Field of Dreams
Pro soccer makes its official debut in Delaware County this month.
What can Main Line fans—and everyone else—expect?
These days, Ed Tepper is considered soccer royalty. It wasn’t always that way.
One for the Girls
Women’s pro soccer is on the up locally, and the Philadelphia Independence is leading the way from Downingtown.
In 1995, Major League Soccer had eight executives, four interested owners, zero teams and nowhere to play. Addressing the last issue, a group that included pro sports team owners Phil Anschutz, Robert Kraft and Lamar Hunt listed five cities on a white board: Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
When MLS launched a year later with 10 teams, the league secured soccer in four of those five cities. Philadelphia was out mostly because it lacked a suitable venue. Veterans Stadium could’ve been a home, but it was imploded and the acreage paved for a parking lot. There wasn’t an interested ownership group, either.
Ten years later, over some good steaks, wine and conversation in a New York restaurant, a partnership known as Keystone Sports and Entertainment paved the way for professional men’s soccer to return to Philly—on the Delaware River waterfront in Chester.
“This is a market we always wanted to be in,” says Nick Sakiewicz, one of those pioneering executives and now the CEO and operating partner for the upstart Philadelphia Union.
The Union begins play March 25 against the Seattle Sounders in a nationally televised ESPN2 and the Spanish-only ESPN Deportes match at Qwest Field. The team has its first game here on April 10 at Lincoln Financial Field.
The 18,500-seat PPL Park at Chester will be ready in late spring, and team officials are taking the home-away-from-home opener as a positive. “Maybe it won’t just be 8,000 that come, but maybe 40,000-60,000,” says Dave Debusschere, the Union’s executive vice president and CFO, who lives in Wallingford. “Then, we’ll have the benefit of two openings.”
After 14 years as a league, experts say Major League Soccer is on the verge of a veritable explosion in this country. The Union is its 16th team, with 20 projected by 2012.
“We’ve been asked for years, ‘When is soccer going to make it?’ Frankly, that question is getting old,” says Sakiewicz, a Northern New Jersey native who was an All-American at the University of New Haven and a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team during the boycott year. “Soccer is making it with a slow, sustained, smart growth. We’ve tipped our hat to the great clubs around the world by incorporating what they do right while, at the same time, developing our own culture.”
Then you throw in Philadelphia’s culture. “It’s the reason Philly is such a great sports market and such a great city—its fans are passionate,” Sakiewicz says. “There’s that saying, ‘You can love me or hate me, but don’t ignore me.’ Well, you don’t get ignored here—especially if you work hard and play hard.”
Indeed, with a number of failures in its wake—like the 1970s’ North American Soccer League, which included the Philadelphia Atoms—it may well be professional soccer’s time to shine. Finally. After all, even pro football experienced growing pains before the NFL revolutionized the sport in this country.
“This is another steppingstone,” says Sakiewicz. “People look at the NASL (which collapsed in 1984) and say it was a failure, but they were pioneers, too. They created a moment in time for the sport’s evolution.”
The prosperity of the men’s and women’s U.S. National Teams in the past two World Cups in Germany and Korea has many believing the U.S. is an emerging entity in global soccer. By the end of the year, a committee will name two World Cup host sites for 2018 and 2022—and Philly is in the running. As proposed, the Linc would be the game venue, and the stadium in Chester a practice facility.
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Meanwhile, Center City hosted the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention in mid-January, when both MLS and Women’s Professional Soccer drafts were held. The Union made a splash with a league-record three first-round selections, including top pick Danny Mwanga, a much-touted forward from Oregon State. And while the potential for a player lockout still loomed as the current collective bargaining agreement expired on Jan. 31, it hasn’t been enough to stall the positive momentum around here.
Local fervor for soccer encompasses as many as half a million registered youth and adult soccer participants in the Delaware Valley. Those who played soccer 20 years ago are now fans with their own kids who play. An industry and a market have been cultivated, with the common goal of extending soccer’s status as a popular participatory sport into a booming spectator draw.
“Finally, this has the potential to give kids role models they can see first-hand,” says Biff Sturla, president of the Lower Merion Soccer Club, which provides programs for 2,700 youngsters annually. “Hopefully, the Union will make the players accessible—they said they will. They’re doing everything first-class so far. It would be a disaster if they didn’t.”
Culture can be defined in any number of ways. Culture is a concept, a mission. It’s accessibility. It’s the way an entity conducts business. It’s how you travel, and how you dress on and off the field.
For its part, the Philadelphia Union wants to create its own culture—and capitalize on one that already exists. Samples of the new stadium seats are in Chester’s Wharf at Rivertown offices. Guests are urged to pick one and make themselves comfortable. Apparently, the hype and hospitality is working. By the start of 2010, the Union had sold 9,000 of 12,000 season tickets (a self-imposed cap). This with only a half-finished stadium and 10 initial players picked in the 2009 MLS expansion draft.
