[MLS] In February, between discussing on-going CBA negotiations and the loan of Landon Donovan to Everton, MLS Commissioner Don Garber expressed no concerns that Philadelphia Union wouldn’t be able to open its inaugural season in its own stadium.
“We’ve had a lot of cases where teams didn’t open their new stadiums at the start of the season,” said Garber in reference to facilities for Columbus, Los Angeles, Dallas, Real Salt Lake, and Chicago. “Our fans are used to that and I like to say, ‘Life’s a long time,’ and you’ll get used to the fact it wasn’t open for the first couple of months when it’s going to be around for a generation.”
The Union announced Tuesday that its season-ticket limit of 12,000 has been reached, five weeks before the first MLS game June 27 at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. In its two homes games this season at Lincoln Financial Field, Philly has drawn crowds of 34,870 and 25,038, figures that far exceed the capacity of 18,500 at PPL Park.
“Philadelphia was on the list of our original teams when the league was founded,” said Garber. “Unfortunately, we never were able to find a stadium solution. In the last 10 years we’ve worked to try to put something together there, and finally we were able to get something done.”
When the team announced about a year ago it had hired Coach Peter Nowak, president and CEO Nick Sakiewicz spoke of a pent-up demand in other successful expansion markets he believed would be replicated in Philadelphia. “I think it’s a function of timing,” said Sakiewicz, the former president of MLS teams in Tampa and New York who was hired by Philadelphia operator-investor Jay Sugarman and his partners in November, 2007.
“I think the timing is on our side in Philly and Seattle and Toronto. Fans have been sitting on the sidelines watching soccer grow up and now a team has come to their town, and voila! It’s a much different dynamic than it was back in ’96, when I went down to Tampa at the end of the ’96 season. We had 1,200 season-ticket holders and it was a frickin’ disaster.
"It’s all about Philly. Nothing really matters in that town except the teams. It’s not a transient community. People grow up on Flyers, Sixers, Phillies, Eagles, and basically what I learned is that, if it’s not Philly, everything else sucks."
That pent-up demand, and fostering regional rivalries in the right markets, has driven MLS to bulk up its Northwest presence by adding Vancouver and Portland for next year. In 2012 the 19th team will be Montreal, which is “only” 388 miles from Philadelphia: a bit of a hike, but do-able, especially for rabid fans like the Sons of Ben, who will have their own section – replete with private entrance – at PPL Park.
“I’m not sure if Philadelphia would have been any different than any other MLS market if they came in for 1996,” said Sakiewicz. “What’s happened is, the sense I get from talking to a lot of fans, is that they kind of grew up with MLS, whether it was going to D.C. games or MetroStars games, and they’ve been sitting around in the middle of it without a team of their own. Now they do, and their stadium is going to be absolutely stunning right on the [Delaware River]. It will be a beautiful asset for us.”