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Union fans earn stripes at home opener

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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 

As a sea of towels waved and fireworks filled the sky at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday night, Philadelphia soccer fans let out cheers decades in the making.

The more than 34,000 fans weren’t just celebrating the Philadelphia Union's stirring 3-2 victory over D.C. United. They were also ringing in a new era for Philly soccer, and perhaps just as importantly, a new era for Major League Soccer.
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Sebastian Le Toux's hat trick got Philadelphia fans wanting a taste of more.
Drew Hallowell / Getty Images

The emotions on display after each of Philadelphia’s three goals, and especially after the final whistle gave the Union a sweet victory against new local rivals D.C. United, was the culmination of a 15-year wait to join MLS, and a much longer wait to have professional soccer back in Philly.

Sons of Ben, the Philadelphia supporters group MLS commissioner Don Garber credited with helping the team become a reality, led the celebration, showing very clearly that they plan to join the likes of Seattle, Toronto and D.C. United as one of the league’s top supporter’s groups.

The timing couldn’t be more perfect for the arrival of the Union. Philadelphia joins the league as it hits its stride, with stadiums being built around the country and teams in New York and D.C. serving as the type of natural rivals that will boost all three clubs.

D.C. fans had their first taste of what should be one of the league’s best rivalries. More than 1,000 of them set up shop at the Lincoln Financial Field’s upper deck and sang and cheered and urged their underachieving team on.

It appeared to help when D.C. battled back from a 2-2 deficit to tie the score, but Sebastien LeToux’s third goal of the day sent the visitors home disappointed, albeit excited about the future of this new rivalry.

That excitement isn’t limited to D.C. fans. Philadelphia’s arrival in MLS will also impact the New York Red Bulls, who also sit two hours away. The Union-Red Bulls rivalry will be officially begin later this month with two meetings just four days apart, one a U.S. Open Cup match and the other a league match at Red Bull Arena.

Those meetings will afford Union fans the first chance to travel in force to a road match, another significant step in the evolution of MLS.

Rivalries are a vital part of any strong league and MLS has gone far too long without many truly strong rivalries because of the distance between clubs. Now, with Philadelphia’s arrival, and the pending arrivals of Vancouver and Portland to join Seattle in MLS in 2011, Major League Soccer will soon have clusters of rivalries on both coasts.

On the field, Philadelphia showed signs of being more than just a club doomed to expansion mediocrity. The Union’s attack showed signs of life that were missing in its season-opening loss to Seattle.

Young Colombian playmaker Roger Torres looks like a star in the making, while LeToux showed finishing ability that might just make him the answer Philly has been missing at forward.

Defensively, Philadelphia is still working out kinks and making costly mistakes, but the Union cut down on the ugly challenges that marred the season-opening loss to Seattle.

Michael Orozco looked solid playing in central defense alongside Dan Califf, while Jordan Harvey and newly-acquired Christian Arrieta played well at fullback. Most importantly, the back-line didn't look like the disorganized mess it did in week one.

Peter Nowak’s squad is still not a finished product, and is definitely a team that could benefit from the new MLS rule allowing teams to sign multiple Designated Players, but the Union showed enough on Saturday to lead Philly fans to believe their new team is one worth rooting for.

D.C. United fans may not be sharing that same belief about their team. After three losses to start the season, D.C. looks to have even more unanswered questions than the expansion Union.

MLS: June 23-25

Thursday, June 23
Home Road
Seattle 4-2 New York Recap
Saturday, June 25
Home Road
DC United 2-2 Houston Recap
San Jose 0-0 LA Galaxy Recap
Philadelphia 3-2 Chivas USA Recap
FC Dallas 4-0 Portland Recap
Sporting KC 2-1 Vancouver Recap
Real Salt Lake 3-1 Toronto Recap
Sunday, June 26
Home Road
Chicago 1-1 New York  
Seattle 2-1 New England Recap
Columbus 4-1 Colorado  
MLS Scores | Table | Fixtures

The offense still isn’t clicking like expected before the season, but the real problem is defensively, with the team having allowed nine goals in three matches. It didn’t help D.C. United to lose Juan Manuel Pena to an injury early in the match, and Dejan Jakovic to a red card late in the match, but Philadelphia created chances throughout the match, slicing through United’s defense with relative ease.

While D.C. United tries to overcome an awful start to the 2010 season , the Philadelphia Union will look to build on its dream home debut. Any concerns about how healthy support would be for the Union were put to rest last Saturday, and with PPL Park set to be opened in June, the Union will soon have a new 18,000-seat stadium to fill and more memories to make.

There should be more nights like Saturday’s for Union fans, more triumphs over rivals, more packed crowds, hat tricks and fireworks.

It may take some time, and there may be some losses and disappointments, but the emotions experienced on Saturday night, and the promise of more such nights to come, will have made the decades of waiting for professional soccer to return to Philadelphia all worth the while.

Ives Galarcep is's newest senior writer who will be covering U.S. Soccer and MLS.

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