I became a Philadelphia Union fan only a few years ago in some way because of, thanks to, or blame to the unfortunate center of our American universe right now: Trump. (Yes, this will be political, so you can stop reading if that’s a problem. It’s my story, so I’ll tell it the way it really happened.)
There I was, frustrated and unable to sleep the night of the 2016 election returns. The final call hadn’t been made yet, but all the signs pointed towards a narcissistic con artist assuming the mantle of the most powerful person on Earth. I wasn’t in love with my fellow citizens who embraced what I considered to be racism, misogyny, and mindless jingoism with their votes. I needed a distraction, which usually means sports.
Unfortunately, every sport I looked at was painfully, just as jingoistically American in a negative sense, at least to my bleary eyes late into the night. All the sports as war metaphors rang terribly false and destructive in an overwhelming way. I needed sports, but I needed to get away from the America of that particularly painful moment.
That’s when I ran into beIN Sports, a cable channel I never frequented. Barcelona was playing someone I can’t remember now, not that they were much more than window dressing to the real show of Messi weaving through traffic. The pinging one-two touch play was the perfect Zen meditation for me at that moment. I felt my shoulders relax, went with the flow of the game, and haven’t stopped since.
I didn’t grow up with soccer. Despite soccer being “the sport of the future” of the 1970s, my formative years, I didn’t play. I grew up in the city, not the suburbs, so sports at the time meant basketball, baseball, football (mostly Nerf with telephone poles as goal lines), and street hockey (when the Flyers won the cup, twice). I recall watching Soccer Made in Germany on PBS with my Dad, the odd World Cup final here and there, and even Pele’s last game with the Cosmos, but consistent soccer viewing wasn’t really available. To me, it was a strange, low-scoring sport that the rich kids in the ‘burbs and exotic foreigners played and enjoyed, not inner-city kids who dreamed of playing centerfield or point guard someday.
Fast forward through the decades to marriage and kids and the ‘burbs, I ended up driving my kids to suburban soccer, cheered along with the other parents, and kicked a ball around in the backyard, but still didn’t get the game. I knew peripherally of the Philadelphia Union, the Sons of Ben, and even the increasing amount of international soccer on television, but never caught the bug.
But there I was that election night suspending judgment and finding a game that gave me exactly what I needed. Here was the smallest man on the pitch dominating with skill and imagination everyone else. There was a grit along with the flair that embodied “American” values better than what I was finding in America at the moment. I was hooked, but, alas, I was a Eurosnob.
I gorged myself that winter of 2016-2017 on soccer: full games, highlights, podcasts, EPL, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, and even Ligue 1 (God help me). Anything soccer was enough. As with any new obsession of mine, I devoured the standard histories and learned as many names and as much lore as I could cram into my head. And the more I read, the deeper I dug. It became the gateway drug to learning about not just the world’s most popular sport, but also the about the world itself. “Tell me how you play and I’ll tell you who you are,” Eduardo Galeano writes in Soccer in Sun and Shadow. Seeing how the world played, especially at that moment when it seemed to be America versus the world, told me who they were better than anything else.
But how did that turn me into a Philadelphia Union fan? It was a long walk, but fall turned winter turned spring and MLS season. My inner Eurosnob recognized a difference in quality, but I quickly realized that quality was secondary to community. My wife scored some free tickets to a game and we made the trek to Chester. Munching on free Bimbo bread on the car ride home, we talked as a family about the game and the experience itself—so different from the Phillies and Eagles games we’d been to.
The Union told me how they played, and told me who we are. Without getting into a debate about “real Americans,” I saw what’s real about America in the Union and MLS experience that Saturday night. Here were players born in America, South America, and Europe working together—the melting pot my high school history text book talked about. Here were fans mirroring those nationalities in the stands cheering together. My multiethnic family wore a rainbow of soccer jerseys (my sons in Eintracht Frankfort and Juventus, my wife in a Ronaldo Portuguese national team shirt, and me in my Messi Argentina blue and white) that sparked warm, friendly conversations with fans nearby. It was an oasis in the middle of the daily wasteland of conflict and disharmony that my country had become. It was a reminder of what America really is, and can be again.
So, now I’m a Union fan (as well as an international soccer fan; I contain multitudes). I root for Andre Blake playing for the local side almost as much as I root for him when he represents Jamaica (except against the USMNT). I admire the grit of Ale Bedoya for his courage and leadership on and beyond the pitch. I groan at the losses and lose my mind at the magic (see “Thunderstrike, Glesnes”). And when the day comes that we can all be together again, watching at the stadium or watching at home, I’ll remember that it’s the community, not the quality.
If you ask me who I watch, I’ll tell you who I am. I’m a Philadelphia Union fan.