CHESTER, Pa. – When Philadelphia was awarded an MLS expansion franchise, it didn’t take long for local sports fans to look for rivals. After all, Philly sports fans love to hate their enemies almost as much as they like to support their home teams.
Looking up the New Jersey Turnpike, the choice was obvious: The New York Red Bulls would become the team that Union fans would root against.
Tonight, the Red Bulls finally came to town. New York’s first visit to the Philadelphia area didn’t come until the Union’s last home game of the year, but for Philly fans it was worth the wait.
The home team dominated the first half with two goals, and held on in the second to preserve a 2-1 win.
“Philadelphia was more interested in winning in the first half,” Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe flatly noted after the game.
Though disappointed in his team’s loss, Backe enjoyed the setting of the budding rivalry.
“The atmosphere was excellent,” he said. “It’s the way it should be when you play football.”
Meeting with the media after the match, Union team manager Peter Nowak radiated pride and confidence in the team’s future.
“The message since we started is we’re going to look for something better,” he insisted. “The confidence was always there. We played all the teams up high and showed we can compete.”
“We’re going to play for more than this next year,” he promised.
Nowak echoed Backe in his excitement for the burgeoning competition between the two clubs, but stressed that among the players and coaches, the relationship was purely professional.
“There was no animosity,” he stated. “Just a good fight.”
The vibe at the stadium was the most electric it’s been since PPL Park opened. Stadium officials opened two sections instead of the typical one for travelling supporters. The visitor areas were located adjacent to the River End—the Union supporters’ section—ensuring a good amount of give and take between the two sides’ fans.
Sensing the end of the season was near, Union fans gave huge ovations to Alejandro Moreno and Rookie of the Year candidate Danny Mwanga when they were subbed off.
The Union faithful stayed after the game to hear post-game addresses from Nowak and MVP candidate Sebastien Le Toux. With New York’s Thierry Henry not making the trip, Le Toux was definitely the best Frenchman in MLS—both in the minds of Union fans and in reality.
As fans exited the building, boats on the Delaware River sent fireworks high into the night over Chester. The roar was so thunderous it was at times difficult to hear the coaches in the post-game press conference.
In just eight months, the Union had their franchise debut in Seattle, their home debut in Lincoln Financial Field, another home debut in new PPL Park, and tonight—the debut of their first true home rivalry game.
For the sellout crowd tonight, 2011 can’t come soon enough.
For more musings from Goal.com contributor Ramin Majd, follow him on Twitter @rmajd