Commentary / MLS / Union

As fans return, what is the new normal, and why should we care?

As a soccer fan, sometimes you see a goal so incredible that you have to let out an exclamation, whether your team scored it or not.

Atlanta United fans found that out Sunday afternoon as Jakob Glesnes’ 93rd-minute worldie elicited audible shouts of disbelief before a cacophonous silence descended across Mercedes Benz stadium. It was a masterpiece of a goal, framed perfectly by the reaction of thousands of supporters that too long had been denied the privilege of standing side by side in celebration, commiseration, and community.

Sunday’s game in Atlanta was played in front of an (MLS) capacity crowd of 42,523, marking the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began that the Union have played in front of a sellout crowd. It was glorious to watch and listen to, even hundreds of miles away on TV. For the first time in a long time, watching a Philadelphia Union game felt normal.

From the jump, when sports leagues returned to play during the pandemic, simulating “normal” was always the goal. While fans stayed home, only essential personnel dotted the sidelines. On the field, the action didn’t appear all that different. With the right camera angle and a perfect string of play, it was hard to detect anything different. Yet, despite the on-field action appearing so familiar, the knowledge that no fans filled the seats made the overall product feel alien and empty.

During the absence of fans, cavernous stadiums felt soulless, devoid of the beating heart of any team, the fans. The results were high-stakes games that felt flat and meaningless. For the Union faithful, an easy example is the club’s MLS is Back semi-final. What should’ve been one of the biggest games in Union history came off more like a pre-season friendly than a cup semi-final. Without the fervent support of 18,000 blue and gold-clad supporters, things never had a chance of feeling right, no matter how close to normal the action on the field was.

Without fans, sports began to feel more like a reality show than a real competition for many. Something produced, choreographed, and planned, something fine enough, but not quite the same. A charade that was so close to the “normal” it was supposed to emulate that all it did was increase the desire for true normality.

But what is it about “normal” that’s so appealing, and why is it so seemingly integral to sports?
What about sitting in a stadium with 18,000 strangers on uncomfortable plastic chairs feels so right, so irreplaceable, and necessary to the game taking place at the center of it all? It’s the commonality, context, and community.

In 2019 the Philadelphia Union won their first-ever playoff game, a rain-soaked, raucous, and unforgettable affair. While Fabian’s game-winning chip is impossible to forget, what accompanies and contextualizes the moment is what makes it truly special. The dozens of bruised shins in the River End, the hundreds of dollars in spilled beer, the thousands of color-coordinated shirts, and the 18,000 in attendance that followed this team through thick and thin, even before the club existed.

Without fans, the Union simply do not exist. Is there any wonder why games have felt so shallow without supporters in attendance?

In a world so wrought with division rooted in such superficial characteristics as race or religion, sports stand out as one of the few areas where such differences can be easily forgotten. Where unity is preferred over dissonance and where the color of your shirt matters more than the color of your skin. While division, hate, and discourse have become the new normal of society, sports’ wide-reaching ability to unify remains uniquely normal to sports itself.

With the return of fans to stadiums, cities gain a louder, more vibrant atmosphere to watch their teams compete and regain that unique normal that is the communal unity of watching live sports. Teams get their fans back, but more importantly, fans get to return to each other.

The Union returns to a full capacity Subaru Park tomorrow, June 23rd, when they take on the Columbus Crew.

2 Comments

  1. Atomic Spartan says:

    Well put, sir.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    Good stuff Thomas.
    .
    Keep it up sir.

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