Commentary

A British writer’s first visit to Subaru Park

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The train from New York to Philadelphia was full to the brim.

Across from Manhattan’s Penn Station, a queue snaked around most of the Moynihan Train Hall. It didn’t seem possible that all of these people would fit on one train.

Somehow we did. Throngs heading south and then west to Pennsylvania, though I suspect few of if any of these were heading to the next day’s Philadelphia Union game.

To an outsider, Pennsylvania doesn’t strike you as a soccer state, but teams such as the original Bethlehem Steel and Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals show that it actually has a rich history in the sport–even if that soccer history isn’t regularly spoken of or celebrated in the mainstream, just as it isn’t across most of the country.

Philadelphia Union, Pennsylvania’s only Major League Soccer side, is perched on the banks of the Delaware River in Chester, some way out of the city of Philadelphia, right by the borders with New Jersey and Delaware.

If you’re on the other side of the state in Pittsburgh, and you’re not a follower of the local USL side the Riverhounds, your closest MLS side is in the other direction in Columbus, Ohio. 

But the Union, Pennsylvania’s major league side, just happens to sit atop its conference at this early stage of the season. It also has one of the best overall records in MLS, just behind Los Angeles FC and Austin FC.

The team won the Supporters’ Shield as recently as 2020 in the last season to be uninterrupted by Covid, and it has started 2022, the most normal season since, in a winning fashion.

But the game against CF Montreal (formerly known as the Impact) I was lucky enough to attend last week wasn’t a continuation of that.

The scene in Chester

If your visit to a sporting event is a relatively rare one, the hope is that you get to see a quintessential performance by the club you are there to see.

Having watched New York City FC thrash Real Salt Lake 6-0 a week earlier, I was hoping for something similar in Chester. But that wasn’t quite what we were treated to against Montreal, with whom the Union drew 1-1.

Despite this, some of the hallmarks that have made the Union so difficult to beat in the early weeks of 2022 were still on show.

I was able to see the diamond formation (below) used by head coach Jim Curtin in person, which was useful as you can’t report comprehensively on a team’s tactics unless you have seen them live in the stadium.

And the result wasn’t too bad–a point, and hopefully the start of another unbeaten run following the loss to Toronto a week earlier. That the team and supporters were disappointed with the result shows how good the side have been so far this season. 

Players were almost apologizing on social media as they realized they could have played better, regardless of the result.

It’s likely the Union will play better this season and lose, maybe they’ll also play worse and win, but the players and coach will always be honest about the team’s performance.

Even during their winning run, Curtin was commenting that there is room for improvement.

So though not a quintessential performance, there was a lot about it that was typical Union, from the tight defense that only gave the opposition one clear chance (from which they scored) to the general setup of the team and the displays in the supporter’s section which included a tifo raising awareness of neurodiversity.

Traveling travails

Philadelphia feels like a progressive city, and the team and fans match this with their actions off the pitch–especially during the events in the year they won the Supporters Shield.

On arriving in the city I stumbled on an event at Cherry Street Pier featuring several local speakers and numerous stalls focusing on sustainable and connected communities. This community feel and progressive nature can be reflected in the stands at Subaru Park.

Getting to the stadium itself wasn’t as easy as I imagined, though. On paper, a train followed by a shuttle bus seemed straightforward enough to someone who regularly uses public transport, but having turned up at the station in Philadelphia a couple of hours before the game, I realized the next train wouldn’t get me there until after kick-off.

As I had a match report assignment to complete, being able to watch the full game would be useful… plus I wanted to get there earlier anyway to walk around the area, as I like to do when visiting a stadium for the first time, so taxi it was.

The taxi driver wasn’t aware of Subaru Park, and after showing it to him on Google Maps, he presumed I was going to pick up a car. A reminder of the work soccer needs to do if it is to reach the level of other sports in the USA.

Much of the sporting excitement in the city of Philadelphia at the moment is naturally focused around the 76ers, who are participating in the NBA playoffs and (at the time of writing) narrowly edging their First Round series with the Toronto Raptors.

A Philadelphia sports shop in the airport sold shirts and merchandise of the Phillies, Flyers, 76ers, and Eagles, but a Union logo was nowhere to be seen.

The lack of presence in the most generic sports store in an airport shows there is still some way to go for soccer to reach anywhere near the levels of the distinctly North American sports ingrained in the nation and sought out by tourists.

That the 76ers and each of the other major league teams in the city are based in the same area of South Philadelphia makes the Union feel somewhat detached out in Chester.

