The best damn Union game I never saw

Photo: Chris Gibbons

Editor’s note: This piece is a supplement to yesterday’s The best damn Union game we’ve ever seen.

There were at least two empty seats in the second half of the best damn Union game we’ve ever seen. Despite a sold out crowd, a River End finally a-flood with supporters and smoke, and even a roiling sea of Red to the north, there were two empty seats.

I know this to be true because the seats were mine.

You see, the babysitter texted me to tell me she was no longer available just around the time she was supposed to arrive. My wife and I don’t get out much with two preschoolers, but we do love a soccer game and only one of our list of sitters is ever available on Saturdays… until she’s not.

Frantically texting each of the others for their immediate availability was futile. We were stuck.

Saying “yes”

The fact of the matter is I wasn’t even planning on going to this match. I was looking forward to a quiet night at home, the Union game on low volume, and some take-out Mexican food. That is unquestionably my idea of a great Saturday night and (for those who have known me any length of time) one of the things that hasn’t changed much in 20 years.

But a friend offered me tickets to the match. Good tickets, too. No, I mean really good tickets.

So, considering it was Red Bull, and that I can order nachos any night of the week, I said “yes.”

Author’s note: My GrubHub order history would suggest that the hypothetical “any night” of the week for nachos actually means in practice “many nights” of the week. That fact is neither here nor there.

Back to the saga of the disappearing babysitter, my wife suggested I bring our four year old son in her stead (a sweet boy named after a legendary, World Cup-winning Italian defender who had hair like Fabio and a jawline like Mr. Incredible).

The extent to which our son appreciates soccer is the same as the extent to which you or I might appreciate muzak: it’s on in the background when he’s focused on much more important things, like drawing pictures of trucks. He also goes to bed at 7 p.m. most nights, and anything outside of that routine is spinning the horrifying wheel of kiddie roulette: you don’t know how it’s going to end terribly, but it is going to end terribly.

But it was Red Bull and these were really good tickets, like “ones that come with unlimited free food” good.

Bribed by the promise of hot dogs and chocolate chip cookies to his heart’s and my wallet’s content (“Could I eat, like, sixty-hundred?”), he said “yes.”

The match

We left our house as late as possible so as to ensure the boy had only the least amount of time to be bored before we’d have to leave. I have a “spot” in Lot A where I’ve parked for all 10 years of this franchise’s existence. Upon exiting the car, the boy made sure to note how much dirt there was where we parked and that, if it rained, the dirt would become mud because “You only need dirt and water to make mud.”

“That’s all you need,” he said.

We walked out on the various docks around the stadium, pulled leaves off of trees so we could throw them into the river, and talked to a guy with a beard and a fishing pole who had pictures of the striper and catfish he caught and released earlier. Then, we set up shop on a bench outside (while the Red Bull supporters marched in) to watch an orange tanker ship lumber by.

We might have gone home then with one of us perfectly happy, but I convinced him to stay a bit longer with the hot dog as my metaphorical carrot.

We found our seats only a few minutes before kickoff, which was good because we got to see the sprinklers water the field. For my son, that was a real highlight, so much so he mentioned it again the next morning.

I nearly voted for those sprinklers in my Player of the Week ballot.

He ordered his hot dog, chocolate chip cookie, and water (again, these were really good seats) while the Major League Soccer anthem played and the smoke started billowing from the south end.

A first half to forget

“Clap with me,” I said, as the players marched onto the pitch.

“What for?,” he replied, already withholding his fandom like only an entrenched Negadeliphian might.

I tried to explain to him the idea of club and community and that support for both means being there through good times and bad, irrespective of short-term performance. He tried to explain to me why I should take note of the wheels on the die-cast truck Nana got him at CVS two years ago and how he had slightly nudged the small rubber tire off its axel.

Neither of us fully succeeded.

“I don’t really like soccer because all the players get muddy,” he said. Even at four years old he thinks the state of the pitch is unacceptable, which is difficult to argue. The food arrived though and that thread died, and as far as I know no Union player ended up muddy in this match.

I’ll have to relay that information to perhaps comfort him.

