When England’s Stoke City soccer team took on the Philadelphia Union on its home turf in Chester, Pa., on Tuesday night, a player from the visiting team stretched out his neck to seemingly superhuman length to stop a long kick with his head.
Bryan James shouted at him from halfway across the field.
“That’s giraffe abuse, sir!” James yelled at the top of his lungs. “I didn’t like ’em in ‘Madagascar’; I didn’t like ’em in ‘The Hangover.’ Sir, I hate giraffes!”
No one even gave James a second glance.
In the Sons of Ben section at the Union’s PPL Park, anything goes. And James would know. A founder of the raucous group of fans, he was among the proud Philadelphia area soccer devotees who lobbied for the team before it even existed.
Now, the Sons of Ben, and thousands of more sedate spectators, have a team to root for and a stadium of their own to watch their team in. Most fans and many residents of the area herald PPL Park as a gem among soccer-specific stadiums, while others say the park has not done enough to help the downtrodden city, outside of Philadelphia.
As Washington looks to replace RFK Stadium with a new soccer-only park on Buzzard Point, the Union’s three-year-old stadium can serve as a model for what an intimate, waterfront stadium in a neglected part of town might do for professional soccer in D.C.
Fans agree on PPL Park’s most obvious highlights: an expansive view of the Delaware River, real grass turf, seats close to the action, and clean, new facilities. Ask almost anyone in the stadium on game night what he or she likes about the place, and you’ll get the same answer, almost word for word: There’s not a bad seat in the house.
With 18,500 seats, nobody sits more than 30 rows up from the field. PPL Park — the closest to Washington geographically in Major League Soccer — is cozy compared with RFK’s more than 45,000 seats, which are usually two-thirds empty when D.C. United plays.
D.C. United will play the Union at PPL Park on Saturday.
For the more sophisticated fans, PPL’s hidden hallmarks go far beyond just the number of seats. Even their color is evidence of good stadium design, James said.
“Union fans wear navy blue, and the seats are navy blue,” he said. “Despite the fact that attendance is great, it’s not shocking to the eye when it’s not good. I think every little bit matters.”
As D.C. United plans for a new stadium, James said, “I don’t think they can have too many focus groups.”
At PPL Park, some come for the spectacle that happens in the stands, not on the field. Led by a dynamic drummer, the Sons of Ben stay on their feet throughout every game to hurl obscenities at the opposing team, wave their matching blue scarves and sing songs with naughty lyrics to the tune of standbys like “Oh My Darling, Clementine” and “Camptown Races.”
“Their dedication and their loyalty are unbelievable,” said Jeff Green, an usher who has worked at the stadium since it opened.
Katie Barksdale got an abrupt introduction to the heart of Philadelphia soccer fandom. Never one to watch a soccer game, she started dating Andrew Klein, a member of the Sons of Ben, and found herself standing, at her first game, in the center of the 2,000-strong cheering section. When the game ended with just one goal scored, she thought to herself, “All right, one thing happened.”
But over time, standing amid the Sons of Ben, she has come to appreciate the more subtle thrills of soccer. “There’s this almost goal,” she said, “and people go crazy over it. . . . I love it here. I think it’s great.”
Klein was enthusiastic to hear about D.C. United’s plan to move to a new stadium. “I don’t want to go to RFK right now,” he said. “If there was a stadium that was right near the Capitol, I feel like we’d make a weekend out of it. We’d see the museums in the morning and go to the game at night.”
Another Union season-ticket holder, Joe Graumann, recalled a trip to Washington to see what was then the nearest MLS team play at RFK Stadium. “It was terrible. It was nice to watch the game, but the stadium was yeccchhh,” he said.
Doug Dryer felt the same way. A lifelong soccer fan, he said he used to wait for the Sunday newspaper each week during elementary school, because before the Internet, that was the only way to find out how his favorite team, Liverpool, had played.
After MLS came to Washington, he traveled to D.C. to watch a game. “RFK sucks,” he said. “I wish RFK would fall down. With nobody in it, of course.”
But for all that Union fans love about their team and its stadium, many are less enamored with its setting — Chester, a city 15 miles south of Philadelphia with one of the worst poverty rates in the state. The stadium has done little, they say, to improve the surrounding area.
When the state of Pennsylvania and Delaware County contributed to the cost of the stadium, they touted it as part of a larger plan for development along the river in Chester, which would include housing and retail outlets.
“People think these stadiums are like a magical elixir,” said Rick Eckstein, a sociology professor at Villanova University who co-wrote the book “Public Dollars, Private Stadiums.” “It just rarely, if ever, works out that way.”
The developer of the stadium built an office building nearby, but there are no new restaurants, stores or housing developments in the area.
“In terms of bringing in new business, I don’t think it’s done much,” said Rob Strauss, a guest services supervisor at PPL Park. “Everyone’s just reluctant to go to Chester. No one’s going to say, ‘Let’s go to Chester for the night.’ ”
But Green, the usher, is a resident of Chester, and he thinks the stadium may still help the city economically.
When the stadium deal was announced, Green said, “it was a lot of excitement for the residents. There were job opportunities, and it was rebuilding the city.”
Now, he said, “there’s still a lot they can do. It’s a slow process. Nothing happens overnight.”
Nick Sakiewicz, chief executive of the Union, said that more than half of the team’s 650-person game-day workforce and 100-person permanent staff live in Chester. “We haven’t given up on the vision of creating mixed-use development around the stadium. That vision and dream still exist,” he said. “Those plans are still there.”
Signs ringing the field testify to the major sponsorships the team has attracted — Toyota, Gatorade, Adidas and more.
And many fans speak enthusiastically to the growing interest in soccer that a gleaming new stadium can spark among American sports lovers.
“There’s passionate interest in Major League Soccer teams that is totally unique in U.S. sports. There’s a craving for that,” said Jeff L’Hote, a consultant in New York City who focuses on soccer. “I would say when you’re going to PPL Park, just look at who’s at the game, and you’ll get a feel for what D.C. is going to try to look to replicate.”
Sakiewicz said Washington can bring the experience of Philadelphia and many other cities to bear when it considers plans for Buzzard Point.
“Ultimately, there’s a lot of skepticism around these things, and yet good public policy keeps building them around the country,” he said. “Everyone can’t be wrong.”