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Empty stadiums, wistful memories and reasoning with a pandemic-disrupted MLS season

As the Philadelphia Union prepare to welcome a limited number of fans for the first time in 2020, Greg Oldfield looks back on a season unlike any other

Soccer has the power to heal. I remind myself of this when I arrive at Subaru Park for my first Philadelphia Union game in over a year. The walk to the stadium is eerie and quiet and though the grounds are maintained, from a distance I have visions of the abandoned Brazilian and Russian Olympic venues years after the thrill of hosting came and went. There are no tailgaters in the parking lots, no kids passing a soccer ball in between cars, no smell of burgers on a charcoal grill or sound of beer bottles tossed into a trashcan, no lines for the Port-o-Potty, no selfies by the river, and no friends meeting by the Supporter’s gate to enter together, absent rituals that now signal that something is off.

Millions of spotted lantern flies litter the trees, sidewalks, empty pavilions, and picnic tables while thousands more lay dead, either squished under a shoe, swatted with a hand, or caught in a timely spray. After I enter the gate, I don’t have to wait in a line, walk around a phone texter, or dodge the second-guesser who stops mid-flow because they’ve changed their mind and wants P.J. Whelihan’s instead of Chickie’s & Pete’s. I take the stairs up to the second level and gaze out from the Ale House Deck. The immaculate green striped-patterns in the grass have been enriched by cooler nights and daily waterings and look nothing like the drought-filled lawns of my neighborhood whose owners have given up on curb appeal. The Delaware is desolate except for two jet skiers who zip downriver, swirl for several minutes, and go back the way they came as if there were nothing here that could compete with an open throttle on the still water.

For a few minutes, I watch the cars and trucks pass along the Commodore Barry because how rarely do I look up when all the action’s down. No one’s standing outside the Stadium Club or gathering in club boxes. No kids hang over railings. No parents shout warnings about the consequences after they fall. Closer to the field, several rows of cardboard cutouts replace humans who are watching miles away from their living room couches. No security personnel protect the visiting Inter Miami supporters occupying the tiny strip of section 133. I keep waiting for fans to arrive, thinking maybe they’d stayed in the lot five minutes too long to make sure the coals cooled or to savor those last sips of beer. Maybe traffic was bad tonight, an accident on 95 South or the Blue Route jammed up again through Media.

But when Kevin Casey reads the fan behavior statement—no throwing objects, no abusive language—I wonder which one of us in the media this is directed toward. Though I use profanity often these days it’s been months since I’ve thrown a laptop. When Casey announces the Miami starting eleven, no one yells “sucks” after each name, no one boos Diego Alonso, or gives Gonzalo Higauín a proper Philly greeting. As the dark storm clouds fill in to form a hazy gray sky, a light rain falls and a fog rises above the river. Soon it starts to look like a Tim Burton film, only instead of a headless horseman, a line of players appears from the locker rooms beneath a sprawling Sons of Ben banner with two figures holding blue and yellow flares that dissipate into the gray background.

In the game’s opening minutes, I’m comforted by the lack of a simulated crowd going bonkers after a team wins a throw in. The constant chatter of players is a rarity that goes unnoticed with the presence of fans, but whether that’s a positive I’m not quite sure. I’m not sure I know much about anything anymore. After Anthony Fontana’s opening goal, he looks toward the faces in the crowd, faces that are transfixed not on a soccer game but on a camera held by a family member at a barbecue, birthday party, or anniversary, some smirking at a bystander out of view saying “Cheesedoodles” or giving bunny ears behind the photographer. While the DOOP song wails, instead of high fives in the first row, he runs away from goal to the middle of the field and slides across the slick grass on his knees until he’s tackled by Olivier Mbaizo. The beauty of Fontana’s fourth goal in three home games loses its exclamation without the larger family to share it with. I sometimes forget this is the same season as the one that started six months ago, when we were upset because the Union came out flat against FC Dallas then pumped for days after Jakob Glesnes’ bomb against LAFC. I still carry the image of the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert touching reporters’ phones and mics in a press conference. Then watching days later as the team doctor ran onto the court to announce the cancellation of his game against the Oklahoma City Thunder seconds before tip-off.

As leagues around the world postponed in a frenzy, our lives fell into disarray, followed by months of fear, dejection, apocalypse theories, more social injustices, financial destruction, and deaths. Somehow, lost in all this is the deaths. But this time we had no games to distract us, no sports narratives to provide a frame of reference to life’s normalcies. Like many fans, instead, I found myself looking back. To moments that once brought joys and sorrows. Replays of the Women’s World Cup in France, where I sat in the Parc de Princes and the Stade de Lyon with my family, with people. Then transitioning to the horrors of the 2017 qualifying campaign in which I grew teary-eyed in front of my students, live students, the day after the loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

Slowly, life came back. Soccer came back. Though none of it normal. When the Bundesliga returned to empty stadiums, Bayern Munich dismantled Union Berlin as if they’d never had three months off. MLS came back with the bubble, a term that took over American sports vocabulary, and although the plan seemed silly at the time, it provided a framework for other sports who found success in their return. And once again, soccer led by example in demonstrating the power of unity with its support for Black Lives Matter, and our own Union members, Warren Creavalle, Ray Gaddis and Mark McKenzie became vocal leaders, not just for our team but for our country and the rest of the world.

