A new soccer team with a familiar old name is preparing to take the field, and to try to take a piece of the local soccer spotlight.
The Philadelphia Fury, whose trademark has been kept by longtime local soccer coach Matt Driver, will kick off next month in the National Independent Soccer Association, a new third-tier professional league with 13 teams.
Driver has long sought to run a professional team in the Philadelphia area. He ran a semipro league on the east coast from 2014 to 2017, and a decade ago helped launch the Independence women’s team. He tried to join the former North American Soccer League in 2016, but the effort fell apart (and the league collapsed a year later).
When the NISA came together, Driver saw an opportunity, and this time he was able to capitalize. He is the team’s CEO and technical director; Cris Vacarro, a Camden native who played indoor soccer for 19 years and managed Puerto Rico’s outdoor national team, is the head coach.
The NISA will play a short fall campaign to get off the ground, then play a more formal spring season. The fall-to-spring calendar is designed to parallel Europe’s calendar. Single-game Fury tickets cost $19 for adults and $11 for children; season ticket packages are also available.
The Fury’s roster is mostly comprised of players who’ve bounced around lower leagues in the Americas and Europe. A few have ties to the Philadelphia area. The most prominent is Cristhian Hernández, who was one of the Union’s first Homegrown Players in 2012 but never caught on. Since leaving town in 2014, he played for clubs in the U.S. and Mexico, most recently the second-tier USL Championship’s Las Vegas Lights.
Driver said the Fury’s total payroll is in the high six figures, which means players won’t make a ton of money. Hernández is okay with that for now.
“If anybody tells you they’re here for the money, you know, they’re obviously lying,” he said. “It’s just an opportunity to get back on the platform and play again, and try to get that contract that everyone’s looking for. … Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back to take to forward, and this might be one of those things.”
The 25-year-old Mexico native is also waiting for his work visa to clear. He put off applying for U.S. citizenship for years, and is only now getting around to it. But he’s happy to be back in the place where his pro career began.
“Now that I’ve been driving around the city, it brings back a little bit of memories [of] spending a good amount of time here," he said.
Driver’s biggest signing of all is the Fury’s venue: Franklin Field. He badly wanted to put the Fury in the city, as a contrast to the Union’s home in Chester, and he was able to get to where the old Fury played briefly in 1979. The old Atoms also played there in 1976, their last year of existence.
The Fury were sold and moved to Montreal after the 1980 season, leaving the Philadelphia area without a professional outdoor soccer team until the Women’s United Soccer Association’s Charge in 2001. Driver got a hold of the Fury and Atoms trademarks, and used them for teams in the semipro league he ran.
Franklin Field has some major limitations: it has less-than-stellar artificial turf, and the field is narrower than soccer’s standard. That stopped the Union from taking a game there this year after considering the idea.
It also isn’t cheap to rent. Driver wouldn’t say how much he’s spending, but called it “a damn sight more” than he’s paid for other venues.
“It was an investment that we felt was worthwhile," Driver said, “ … because of what we want to be and what we want to do.”
Some of the NISA’s other teams — especially flagship clubs Detroit City, Chattanooga FC and Miami FC — are at the vanguard of wanting to blow up America’s soccer establishment. They and their fans detest Major League Soccer’s franchise-based closed league, and want the world’s standard of promotion and relegation brought here. Miami FC has even sued the U.S. Soccer Federation to try to force the change.
Driver wants a more open system, though he isn’t as caustic about it. He wants the Fury to complement the Union instead of fighting them.
“We’d be stupid not to think that way," he said, noting that some of his players want to go to Union games too. "At the end of the day, the Union are still the big dog in town.”
But he knows how many soccer fans in Center City and its environs don’t go to Chester because of its meager public transportation links. That’s the crowd the Fury want to attract.
At a launch event for the team this past Saturday, held at a Center City sports bar, local soccer historian Steve Holroyd pointedly noted that “for the first time since 1980, the city can root for a team that’s in the city.”
Officially, the last time a Philadelphia soccer team played league games within the city limits was in 2010, when the Union played their first two home contests at Lincoln Financial Field. Still, the point got across.
Hernández added a few cents, too.
“It’s a beautiful stadium with a lot of history, and it’s obviously going to make it easier for you guys here in the city to come out and support us," he said. "We don’t have to drive 30 or 40 minutes to get to Chester.”
Time will tell whether the Fury succeed. But on that count, Hernández spoke from experience.
Aug. 31: at Detroit City FC, 7:30 p.m.*
Sept. 15: at Miami FC, 7 p.m.
Sept. 21: vs. Atlanta SC, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28: at Atlanta SC, 7 p.m.
Oct. 5: at Stumptown Athletic, 7 p.m.
Oct. 19: vs. Atlanta SC
Oct. 26: vs. Detroit City FC, 7 p.m.*
Nov. 1: vs. Miami FC, 8 p.m.
Nov. 11: vs. Stumptown Athletic, 7 p.m. (rescheduled from Sept. 7 due to Hurricane Dorian)
Nov. 16: NISA East Coast championship at Franklin Field, teams TBD, 7 p.m.