Philadelphia Union's first MLS draft thrills fans

Union fans chant team songs as they march through the Convention Center to the team's first MLS draft. "I've been a soccer fan all my life, so I wouldn't miss it," one from Pennsauken said.
Union fans chant team songs as they march through the Convention Center to the team's first MLS draft. "I've been a soccer fan all my life, so I wouldn't miss it," one from Pennsauken said.
Posted: January 15, 2010

Two years ago, when a couple of dozen local soccer fans journeyed to Baltimore to cheer at the Major League Soccer draft, they traveled with the hope - and it was only a hope - that Philadelphia could land an expansion team.

Yesterday's scene was just a little bit different: Scores of blue-and-gold-clad fans turned the Convention Center ballroom into a party zone, roaring for their new team, the Union, who held the first pick in the draft.

"It's kind of crazy, isn't it?" said Bryan James, president of the Sons of Ben fan club and one of at least 200 Union supporters who rocked the ballroom. "From where we started, to have this. It's unreal."

If the 2008 draft was a cocktail party, with the Philadelphia fans participating as unfamiliar guests, yesterday's gathering was a full-fledged fraternity blowout, complete with flags, chants, and cheers. When the draft began, the ballroom was standing-room-only, with dozens more fans watching on monitors set up on the concourse.

The Union, who will take the field in March, selected Oregon State University forward Danny Mwanga with the first pick.

Soon afterward, Mwanga waded into a sea of Union supporters, shaking hands and slapping high-fives. Fans called out "Welcome to Philly" and "Great to have you."

Mwanga appeared a little overwhelmed by the reception, having earlier said he was thrilled to be joining the Union.

"Another landmark day to building the team," said Nick Sakiewicz, the Union's chief executive officer and operating partner, a team scarf draped on his shoulders. "Philly has gone from zero to a hundred miles per hour in the soccer world."

Sixteen teams were scheduled to choose 64 players during four rounds, the draft coinciding with the convention of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. The first round was carried live on ESPN2 and watched at the Convention Center by hundreds of fans, players, and team officials.

Fans of several MLS teams attended, the biggest visiting contingents the supporters of the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United. But the day was colored gold and blue, a loud and visible display of the region's passion for the game.

"It was always under the surface," Union president Tom Veit said. "The cork just had to be popped. Now it's been popped, and it's flowing. All the things are falling into place."

Two years ago in Baltimore, the league was deciding which city would get its 16th team, the choice between Philadelphia and St. Louis. About 20 members of the Sons of Ben traveled down I-95, arriving alone and leaving alone. Yesterday, they were the heart of the party, leading a boisterous march into the ballroom.

"I've been a soccer fan all my life, so I wouldn't miss it," said Ryan Weid of Pennsauken, a Union season-ticket-holder who took off from his job in pharmaceutical sales to attend the draft with his sister, Amy.

"We love soccer," she added, trying to be heard over the din. "It's fun. It's Philadelphia."

Union fans faced off against those of the Red Bulls, who serenaded Philadelphia supporters with chants of "Yankees four, Phillies two" and "Even the Jets have won a Super Bowl." Some New York fans let loose with the foulest language imaginable.

Outside the ballroom, Mike Blankley stood with his face painted in yellow and black stripes, having come from Ohio to cheer the draftees of his hometown Columbus Crew. "My deal with coming here was about making the new guys feel like part of the family from day one," he said.

Debbie Wiese flew in from Phoenix, part of a group called Phoenix Rising, which is trying to persuade MLS to place a team in the desert city. "A lot of it is showing your presence, being loud," she said. The Sons of Ben, who know what it's like to long for a team, found her a seat in their section.

In an interview this week, Sakiewicz said the team's 18,500-seat Chester stadium was 70 percent built. The team has sold about 9,000 season tickets, and the highest-priced sideline seats are sold out.

The $115 million stadium sits on the Delaware River just south of the Commodore Barry Bridge. The arena will not be ready for opening day, so the Union will play their first home game, and maybe their first few, at Lincoln Financial Field.

The first home game is April 10 against D.C. United. The Union will play their first-ever game on the road March 25 against the Seattle Sounders at Qwest Field. That's the opening game of the MLS season, pitting the league's newest team against its runaway attendance leader.

"Opening week is going to be so special for us," said Veit, the Union president. "But that's a beginning, not an ending."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415