The Union refuses to be flagrant in any way. It can leave that to the Sons of Ben, its highly involved, 5,200-member independent fan club. Formed on the mere notion that a team was coming to Philly, SoB generated a storm of regional and national media coverage, and even helped petition for state and county assistance with the stadium. Its members will have a dedicated 2,000-seat section in the new facility. “The name Sons of Ben just fit,” says club president Bryan James. “Not only did it honor Ben Franklin, but also spoke to the reputation of Philadelphia fans. We’re here to support the team, though—not to be our own show.”
Then there’s the outreach work of the Union’s Rob Smith, who lives in Downingtown. As vice president of soccer development and relations, he’s been an executive on loan to the Chester-Upland School District, where he’s teaching soccer in gym classes. The goal is to return both a girls’ and boys’ soccer team to Chester High.
As for Union CFO Debusschere, he earned an ice hockey scholarship to Colgate University and still plays on a senior men’s team. Then he met his future wife, Kira, a Strath Haven High School standout, on Colgate’s soccer team.
With two young sons who play soccer in the Nether Providence Athletic Association, Debusschere believed in the Union enough to leave corporate America. “I like to think I’m not biased because, by nature, I’m not a soccer guy. But we’ve done our research,” he says. “We’re not going after Eagles, Sixers or Flyers season ticket holders. A new group of fans will be our fans; this is new money. We’re working with those teams, not against them.”
Carl Cherkin, a former local TV sports broadcaster, is the Union’s vice president of communications. His roots in the sport can be traced to the late 1960s, when soccer great Barry Barto was making Cherkin’s Northeast High School proud—and back when Davies Bahr, the wife of 1950 World Cup hero Walter Bahr, was a Northeast gym teacher.
Walter Bahr coached at rival Frankford High. In Neshaminy, the Bahrs raised sons Casey, Chris and Matt. The latter two are among the best place-kickers in NFL history; Casey played soccer at Navy and with the NASL champion Philadelphia Atoms.
Northeast High remains in one of those ethnic Philly neighborhoods where the Union’s marketing makes as much sense as it does for suburban families and corporations. Philadelphia has had semi-pro and pro teams off and on since the late 19th century, and it had a string of American Soccer League championships from the Philadelphia Nationals and Philadelphia Americans in the mid-1940s and early ’50s. The city has been home to powerhouse clubs like the Lighthouse Boys Club in Kensington, which produced recently retired Villanova coach Larry Sullivan and many others.
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Cherkin was the Atoms’ first public relations director in 1973, when they won the NASL championship. Goalie Bob Rigby became the first soccer player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the magazine declared, “Soccer Goes American.” The Atoms drew 18,766 to a playoff game at Veterans Stadium.
“It’s emblematic of the fact that there was already a soccer audience [in the city],” says Cherkin. “Much of it could be traced to those ethnic neighborhoods, but now [the audience] is everywhere. The culture has spread. Soccer’s time is now.”
There’s that word again—culture. In an almost evangelical way, it’s been spread by the clubs and coaches. It long ago seeped into the Main Line, a demographic that’s the polar opposite of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods. Somehow, soccer transcends and blends cultures. “It’s a wonderful way, really, to celebrate the beautiful game,” Cherkin says.
And advance it.
“Until now, the hope with kids was to get them into college, where they could continue to play,” says LMSC’s Sturla, who also coaches the Harriton High School boys and with FC Delco. “But now that they can see the pros, they’ll have higher aspirations of playing professionally. It gives them a reason to elevate their level of play.”
For the Philadelphia Union, the key to a sustainable business model is an independently owned venue that produces revenue streams. “The stadium is the lynchpin,” says team CEO Sakiewicz. “We wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t get the stadium.”
The public-private deal had three instant upsides. Foremost, there was the opportunity to be the catalyst in a projected $500 million revitalization plan for a neglected waterfront. Buoyed by public funding, the private investors’ contribution was reasonable after splitting a little more than half of the $156 million price tag for the land and the team. And the stadium’s location—where I-95 meets the Commodore Barry Bridge and Route 322—allows for incredible accessibility.
In all, PPL Park figures to host 40-50 events a year, 20 of them home soccer games. It seats 25,000 for live music events. “The potential is limitless,” Debusschere says. “College lacrosse, high school football championships, three-day Bruce Springsteen concerts over Labor Day weekend.”
Fiscally responsible, MLS also uses a single-entity ownership model. Each team is individually owned and operated. The Union has a license to operate the Philadelphia location, but also owns 1/16th of the league, splitting expenses and revenues. MLS owns all players and caps salaries—and so, with this esprit de corps, there’s no chance to cannibalize the others. “This isn’t Major League Baseball, where you can spend what you want,” says Union CFO Debusschere.
Last year, MLS spent $2.3 million per team. Each year, it adjusts its budget in accordance with a board of governors.
