenage Nicholas Anelka scored that day for the Arsenal while Dutch legend Dennis Bergkamp and current New York City FC manager Patrick Vieira were both in the starting XI.

I was instantly hooked, but when I returned to the states in December I was reminded that the nearest top flight team played nearly a three-hour drive away in a football stadium in North Jersey. What was worse was they were called the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.

I continued to follow Arsenal as best I could in those days and tuned into MLS games when they were on ESPN, but I longed for a team I could see in person, a team I could get excited about and a fanbase that could re-create some of that magic I experienced in England. The occasional college game and a Chicago Fire friendly I got to see against Chivas Guadalajara one summer while interning in Chicago were only reminders of what was missing. I focused most of my soccer attention on trying to find pick-up games to play.

Once out of college, I found myself working at a daily newspaper and had my first professional interaction with Major League Soccer when it was announced that Rowan University would be partnering with the league to locate a stadium on a peach farm the state university owned in South Jersey. Here finally was the promise of a team that I could watch in my backyard, a club that I could claim as my own.

But that wasn’t meant to be and by the time a team actually did come to fruition almost six years later I was no longer living in the area. I did watch the first game online and was mostly unimpressed with the quality of play. “Looks like minor league soccer to me,” I even wrote on a friend’s Facebook wall.

That all changed a year later when I attended my first game at PPL Park with my two brothers. It wasn’t quite Highbury, but the camaraderie, the passion and the singing was all there. For good or bad, it was finally a team Philly could claim as its own.

As a transplant to the region in the mid-’80s with favorite teams already chosen I’m one of those annoying anti-Philadelphia sports fans. This all changed with the Philadelphia Union. I’m still an Arsenal fan too - they after all are responsible for my love of the game beyond the World Cup - but with the Union I have a team I can see in person on the regular and a group of fellow fans who have re-created for me the kind of community, passion and excitement I was so blown away by in North London all those years ago.

It’s why I’m proud to say I’m a Philadelphia Union fan.