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MLS Comment: PPL Park Was Worth The Wait

The opening of PPL Park may have been a dog's age coming, but it was most certainly worth the wait.

We Philadelphians have been waiting for MLS for a long time, and there were four occasions this year when I've had to step back, pinch myself, and say "holy milksteak, this is actually happening." The first was watching Union players in a pre-season friendly against UNC. The second was watching First Kick against Seattle on ESPN. The third was the home opener against DC United. The fourth was the inaugural game at PPL Park.

They've all managed to be progressively better than the one preceding it. This most recent match, at home to the same Sounders side that beat us at Qwest Field in our first ever game, is the undoubted highlight of my time as a Union supporter. This was no obscure scrimmage, no far-off game being watched on TV, no decent crowd getting lost in a cavernous NFL stadium. This was a raucous, rolling, mass of humanity reveling in its new home and fully aware of the occasion. And fittingly, a more perfect script could not have been written for these fans. Indeed, the reality would have been rejected as too over-the-top and far-fetched to be believable.

The new PPL Park is gorgeous, a gleaming jewel of brick, steel, and concrete nestled underneath the imposing Commodore Barry Bridge and on the banks of the wide glittering ribbon that is the Delaware River. The layout is simple but effective, the sight-lines impeccable, and although parking is a bit scattershot and the concessions as extortionate as any other stadium (Four bucks for a bottle of water? Really?), it feels like home already.

The River End, home turf of the Sons of Ben, was a writhing, teeming sea of blue and gold throughout the game, and fell silent only for the few stunned moments following Pat Noonan's opener before unleashing even more vocal force in an effort to spur the home side forward. It worked. Given the amount of vocal abuse rained down on him, it's not surprising that all three of the goals conceded by Kasey Keller came when he was defending the goal in front of the River End. From my vantage point, three rows right behind the goal, Keller was visibly rattled. His body language when trailing towards the end of the game, still on the receiving end of a torrent of jeers, betrayed the mental state of a man who would obviously rather be somewhere, anywhere else.

And while logistically, the Sons of Ben have room for improvement, especially across 5 sections and 2,000 people, their enthusiasm and creativity cannot be faulted. The most well-known and simplest songs and chants garnered the most popular support, as expected, but on-the-fly ingenuity produced gems like "Kasey Keller, old as Jesus," and an uncanny imitation of vuvuzelas whenever Seattle managed to string a few passes together. Other chants are a bit too colorful to be relayed here.

The biggest cheers though, were saved for the goals, when Sebastien Le Toux, Fred, and the latter-game-saint himself, Danny Mwanga, prompted the infamous "Doop" song by disturbing the twine behind Kasey Keller, and for Chris Seitz's penalty save at 1-1, the single most important play of the game. Never in my life have I been happier to hug sweaty people in triple digit weather,

In a day where the Sun's intensity was matched only by the passion of the vocal River End faithful, Union fans were spoiled with a plethora of storylines. There was the come from behind victory against the first team to defeat us, the vital penalty save by the often maligned Chris Seitz, the continued emergence of previously unproven Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga as legitimate strikers, and the continued dominance of the Union when playing in front of a home crowd all added weight an already enormous fixture.

If there was anyone as excited as the Sons of Ben for this game, it was the Union players. Captain Danny Califf had trouble wiping the big goofy grin off of his face whenever he passed by the River End. Andrew Jacobson jumped into section 137 after the game to celebrate with the Union supporters. And then there's Sebastien Le Toux. A former favorite of the day's opposition, he's quickly become the number one hero in Philadelphia, and on Sunday he was the last player off the pitch. A full hour after the final whistle, he was still signing autographs for kids outside the locker room.

At the press conference after he scored an injury time equalizer against FC Dallas last month, I asked Danny Mwanga how much of a lift the players got from playing in front of their home fans. He answered, "It gives you motivation to try as hard as you can, and go and play the best that you can." If that's true, the Union will have felt like they could move mountains yesterday.

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