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Some at Union open house grew up with soccer

Salem County native Dereck Loomis gave soccer a try when he was 8 and fell in love with the sport.

Corey Furlan leads the Sons of Ben in a cheer before the start of the U.S. game which was shown at PPL Park. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photogapher)
Corey Furlan leads the Sons of Ben in a cheer before the start of the U.S. game which was shown at PPL Park. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photogapher)Read more

Salem County native Dereck Loomis gave soccer a try when he was 8 and fell in love with the sport.

So did his parents, Donald and Stephanie. They followed and supported their son's soccer enthusiasm but were frustrated that he didn't have local professional players to look up to or pro games to attend or watch.

"You see everything else on TV except . . . the biggest sport in the world," Stephanie Loomis said about the state of American soccer two decades ago.

On Saturday, 22 years after their son first kicked a soccer ball, the Loomises sat happily in their seats during the Philadelphia Union's open house at sparkling-new PPL Park in Chester.

The event for the Union's 12,000 season-ticket holders offered a chance to see the inside of the stadium for the first time, check out their seats, and watch the United States' World Cup match against England on the big screen.

With the hype that comes every four years during the World Cup, and with what Union president Tom Viet said was "MLS on the rise," the Major League Soccer franchise hopes to focus on this soccer "energy" to increase its fan base.

"The market is there," Viet said. "The challenge is understanding the growth that's out there."

According to many fans at Saturday's event, the growth has been slowly coming.

They said people in their 20s and 30s who played soccer in school were the core of the local fan base. They understand the sport, they love it, and they want to follow it.

"Our generation, we grew up playing soccer," said Corey Furlan, 28, of Ambler. "Now we have big-boy jobs and the money to spend and go to games."

Furlan is one of the frontline leaders of the Union fan group Sons of Ben, who essentially own Sections 134 to 140. The group, which has 6,000 members, 2,000 of them season-ticket holders, is a raucous collection of mostly under-40-year-olds who say there is a code of conduct to be a Son of Ben.

However, on Saturday they booed away an England soccer fan sitting in their section. Only the national team or Union supporters are accepted there, Furlan said. It is a Philadelphia team, after all.

The group chanted, cheered, and stomped on the metal bleachers while waving U.S. flags or Union towels, then managed to be even more intense during the United States-England match, a 1-1 tie.

"The fans create the atmosphere themselves," Sons of Ben president Bryan James said, adding that they didn't need songs or signs on the big screen to know when to cheer.

James, 37, of Wilmington, grew up playing baseball, but after watching the 1994 World Cup he became a passionate soccer fan. His two sons play soccer, and the whole family is diehard about the sport.

He said the rise of soccer in the United States was due to more "accessibility," whether through a local pro team or TV coverage.

Even though soccer has been a big deal in certain neighborhoods in the region, especially the immigrant neighborhoods in the early 20th century, it was always more an underground sport, Viet said.

First-generation children would play or follow soccer but move on to baseball or other more mainstream American sports.

"My father was Italian, so it was big for me growing up," said Roselle Mesmer of Glen Mills. But it wasn't until her daughter, Katie, and son, Michael, started playing in youth leagues that she became a soccer fan.

Mesmer sat with her husband, Mark, and two children in their season-ticket seats, decked out in Union gear.

"It's through youth soccer that it has been growing," said Mesmer, whose family wore Union gear.

The fans at PPL Park wore either U.S. or Union soccer clothing, walked around the facility, and waited in line to get Union players' autographs.

"Now it's mainstream," Viet said.

But most fans agreed it might take two generations of youth players to get MLS to the level of Major League Baseball or the National Football League.

"As they grow, they will be more interested," said Stephanie Loomis, wearing red, white, and blue. Her 30-year-old son is a prime example. He grew up in Pittsgrove Township playing soccer and is now a Union season-ticket holder and a member of the Sons of Ben.