It feels like more of an effort could be made when it comes to public transport from the city. Though the ticket prices at the stadium in the cheaper areas are fairly reasonable, the trip there felt awkward and may put people off.

In contrast, a trip to watch the Flyers defeat the Penguins the day after was one simple train ride away with a station on the doorstep of each of the city’s sporting facilities.

A great place to watch a game

But it’s not for someone who’s only visited for a few days and been to one game at the stadium to pass judgment or propose solutions. That’s for the fans who go week in, week out and for those who cover the club regularly. And I’m only writing this slight criticism in the first place because this is a club I already like.

The Union’s home ground itself is excellent and retains an American feel despite being a soccer-specific stadium (Red Bull Arena, for example, was great but it felt like you were at just another stadium in Europe).

Its location on the banks of the Delaware River makes for a fairly unique vista, and it’s a good view of the pitch from pretty much anywhere in the stadium.

The trip reaffirmed that the Union are one of the best teams in MLS, for a number of reasons, on and off the pitch. 

On top of this, as someone who is interested in media coverage of sport and especially print media, it was good to see local newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, running previews and reports of Union games in the paper, written by the eminent Philadelphia soccer writer Jonathan Tannenwald, who was also kind enough to give me a lift back into town after the game.

Away from sports, Sunday’s paper contained a great feature on Reading Terminal Market, a visit to which was one of the other highlights of my short stay.

Philadelphia is one of the nicest places to visit, with welcoming people and places, and I’d like to explore it more, not least as an excuse to go to more Union games and watch more Philly sports.

11 Comments

  1. Nice article! Next time take the Brauhaus Schmitz’ bus to the Park. The Park is in Chester due to all kinds of tax reasons. Is not too bad to travel to (and get out & to know where to park) once you get the hang of it.

  2. Delco Roots says:

    Excellent article and observations, James. I have been a season ticket holder from Day One, and you found yourself, unfortunately, at one of the least emotional games I can remember. Towards the end of the season when the points really matter, during the playoffs, or during the last stages of the US Open Cup (the US’s version of the FA Cup), the stadium can really get rocking. I hope you are able to experience one of those games, because it is electric.

    Your most disappointing and accurate comment was about the lack of Union gear in the local stores. It seems minor, but this team will remain a little brother to the other four teams until there is more visibility for the team around town.

    • James Nalton says:

      Thanks! I’m a big fan of the Open Cup and am in the process of writing something a bit more long term on it, which should be published somewhere later in the year. Hoping to get over for the final so hopefully the Union will be involved in that.

  3. Union games offer an amazing experience, especially when considering the price. Glad you have the itch to return even after a ho-hum performance vs MTL. The franchise is still in its infancy and is gaining momentum toward being more mainstream, but it takes time. I direct this responsibility to MLS/Garber, as this a challenge for many markets. I am just thankful our club doesn’t have to share another team’s stadium!

  4. James must have arrived after the Montreal side was greeted by the Union Supporters. Or perhaps he was distracted by Tannenbaum in a successful plot to avoid embarrassing the City of Brotherly Love?

    • Scott Glass says:

      Don’t feel bad, we greet all opposing teams equally! Well, maybe a little worse for NYRB or NYFC. There are some really strong emotions involved with those two clubs. My family treks 45 minutes to watch, we are up to six season seats. Before soccer, before the Union, I really couldn’t care less about sports. It’s quite annoying to put on the news and hear NOTHING about your team or your sport. Praying over time that changes. Subaru Park is one of our favorite places to be although, I have to agree with some of the other comments, you picked a terrible game to come to. I caught myself yawning more than once. Our team’s performance was just bad.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    Great article!

  6. Steve McGarry says:

    Excellent article well done I’m not a season ticket holder but I try to go a few times a year & your article was on point. I played in Philadelphia thru High school & college & club teams & I am huge football/soccer fan of all soccer but especially The Union & Liverpool YNWA !!!

    • Robert Malatesta says:

      Love the Union, but I’m “Forever Blowing Bubbles”….”Come on you Irons”……#WestHamUnited

  7. Wow! That game was my first visit to Philly as well and second MLS match. We were in town for a wedding and made sure to get tickets.

    The stadium is great. Or other match was at Gillette and it was nice to be in a soccer specific stadium in a great location. All the fan stuff before the game was a joy.

    It really seemed like a take off two halves.

    We were sitting behind some Montreal and Wanyama fans. When he came over after the game Union fans offered to take photos for them so they could all be in the shot. Real class.

    Reading Terminal IS awesome.

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