In every major American sport, I root for the team from Philadelphia. Flyers? Orange and Black courses through my veins. Phillies? I wore a Phillies cap to elementary school in the midwest when everyone else was wearing a Royals cap (that should date me somewhat). Sixers and Eagles? Love me some Mo Cheeks and Doc and Jaws.
That changed this year. Philadelphia Union begins play this season as the latest Major League Soccer expansion team, and given Movement Point‘s focus on the Philadelphian, it should be easy for me to root for this team, to be a fan of Union. Not so simple, though.
When MLS started up in the 1990s with a franchise in DC, where I’ve lived for some two decades, I followed DC United in the absence of a Philadelphia entrant in the league. I was happy when United won, I kept track of the scores and the players, went to a few games over the years, and even tailgated with the Screaming Eagles and sat in their nest occasionally.
And yet, I’m considering abandoning them.
Am I a faithless fan of DC United, or just a fickle follower? How do I reconcile my support for United over the years with a new, arguably more valid, contender for my cheers in Union?
I suppose we need to consider the roots of sports fandom (only mild pun intended). Why does one become a fan of anything, be it a band, a movie star, a genre of French philosophy, or a sports team?
We become sports fans because we feel some shared identity, and indeed, sports teams are commonly associated with localities. It is American sporting tradition to refer to a team as the [Place] [Nicknames], like the Chicago Cubs; European sporting tradition distills the formula mostly to just [Place], or [Place] [Sub-Definition], as in Manchester United and Manchester City. You support your local team, or as has been argued, the local team that most closely hews to your view of your locality, like the belief that City represents working-class Manchester, with Man U. for the poshes.
With the development over the years of mass media and sporting culture, a different kind of fan has emerged: the aspirational, or aesthetic, fan. All the stars don’t just play for your team, after all, and a true aficionado appreciates talent regardless of jersey. From the first time some kid saw a Honus Wagner baseball card, people have been fans of teams beyond their home towns. Or perhaps you simply like the style of play that another team exhibits, and you attach your loyalty to that team, with the crisp passes or crunching hits that your home town team does not display.
Indeed, I kind of consider my connection to DC United to be like my connection to Crystal Palace. Like most American soccer fans, I follow the European game and have a team I root for over there. Despite having no real linkage to south London. I follow Crystal Palace solely because they were the coolest name in the simplistic soccer management game I played on my trusty Commodore 64 in the mid-1980s, and over the years, that translated into my following their scores, players, and fates. Heck, I even wound up buying a Crystal Palace jersey.
But I’m not really a fan of Crystal Palace in the way people from South London can be. I don’t particularly fancy their style of play these days, and when they got bumped from the Premiership a few years back after a brilliant run through the Championship, I thought that was a shame, but that was it. Likewise, when DC United won their MLS championships, I thought it was great, but I didn’t go down to RFK Stadium for the victory celebrations, and nor am I downcast when they drop matches.
I’ve never felt a strong connection to United like I do towards the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers. When the Flyers win their next Stanley Cup, I’ll be on Broad Street, no matter what it takes. Because I’m a fan of the Flyers. Their wins and losses affect me—perhaps irrationally, but they do nonetheless.
And yet, just because Union are a Philadelphia team, will I necessarily feel a connection? I didn’t make plans to watch their debut match against Seattle, and their loss in that match didn’t resonate with me. I couldn’t name a single player on the roster. I was born into being a fan of Philadelphia’s four major teams. I don’t know anything else. But this newcomer has as much hold on me as United, or Palace.
We’ll wait and see if they capture my heart. They do have home team advantage. And in the meantime, perhaps I can score another tailgate invitation to a United home game…