D.C. United fosters a rivalry with expansion Philadelphia Union
Saturday, April 10, 2010
Over MLS's first 14 years, D.C. United forged rivalries that flourished on the field but did not take deep root. Depending on the year and circumstances, matches against New York, New England, Chicago and, to some extent, Los Angeles, offered a taste of the traditional soccer conflicts that have endured around the world for decades.
But with the arrival of the expansion Philadelphia Union this season, United has a truly geographical adversary. More than 1,000 D.C. supporters are expected to venture north and converge at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday evening for the Union's inaugural home game.
It will be the largest turnout, by far, for a United regular season road match in club history and promises to help initiate a rivalry between teams separated by 140 miles. The distance between the clubs will narrow this summer when the Union moves into PPL Park, a new riverside stadium in the southwestern suburb of Chester, Pa.
"Soccer is a sport where, everywhere in the world, fans are used to traveling to away games," United General Manager Dave Kasper said. "In the U.S., it's not so easy because the country is so big. To have a rival that is so close, the fans can jump on a train, charter buses and get home the same day."
United arranged two buses and the club's biggest supporters' groups, the Screaming Eagles and La Barra Brava, made their own arrangements. They plan to gather in a specific parking lot and, 90 minutes before kickoff, march together into the stadium.
Initially, the group ticket sales placed the United fans in a second level directly above Philadelphia's hardline supporters, Sons of Ben. To avoid potential problems, however, the D.C. contingent was moved to the opposite side.
Attendance is expected to reach 30,000 in an NFL facility capped at 37,000 for the two Union league matches prior to the team's move to Chester. Vice President Biden will participate in Saturday's pregame festivities.
The Union will visit RFK Stadium on Aug. 22.
"With the sports history between the cities and the fans getting involved, this could end up being not such a good-hearted rivalry," United goalkeeper Troy Perkins said.
Added midfielder Santino Quaranta, a Baltimore native: "Philly is right up the road -- how can it not become a great rivalry?"
Strong ties between the clubs will add to the intensity. The Union is coached by Peter Nowak, whose three-year spell with United included the 2004 MLS Cup title. The team coordinator is Josh Gros, who played four years in Washington before concussions forced him to retire. Brazilian midfielder Fred, a three-year starter for United, was traded to the Union in January, and midfielder Andrew Jacobson was claimed in the expansion draft.
United's front office remains close with Nowak, who left Washington after the 2006 season to become the U.S. Olympic coach. When Kasper and team President Kevin Payne are at their regular lunch spot near Eastern Market and one of Nowak's favorites (Polish kielbasa, for instance) appears on the list of specials, "we send him a text message and tell him what he is missing," Kasper said. "He always responds. He misses it."
Aside from the blossoming rivalry and fond memories, United has had to address its slow start. After a 4-0 loss at Kansas City in the opener, the club made significant strides last weekend against New England but failed to convert early scoring opportunities and yielded two late goals in a 2-0 defeat at RFK.
First-year midfielder Andy Najar, who played in each of the first two matches, did not travel with the team because of an ankle injury. Forward Chris Pontius, slowed by a hamstring ailment this week, is available, but with Australian forward Danny Allsopp in promising form, Pontius might not return to the starting lineup.
"The guys are a little sick of the way things have gone," Perkins said. "We have remained positive but we could use a good result."
United notes: The club is in negotiations to play European titan AC Milan in a friendly at RFK in late May, sources familiar with the talks said. United officials declined to comment, but did say they are seeking to arrange three matches against major European opponents this year.
The visit would come shortly after the Italian season is completed. Several Milan stars would not be available because of World Cup preparations with their respective national teams. . . .
Rookie Andrew Quinn, No. 3 on the goalkeeping depth chart, will miss five months after undergoing knee surgery.