Long before the Philadelphia Union professional soccer club began playing at their home field in Chester in 2010, a band of enthusiastic fans had already formed.The Sons of Ben organized in 2007, more than a year before the region was awarded the Major League Soccer team. Mere dribble of a team coming soon was enough to get the Delaware Valley fan base pumped up.
“They emerged organically,” says Nick Sakiewicz, the Union’s CEO and operating partner. “We weren’t sure what to make of it. We didn’t know whether it was two guys working out of a garage pretending to be a lot of people or whether it was in fact a lot of people. It turned out to be a lot of people.”
By the time the new team was officially announced, the Sons of Ben counted more than 1,600 members. They now have more than 5,000 dues-paying followers who stomp and chant and intimidate visiting teams entering PPL Park.
That enthusiasm is precisely why Sakiewicz and the MLS thought the region was ripe for a professional team. Plus, Sakiewicz says, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that nearly 3 million people in the 11-county region surrounding Philly considered themselves avid soccer fans. And in an attempt to revitalize Chester and its waterfront, the team provides an economic boost to the community.
The sport is growing in popularity across the state, with youth leagues for boys and girls sprouting in areas from Allentown to Erie. More than 130,000 children ages 5 to 19 participate in the Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association. Around 55,000 kids play in the Pennsylvania West Soccer Association. And adult leagues match the excitement as well.
When the Union arrived in Chester, they made a commitment to the local community by launching a youth soccer league.
“Up until about a year ago, the kids in Chester mostly played basketball and football,” Sakiewicz says. “And now we have 600 kids playing soccer.”
The kids in the youth league have become passionate fans of the Union, just like the Sons of Ben.
“It’s a dream come true for a sports team owner,” Sakiewicz says. “You don’t always have that kind of relationship with your fans and I cherish that.”