Sons of Ben have one goal: Pro soccer, here

They're an enthusiastic and growing fan club for a local team that doesn't exist.

Posted: September 17, 2007

The Sons of Ben, or SoBs as they sometimes call themselves, are not your regular Philly sports fans.

The SoBs cheer for a team that does not exist.

Nevertheless, they say they have 650 loyal members, an official Web site, chat groups, a cool logo for T-shirts and hats, regular social events, their own Saturday amateur team, and a season ticket drive - for when they do get a team.

Theirs is a sport that has struggled to enter the American pro sports psyche for years.

Soccer.

Now a Major League Soccer franchise may be coming to Philadelphia, and if it gets here, it will find a fan club already waiting with the kind of fans who fill a bus and drive to New York for a league game and boo both sides.

Practice, say the Sons of Ben.

"We can be rowdy and loud, but we don't have to be obnoxious," said Catherine Kulp, 44, of Jeffersonville, a longtime soccer player, soccer fan, soccer coach and soccer mom.

They are young professionals, retirees, families, soccer players of all ages, people who never played soccer, white collar and blue collar.

As it says on their T-shirt: "We're kind of a big deal."

Major League Soccer likes their enthusiasm.

"If that is a small sample of what we could experience in Philadelphia, that is a tremendous recipe for success," spokesman Dan Courtemanche said.

The club is a hometown original - not the invention of the league or the investors planning for a $300 million soccer and retail development in Chester.

"It has really kind of grown into its own thing," said founding member Bryan James, 34, a financial analyst from Wilmington.

James said the club formed last year when there were rumors of a pro team opening shop. Nothing came of it, but the nucleus of fans decided to keep the momentum going.

They began recruiting more members and even launched a petition drive to get state funding for a stadium.

"We the (Soccer) People, in order to form a more perfect sports world, . . ." it says above the 2,800 signatures that have been collected online from across the county. Paper petitions are circulating.

With 13 teams in the United States and Canada, Major League Soccer wants to add two new franchises by the end of the year. The teams would begin play by 2009 or 2010.

The Philadelphia area is one of at least nine making a pitch for a team.

An investment group headed by Jay Sugarman of iStar Financial in New York that includes former Philadelphia School Reform Commission chairman James Nevels and the Buccini/Pollin Group developers of Wilmington is negotiating with Pennsylvania and Delaware County for funding, and with the league for a franchise. A site along the Chester waterfront has been targeted.

"We welcome their support," Charles G. Kopp, an attorney for the investors group, said of the Sons of Ben. "It's nice to have some goodwill ambassadors out there talking up the sport."

Things started gelling for the SoBs in January, when they decided on a name and logo.

"We were looking for something historic and not a cliche," James said. Soccer fan clubs take their names from events in their city's history. For example, the Chicago Barn Burners are named after the great fire, and the Washington Screaming Eagles reference the nation's big bird.

But, SoBs? And "Sons" of Ben?

"It became the group's choice because it works both ways," James said. Despite being gender specific in title, the group welcomes everyone, he said.

"It is great to see they have creativity," Courtemanche said about the less than family friendly abbreviation. "I'll leave it at that."

Another Sons of Ben founder, Andrew Dillon, 32, a Philadelphia architect, designed the club's logo. It features a skull, wire rim glasses, and a fringe of hair - inspired by Founding Father Benjamin Franklin.

The image is crossed by an oar and scythe, in recognition of the region's nautical and agricultural legacy. In the background are a key and lightning bolts, in honor of Franklin's most famous scientific endeavor, and a soccer ball. The blue and yellow come from the state flags of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The crack in the skull is similar to the one in the Liberty Bell.

The noisy enthusiasm does not go unnoticed by players on the field.

"When everyone has the support of thousands of fans, it makes it easier to play and do well," Philadelphia native Bobby Convey said during a phone interview from his home in England, where he plays soccer for Reading of the English Premier League.

Convey, who grew up playing on a Fishtown field covered with glass shards, said it would be a "dream come true" to have a pro franchise in his own backyard. He feels the SoBs have helped to push the league to consider putting a team in Philadelphia.

The league says no decision has yet been made about where to put the next two teams. It would like to make an announcement by the end of the year, possibly before the league championship game at RFK Stadium in Washington on Nov. 18.

Coincidentally, the Sons of Ben plans a trip to Washington for that game as its next club field trip.

"Hopefully, it will be a celebration," James said.


Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or mschaefer@phillynews.com.

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