It was during this return that I began to really immerse myself in the Union. For fans my age, we’ve had a disjointed relationship with American professional soccer. I was a founding season ticket holder the first two seasons, where I tried to survive the heatwaves of the mid-day Saturday games in the direct sunlight in Section 129 with an infant daughter in tow, often leaving at halftime sweat soaked and sunburned desperate for the car’s A/C. It was impossible to avoid the rush-hour jams during the mid-week games. Soon, the struggle became so exhausting that toward the end of the season, I couldn’t even give away tickets. I can usually gauge an American soccer fan’s age by the Premier League team they support. Liverpool means late 40s and 50s, Arsenal mid-40s, Manchester United late 30s, Chelsea early 30s, Manchester City 30 and under. For many others, allegiances had been established by cultural connections or generations of family devotion. The Barcelona, Real Madrid, Boca Juniors, Flamengo, and Chivas fans who still follow the teams they most closely identify with because the term four-for-four didn’t apply to them. It took a while for the Union to feel like my team. I grew up on fuzzy Liga Mex games and the Premier League Review Show once a week on Sports Channel, where I watched Manchester United extended highlights in the early-’90s and latched on because I wanted a soccer team to call my own.

Even when the MLS started in ’96, the league felt foreign. Supporting New York or D.C. because they were the closest made me gag. The first Union game, I had a closest of Rooney and Ronaldo jerseys because I didn’t yet know I wanted a Le Toux. For once, I saw people at a stadium I knew, former teammates, opponents, faces I recognized from far away, soccer faces, who’d grown older and fuller like mine. The next several years, I chased my daughter around PPL Park, and it became too hard to focus on a game when the ice cream and fan shop had more appeal. Year after year, the Union played well enough to matter but not well enough to attract those fans still rooted in the clubs they and their families had supported for decades.

My personal investment in the Union started with people I knew. The first time I saw Jim Curtin as a member of the Union was in the Stadium Club after a game during his first year as an assistant. My brother, Rob, who coached Jim and I when we played for Inter County Select as young teens, waved him over, and we talked for a while about old teammates, our parents, the usual catching up. Then Jim took my nephew, Kaya, who was 14 or 15 at the time, back into the player’s area for an autograph. Kaya came out with his jersey signed by the entire team.

“That Jimmy is such a nice boy,” my mom used to say. He was a shy, quiet kid, a central midfielder back then, lanky and average-sized but silky smooth on the ball. I talked a ton of trash on the field, and that used to make Jim laugh. I like to think that maybe I helped him open up a bit.

We played together for years off and on between select teams, ODP, and club. He was always a good player, a good person, and I still see the same kid when he steps behind a microphone as the leader of one of the best teams in MLS. A player’s coach, the kind of coach I’d run that final sprint for or dive in front of that last-second shot if it meant getting a result for him. But don’t be too fooled by the nice guy behind the mask. Curtin’s an intense competitor even if he doesn’t lose his cool or berate referees. Once, when I played against him while he was at Villanova, we came together for a challenge. I eased up because I still viewed him as my teammate, but he stuck me so hard that I popped a hip flexor that nagged me for the duration of the season. I wasn’t surprised he found success in MLS, and I’m not surprised to see him excel as a coach.

I still have the image of Chris Albright pulling down rebounds and shooting jumpers in our eyes during pickup basketball before ODP training. Southeastern PA had a ton of good players my age, many of whom went on to Division I programs and some of whom spent years in the pros. There was a two-year stretch in which Albright went from good to the best. I remember him walking up to the field in street clothes before a late-spring ODP game to tell us he’d just been called up to the youth national team. Our national team. Not some player in Virginia or Long Island or California but a kid from Northeast Philly who single-handedly won us both games the day before. I was in awe. I was also nervous because that meant I’d be getting a rare start up top.

In April 2000, my college teammate, Pete Shellenberger, and I drove down from State College to Hershey for the Olympic qualifying semifinals, where Albright played alongside John O’Brien, Landon Donovan, and DeMarcus Beasley. He waved to us after the game, an unlit stoagie clenched between his teeth, and told us to come out with the team to celebrate their Olympic berth. We passed because it was a Friday and we had a scrimmage the next day. I didn’t see Albright again until the night Curtin took Kaya to get his jersey signed.

The only advantage of watching a game in an empty stadium during a pandemic is that it doesn’t take long to get out. But maybe even a part of me misses those moments staring at brake lights while reflecting on the game with my family, confirming the worthiness of the trip and why I spent my Saturday afternoon and evening coming to the park when I could have thrown on sweats and watched it from home. Maybe I miss those horns and wrong way turns, the guy who pulls onto the shoulder and reverses because he wanted to go north instead of south. This is not a normal season, and this is not a normal Union team. It’s almost tragic that the Union are playing so well yet the fans cannot be present to enjoy them. A limited number of ticketed fans will be allowed in the stadium beginning tonight when the Montreal Impact come to town, but as the tragedies around the world continue, we’ll need soccer more than ever to ease our pains and restore our beliefs. And as the Union grow, we grow along with them, and we face these adversities together, a team and its fans, the way soccer was intended.