It’s official. Philadelphia will be getting its very own Major League Soccer team, set to begin play in the 2010 season. I’m not sure how I feel about this.
On the surface, it is certainly a good thing. Currently, the closest MLS teams to here are in New York City and Washington, D.C., so it will be good to finally have one close by. If there’s any place that desperately needs the money flowing into its community from a stadium being located in its boundaries, it is the long-rotting burg of Chester, located just outside Philly on the I-95 corridor where the new team’s stadium is to be built.
On the other hand, if there is any place in the United States most likely to spawn legions of angry, bitter, European-style soccer hooligans ripped to the gills on Yuengling and setting fire to stuff just for the hell of it, it’s probably Philadelphia. Plus, because this new MLS franchise will be a Philadelphia team, one can’t help but get that sinking feeling that it will quickly fall into the dreary annual cycle of doom, loathing, disappointment, and recrimination that defines the life of the typical Philadelphia sports fan.
Being a Philadelphia sports fan, as well as a Manchester United fan, soccer has thus far been the one sport blissfully free of that dreadful annual spiral of ruination. I always knew it would only be a matter of time before Major League Soccer gave Philadelphia an opportunity to violate that sacred space in the sports calendar.
For those across the pond who read this and are probably wondering what on Earth I’m talking about, people from most other places in the U.S. would probably look at the prospect of getting an MLS team as getting another shot to win a championship in something each year. In Philadelphia, though, it’s getting another opportunity to fail spectacularly each year. Philadelphia has gone longer than any other city in the U.S. with four major professional sports teams without winning a title in any of them — a drought that is about to hit the quarter-century mark in length. At 30 years of age, I’m too young to remember the last time a Philadelphia team won a championship in anything.
In a review of the glorious history of professional sports in Philadelphia, let’s begin with the oldest team: baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies. Having played continuously since 1883, the Phillies possess the honor of having lost more games than any other team in the history of Major League Baseball. In 125 years, the Phillies have won exactly one championship, having taken the World Series in 1980. That makes them due for another one in 2077. In the 20 years in which the Phillies played prior to the World Series’ existence, they were never able to win a National League title, either. Granted, they somehow won the NL East Division crown and made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years last year, and heading into spring training, it appears that at least on paper, they may be one of the best teams in the NL this year. However, let’s not forget that they are still the Phillies, and my faith in their ability to find a way to louse things up is bottomless.
Turning our attention to American football, there’s the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL. Playing since 1933, they have won three NFL titles, all of which pre-date the beginning of the Super Bowl, with the last of them having come in 1960. About 12 years ago, the team was finally bought by an owner who genuinely seems to like winning as well as making money. The result of that change in management has not yielded a championship, however. Instead, it seems to have turned the Eagles into something like the football equivalent of the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox — year in and year out, they’re generally pretty good, which makes their inevitable collapse somewhere either during the playoffs or at the end of the regular season hurt all the more. I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that in recent years, the Eagles have become increasingly popular among people not from the Philadelphia area, probably due to the same combination of fanatical masochism and pity that used to draw people to the Red Sox in baseball, or to Arsenal in English soccer’s Premier League.
Speaking of typically being good enough to make a team’s eventual choking in the playoffs hurt all the more, ice hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers have played since 1967, and they have actually managed to establish a pretty decent history. They’ve only missed the playoffs eight times in their history, and they’ve made it to the Stanley Cup finals seven times. Unfortunately, the last time they managed to win the championship was in 1975. The Flyers are also notable to non-sports fans for their appearance in The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror IV,” where the Devil’s “Jury of the Damned” consisted of John Wilkes Booth, Lizzie Borden, Blackbeard, Benedict Arnold, the starting lineup of the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers, and Richard Nixon. The team in those days was nicknamed the “Broad Street Bullies” because of their over-the-top goonishness. As a general rule, Philadelphia sports fans tend to prefer teams that make up for lack of talent with sheer brutality.
In basketball, the Philadelphia 76ers are actually the oldest team in the NBA, predating the league itself, although they began life in Syracuse, New York in 1939 before moving to Philadelphia in 1963. The 76ers last won the NBA title in 1983, and didn’t make it back to the NBA championships again until 2001, upon which they lost. They’ve only ever won two NBA championships while in Philadelphia, with the other one coming in 1967.
And then there are the Philadelphia sports fans themselves, also known as “boo-birds.” Other people may applaud, cheer, or sing. Philadelphia fans boo. One former Phillie is said to have once remarked, upon returning to the city, something like, “I forgot it was Philadelphia until I heard the boos.” Hell, they even booed Santa Claus one time back in the ’70s. Occasionally, there will actually be athletes that Philly fans like, but they tend to be very blue-collar guys who tend to run off their mouths without thinking about they’re saying first, a la Charles Barkley and John Kruk.
And it isn’t just booing; sometimes things get physical, too. Just ask the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys in 1989. One of the Philadelphia Eagles’ more colorful head coaches was a guy named Buddy Ryan, who allegedly paid off one of his players to injure the Cowboys’ placekicker in a game on Thanksgiving in Dallas that came to be known as the “Bounty Bowl.” In the middle of December, the Eagles and the Cowboys faced each other again in Philadelphia in a game hyped as “Bounty Bowl II.” As for a description of the game, I’ll let Wikipedia take over here:
The Veterans Stadium crew didn’t bother removing the snow that had piled up for several days. The volatile mix of beer, plentiful snow, the “bounty” and the intense hatred for “America’s Team” [the Cowboys] led to fans throwing everything within reach. Fans threw snowballs, iceballs, batteries, and more onto the field, pelting players, officials, cheerleaders, coaches, cameramen, broadcasters, policemen, and each other. Notable targets included back judge Al Jury, who was knocked to the ground by a barrage of snowballs; Cowboys punter Mike Saxon, who was targeted in the end zone; and Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, who was bombarded mercilessly with snowballs, ice, and beer as he was hastily escorted off the field by Philadelphia Police. Johnson later called the fans “thugs”. Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw worked the game for CBS, and they spent the afternoon denouncing Eagles fans and dodging snowballs aimed at the broadcast booth.
Interestingly, present in the crowd that day and gleefully taking part in the “festivities” was future Philadelphia mayor, future Pennsylvania governor, and rabid Eagles fan Ed Rendell. He is alleged to have bet somebody $20 that they couldn’t hit the field with a snowball from their seats, a bet which he is said to have lost. All that is known for sure is that stuff was definitely flying en masse from that part of the stadium that day. Political opponents tried to make that incident a character issue in elections, however it seems to have backfired every time, as most of us around here just like him more for probably having chucked ice balls at the Dallas Cowboys.
As a result of that incident, a full-fledged courtroom was set up to operate in the basement of Veterans Stadium, the Eagles’ old home, during subsequent home games. How many other cities can claim that honorable distinction?
Throwing dangerous crap isn’t just the purview of Eagles fans. Years ago, the Phillies drafted a young outfielder named J.D. Drew. He refused to sign with the team, preferring instead to play for the St. Louis Cardinals. After he came up to the major leagues with the Cardinals, his first few road games in Philadelphia saw batteries whizzing past his head in the outfield.
So, congratulations Major League Soccer, and congratulations Philadelphia, upon the unveiling of the 16th MLS team the other day. I hope you both know what you’re getting yourselves into. I heartily second this name rejection, by the way. Here is the current temporary website for the yet-unchristened team.
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