To be honest, I didn’t get to watch much of the game. First it was the truck, then it was preparing and managing food intake (this kid is fastidious as they come, but who can truly say they’ve ever eaten a hot dog with ketchup and not gotten a little messy?), then it was responding to the unending list of shiny things he saw and needed me to see. If you’ve ever wondered how many moving advertisements happen during a soccer game, I can tell you the answer is literally thousands.

By the 40th minute, he was seated on the concrete while his head and his trucks were resting on the seat cushion. Lying down to play is his tell, but it was well past his bedtime, he was ready to go, and he had generally been a trooper.

“Are you ready to go, buddy?,” I asked, hoping he’d say no and that one never gives up on the home team no matter the score, we’re here ’til the end, hashtag DOOP, and so on.

“Yeah,” he replied, “but we can wait one more minute.” Like I said, he’s a sweet kid.

One more minute later, as Brian White’s looping shot beat Andre Blake and a match I had to imagine more than I could watch was going worse than I possibly could have imagined, I was ready to go too.

Clap? What for?

Coming home

My son was quiet on the drive back. It was late, he was tired, and you couldn’t really see any trains or trucks going by because it was too dark.

“Dad, did you know they make helicopters in that building?” I did know, and had told him that fact a mere two hours earlier. He was excited to share it back with me.

When we got to the neighborhood, I dropped the boy with my wife while I circled the block in search of parking. When I finally made it back inside, he was already in bed.

“He had a really good time,” my wife said. She mentioned specifically him enjoying the tanker ship and the hot dog. “How was the first half?” She eschewed watching for a glass of wine on the patio and Saturday’s Inquirer. Given how beautiful it was on Saturday, who can blame her?

“We had a good time,” I said, forgetting momentarily about the scoreline. To be honest, the former was more profound than the latter. I’d seen hundreds of soccer games but only three with my son. Still, I had 45 minutes of footy left to catch up on.

I fired up the DVR for the second half, ready to grin and bear a fourth straight uninspired home result. I don’t have to tell you what happened next but “uninspired” is not a word I would use for it.

In the end, a sold out Talen Energy Stadium witnessed the greatest comeback in Union history complete with and in spite of two conspicuously empty seats.

The seats were mine.

Because we left at halftime, I missed the goals, the celebrations, and everything that goes with validating oneself through sports. I’m sad to have missed that, and I didn’t even get nachos.

I have to say though, it was a really good night.


  1. pragmatist says:

    Awesome story, Chris. My boy is 6 and he doesn’t like to go to the games because it’s too loud, especially when everyone sings the DOOP song. In years past I could tell him that he generally didn’t have to worry about that. Times have changed.
    Your priorities are properly aligned. It sounds like it was a very good night for both of you.

  2. HopkinsMD says:

    Love this… As a dad to four, ages 12 to 21, you have my respect. Well done.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    Hopefully you’ll get those same seats again sometime when he can appreciate them.

  4. Great story Chris and sorry you missed being there for the second half! My youngest is 17 now and I just got her to her first game in at least 3 years by bribing her with a ticket for her friend. 5yrs ago she looked forward to the games almost as much as I did – seasons of life. Anyway, you’re on the upswing with him now on going to games and I hope that lasts a long time for you!

  5. Great piece, Chris. I’ve had many a sporting events like this in the past with my two boys, and while occasionally you feel conflicted sometimes leaving early – in the end, you just want them to love coming to a game. No doubt your guy will be thrilled to go back again.

  6. Well done – what a pleasure to read.

  7. OneManWolfpack says:

    “I tried to explain to him the idea of club and community and that support for both means being there through good times and bad, irrespective of short-term performance. He tried to explain to me why I should take note of the wheels on the die-cast truck Nana got him at CVS two years ago and how he had slightly nudged the small rubber tire off its axle.

    Neither of us fully succeeded.”
    I nominate this part ^^^ for a Pulitzer. Great read throughout though… well done!!
    I get it too. My son, now 14, doesn’t do sports like I do. I used to take him when he was a little older than your son and he was just as uninterested. Ice cream usually did the trick for him and I could push him to stay till at least the 80th min. Then again years 2012-2015 were really rough, so occasionally leaving early wasn’t always a bad thing.

  8. Not the greatest come back in Union history.

    Everything else is lovely.

    September 7, 2011

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