Sticking out in the sea of red, white, and blue patriots swallowing downtown Nashville this holiday weekend was a ragtag flock of Philadelphians dressed in light blue.
Wearing scarves around their neck, locking their arms, and chanting, they cut through the honky-tonk madness, noisily making their way to a soccer match. For the Sons of Ben (SOB), the official supporters club of the Philadelphia Union, descending unannounced into opposing stadiums chanting “Philadelphia” is nothing new.
In fact, that’s precisely how Philadelphia got an MLS team in the first place. It was the Sons of Ben fanbase that brought the team to Philadelphia, rather than a team attracting fans.
Major League Soccer’s 1996 inaugural season featured just 10 teams, none in Philly. The ill-thought logic was that soccer fans in Philly would cheer for New York or D.C. But that was not to be, and the Sons of Ben made sure MLS noticed their mistake.
Soccer-mad Philadelphians came up with a plan to travel to stadiums across the northeast to lobby MLS and the city to create a team in Philly. The Sons of Ben would appear in New York and D.C. chanting, “We don’t have a team! We don’t have a team! We have as many cups as you and we don’t have a team!” along with cries of “Phil-a-delphia!” The fan club officially formed in 2007 and had a crest, chants, and leadership three years before the Philadelphia Union was announced.
They became notorious from the start.
That continues to the present day, as on last Saturday, when more than 60 members of the Sons of Ben united on a rooftop blocks away from where the Union would take on Nashville SC.
To be a soccer fan in Philadelphia you’ve got to muscle for space and wrestle for hearts in a crowded landscape of team loyalties. The Sons of Ben are up to the task: They know their mission is as much to cheer for Union victory as it is to spur forward its supporter base. They know it will take caring more and giving more than the rest of Philadelphia’s fanbases.
Philadelphia Union fans “are more dedicated because they have to be,” said Heather Reppert, the SOB’s director of travel, as we observed the rooftop party.
Vince Rizzuto, president of Philly Sports Trips and an organizer of the weekend’s Nashville invasion, has been traversing the country with Eagles, Phillies, and Union fans for years. “All Philly sports fans are passionate, but the SOB are the best organized supporters group/fan club of any of the five major teams,” he said.
With official annual memberships and 10 elected positions, the Sons of Ben are meticulously organized. They’re using that formal structure to get more Philadelphians invested in supporting the Union. The SOB faithful are a cross-section of generations, neighborhoods, and backgrounds. To Nashville, they brought a kaleidoscope family of city dwellers and country dwellers tied together by a team.
They also brought their chants.
While the streets of Music City filled with a cacophonous din of country music, the Sons of Ben warmed up their stadium vocals: “No one likes, Oh! No one likes us, No one likes us, and we don’t care! We’re from Philly, fuckin Philly, no one likes us and we don’t care!”
The chants started at the rooftop, led them into the street, and directed them through a sea of denim and cowboy boots, beyond the tents of yellow-clad Nashville fans, and into the stadium where they barely stopped cheering throughout the match.
The SOB held down section 104 in a sea of bright Nashville SC yellow. They looked and sounded like every kind of Philadelphia sports fan imaginable. Some were friendly, some were feisty. Some were loud, some watched silently, carefully analyzing each play. There were older couples and younger couples. There were Eagles fans seduced by SOB and an elderly man who captured snapshots with a vintage camera, alone, who said he attended nearly every game since the Union’s start – home or away.
When the opposing team came out of the tunnel it was backs turned, scarves up, and a few middle fingers toward the sky. Songs and cheers erupted when Union players ran past, the players acknowledging the SOB from the grass.
When Nashville scored in the second minute, fans were dismayed but not silenced. They held out hope and sang until the end. The game wasn’t lost until the final whistle, 1-0, and the fans were there throughout to cheer the Union along. Noise was what the SOB came to make, in that stadium, in that city – in their city – and relentless noise was what they made.
The result wasn’t what the fans wanted, but the score wasn’t the point. It was a 1-0 loss from a too-early goal to a lower-ranked team. But the trip itself still accomplished what the SOB set out to do.
In the coming year, the Sons of Ben will be back out on the road. They’ll hit the regular bus trips in the northeast, fly to Miami and Orlando, and go as far as Mexico City in August for a Champions League match against Club America. Of course, they’ll hold down the fort on the Delaware River, too, creating the atmosphere at Subaru Park for every home game, doing their part for their team and their sport.
“The Sons of Ben are true and true Philadelphia fans. Loyal and passionate about our team,” Sons of Ben President Matt Gendazsek said. “From smoke bombs, drums, and songs sung throughout the match, we provide an environment unlike any other in Philadelphia sports.”
Gendazsek is excited for the future, and welcomes all newcomers to check them out. The Philadelphia Union will play their next big match on Saturday, July 17 against their old rivals from D.C. The Sons of Ben, like always, will be there hosting a huge tailgate with food, drinks, and chants – of course – to get excited.
After a three-year wait for their team, and another 10 years until the team won their first Supporters Shield, they’re looking for a playoff run and beyond to an MLS cup.
No matter the outcome of the season, the Union’s dreams rest on the sturdy laurels of knowing they’ve grown a culture of soccer in Philadelphia as Everyman, underdog, diehard, and as foreboding as the city’s infamous vibe.