I assume most PSP readers have not received much attention from the IllegitimateS during a game at PPL Park. As you know, I grew up in DC before moving to Philadelphia so I sat in the DC support area, and was welcomed by the IllegitimateS, during last Thursday night’s game.
Illegitimate Sons of Ben
The IllegitimateS, short for Illegitimate Sons of Ben, sit in Section 133 next to the area reserved for visiting fans. Rather than singing with the choir in the River End, these public-spirited extroverts chose to extend some Philadelphia hospitality directly to away fans. Their stated objective is to “make PPL as unforgiving to away fans as possible.” It seems appropriate for a sports venue in Philadelphia where visiting fans often support their team at their peril.
I’ve sat in Section 133 during non-United games, and have appreciated their outreach efforts to visiting supporter groups. By leading occasional call-and-replies across the corner gap with the Sons of Ben, the IllegitimateS also spread the supporter organization beyond the endline. They are the Michael Farfan of the Sons of Ben seating formation: offensive in advanced positions on the wing, but often isolated.
The IllegitimateS group is a creative and organic component of a young MLS franchise. I was sorry to learn that the founders could not rally enough support among Section 133 ticketholders to occupy 20 seats at the top of the section.
According to a post on the IllegitimateS website, “As some of you may now there is quite a number of people that sit in front of the away support in 133 that will not be renewing their seats in 133. From our understanding there is also a solid number of people that will not be renewing throughout the section. Some people are not renewing because of prices, some because of their anger at the team and then there are some not renewing in 133 due to our inability to fill a few of the upper rows consolidating the IllegitimateS.”
As a result, the founders have decided to return to their seats in the River End with the legitimate SoBs next season, leaving any remaining IllegitimateS without a connection to the Union Front Office.
Tough times at PPL Park
The poor results in the league during the Union’s first year were an afterthought, Philadelphia was too happy to finally have a team to care. Realistically speaking, making the playoffs in 2011 was as unexpected as it was welcome and the buzz it created resulted in a waiting list for season tickets in 2012. This may have created lofty expectations for the near future, and shifted the primary focus from attending local professional soccer to expecting quality winning soccer.
This year has seen the departure of Faryd Mondragon, the trades of Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Califf, and Danny Mwanga. While the firing of Peter Nowak may have distracted from concerns on the field, the replacement with John Hackworth may only provide a dead cat bounce in results and quality.
That Union fans are angry about these personnel decisions and league results is understandable (especially in light of side deals Nowak allegedly arranged in connection with player transactions). Fans of any struggling team should demand better management, coaching, and playing. But bad management and declining quality of soccer should not affect season ticketholders’ decisions to renew for 2013.
To renew or not to renew
MLS has never been, and may never be, the best quality soccer available to watch. The fan looking for the best soccer should turn on Manchester United or Barcelona reruns. The fan looking for many of the top US National Team players will also not find what they’re looking for in MLS games. Nor do fans usually decide to support a team based on their ability to influence management (while Seattle gives its fans an important vote, others have argued that fans should not have a role in club management).
Union fans filled PPL Park in its first season for similar reasons that Brazilian, Argentinian, and French fans support their teams of second-rate domestic players: it is local professional soccer (and it doesn’t hurt that PPL is a great stadium). Nothing about that has changed.
As the first MLS champion, DC United may have also suffered from early success. Once it ceased to be a new team and league champion, its attendance declined. Even as United currently fights through a tight playoff race, attendance on the heels of a few subpar seasons remains below the league average. The excitement of immediate success is intoxicating, and it can distract from the simple pleasures of attendance and loyalty to the team. The poorly located, inappropriately designed RFK Stadium probably adds to the problem, but DC still may be working off that hangover.
Even New York, which has recently stocked up on international talent and moved into a smaller, more attractive, more accessible stadium, struggles to fill Red Bull Arena as its hardware drought continues. The plush benches in a winning bandwagon are just more comfortable than the jalopy that losing teams must ride in.
The 2012 season was the first rough season in MLS for Philadelphia. Nowak’s high-handed approach to fan input and personnel decisions was more painful as it followed last year’s heady playoff run. This season was so rough that there may be fewer IllegitimateS to “defend the corner.” I certainly don’t fault the any IllegitimateS’ decision to return to the energetic River End, and hope the group can find the support to continue the welcome wagon in Section 133.
Whether the IllegitimateS can continue as an organized supporters group in Section 133 without the presence of its founders remains to be seen. But if concerns about a rise in ticket prices or anger at the direction of the Union is causing members of a dedicated supporters group to not renew their season tickets, the Union management is right to be concerned about what more casual fans are thinking.