Light rain didn’t deter Union soccer fans Sunday night from turning out for the first live-attendance home game for Philly pro teams since the spring, seven months after COVID-19 put a stop to public attendance at city sports events.
“It feels great,” said Matt Gendaszek, before the start of the match, in which the Montreal Impact visited the Union stadium just south of the Commodore Barry Bridge in Chester.
Gendaszek, who heads a fan society for the Union, spoke as ticket-holders stood in the drizzle to get into Larimer Brewing Co. across the railroad track from the stadium. Others sat inside at the tables that remained after owner Matt Lindenmuth removed half to comply with state social distancing rules.
“There’s still that little sense of nervousness,” Gendaszek added. “But everyone that has a ticket is thrilled for our first game."
Gendaszek said he expected extra energy at the Sunday evening game, both for team veterans and for young local players such as 19-year-old Brenden Aaronson, the midfielder from Medford who is slated to join the RV Salzburg team in Austria next season.
Pro soccer, like other pro sports, has been playing a reduced schedule, mostly to empty benches in many cities. The Union has done well in the truncated season and fans are eager for the playoffs. Regular-season games are now scheduled into November, a month later than usual, with playoffs into early December.
“It wasn’t a lot [of fans] tonight, but they were loud and clear,” veteran goalkeeper Andre Blake said. “We heard them the entire 90 minutes, and we could not have been more happy to have them back, and we’re just happy that we were able to give them a win tonight.”
A total of 2,775 people were allowed in the stadium, including the players, coaches, team staffs and stadium workers. The crowd capacity is about 18,000.
“As a football player, you get more power if the fans are in the game,” said midfielder Jamiro Monteiro, a Netherlands native who’s one of the team’s star players. “It’s been a long time that we’ve played without fans, so it was good that we got the support back. ... It gave us a lot of boost.”
Once fans were in the stadium, they were required to wear masks when not eating or drinking. A few fans could be seen not following the rules, but reminders from announcer Kevin Casey got them to behave. Fans stuck to assigned seats, spread out in each section.
When the game ended, fans were asked to stay in their seats for an ordered dismissal, with Casey announcing two sections at a time. Only a small number of people were seen heading out of the seating bowl before they were called. All who stayed got to applaud their team’s win, and many Union players walked around the field to applaud the fans back.
“It’s only a couple of thousand people. If it weren’t for the pandemic we’d have 9,000 or 10,000,” said Hazim Abdul, 74, a lifelong Chester resident in a reflective vest directing arriving fans to parking.
“You have to hustle to make a dollar tonight,” Abdul added genially. He said city residents could make modest money at the stadium before the coronavirus hit, but it had been a lean summer without the crowds of regular fans. “It’ll be better next year,” he said.
Even when the stadium was shut to the public, about 30 Union fans had gathered outside the bar to watch games on outsize screens. “It’s good to be back here” for a live game, said season ticket holder Michael Borton, joined by his friend Gabrielle Tompkins for the game, which the Union won 2-1.
“These guys are such fans, they came anyway,” affirmed Lindenmuth, Larimer’s owner.
A Berks County native, he got into the beer business in Denver before moving closer to home last year and opening the Chester brewery.
Smiling newlyweds Albie and Krista Boyson, of Mount Laurel, said the carefully reduced crowd reminded them of their August wedding on the beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, with just a few close friends.
“It’s exciting to get back here," Albie said. "It’s not the same watching it from home”
Wendy Ross, who works for the Center for Autism and Neurodiversity at Thomas Jefferson Medical Center, praised the Union staff for its careful antiviral measures.
As she spoke, the PA system reminded visitors to wear their masks and noted that only cashless payments would be accepted that evening.