The Union’s ownership bought the franchise for $30 million. Already, Debusschere estimates the team is worth $80-$100 million. The Union’s day-to-day business is run by president Tom Veit and team manager Peter Nowak (onetime captain of the Polish national team). There are 30 regular-season games from late March through October, then playoffs and a championship.
Veit is fond of citing a Union-directed University of Pennsylvania survey that found that 50 percent of the Philadelphia market considers itself soccer fans. Twenty-five percent described themselves as avid fans.
“There will be such a sense of pride on opening day—a sense of accomplishment that may be bigger than anything that’s ever hit Delaware County,” says Debusschere. “It’s something to call its own. No one will have to go to Broad and Pattison to see a professional-level game. As a resident here, I can see the excitement.”
Ed Tepper still gets the phone calls and e-mails. And every time, they fill him with pride—pride in the game, the version of soccer he gave birth to. But time passes, and when a recent caller asked if he was speaking to the father of indoor soccer, Tepper couldn’t resist this response: “Well, no. Actually, now I’m the grandfather.”
At 71, his hair color has long shown his age and even earned him the nickname “The Silver Fox” from Carl Cherkin, the vice president of communications for the Philadelphia Union, the new men’s pro team set to play in Delaware County. Tepper has six grandchildren who are already asking if they’re going to Union games. His 2-year-old twin grandson and granddaughter already have a soccer ball to kick around. “They’re just starting to get their exercise,” he says.
His three sons and their kids have all been involved in the Lower Merion Soccer Club. One grandson plays at the Haverford School; Tepper’s sons are Episcopal Academy graduates. “It’s such a healthy game for kids,” says Tepper, who works in Bala Cynwyd. “Nothing makes me happier than to go to an indoor facility and see them playing.”
A Lower Merion High School and Villanova University alum, Tepper knew enough to take a chance and create the Major Indoor Soccer League in 1978 with co-commissioner Earl Foreman, a onetime part- owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. Before that, he owned the Philadelphia Wings pro indoor lacrosse team. A real estate mogul based in Bala Cynwyd, Tepper saw the seeds of his eventual league from a seat in the Spectrum as the North American Soccer League champion Philadelphia Atoms took on the Soviet Red Army’s team in 1974. The Atoms lost 6-3.
Thereafter, Tepper sold the Wings to focus on indoor soccer. In 1976, he could’ve purchased the Atoms, who played at Franklin Field. But he didn’t believe Philadelphia was ready to fully accept a low-scoring foreign game. His interest was playing soccer on turf and modifying the goals to boost scoring.
The first year, he brought back a Russian all-star team to play in six U.S. cities. The MISL introduced smoke-fume team introductions and was the first to play music during the game. Both innovations were tested and perfected by Tepper and Tim Leiweke (who now runs the Los Angeles Galaxy). “Before we knew it, every other sport was doing it,” says Tepper. “For us, it was show business. We knew we had to be different. We could make our own production—and that’s what we did. It worked. It all worked.”
For a while, the MISL flourished, but the players unionized and owners instituted a salary cap that was more costly than revenues. In 1990, the MISL gave way to the Major Soccer League. In 1992, it disbanded, and teams dissolved into the National Professional Soccer League. Tepper didn’t get involved again until 1996, when he introduced the Philadelphia KiXX, keeping the team until 2002. By then, the Major Indoor Soccer League was back.
At the MISL’s outset, Sports Illustrated said Tepper was making a circus of the sport. “They said it wasn’t soccer,” he says. “It took a while to get the purists on board, for them to realize that the skills are every bit—or even more—in use in the [indoor] game. There are 100 shots, so the goalie is always in motion.”
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Tepper also helped bring the MISL’s Philadelphia Fever to town, attracting high-profile owners like Joe Robbie, Jerry Buss and Eddie DeBartolo Sr. On the heels of back-to-back World Series titles for the Big Red Machine, baseball’s Johnny Bench and Pete Rose were part owners in Cincinnati, one of six original teams. A year later, Joe Garagiola and Stan Musial were investors in the St. Louis franchise, one of an expanded 11-team league.
“You had to know you were not the Flyers, the Sixers or the Eagles, that you have no history, that you were an event and entertainment,” Tepper says. “The people were there for excitement, for the scoring. They were great days. I enjoyed the challenge. I liked that we were
Where once there were no indoor soccer facilities in this country, Tepper says there are now over 1,000. “They’re playing the game we invented,” he says. “We made soccer a year-round sport.”
Still, no other country plays true indoor soccer. The international version isn’t played with dasher boards, but Tepper holds out hope that his game will eventually become an Olympic sport. “It’s becoming more international,” he says. “The Americans are the best in the world because all these kids grew up playing in these indoor facilities and in all these leagues.”
Now, the local fan base is welcoming back the outdoor game, along with the indoor KiXX, who play November-March at Temple University’s Liacouras Center. And Tepper says everything is in place. “Philadelphia is the missing piece in that league,” he says. “The [MLS’] single-entity ownership is the way to go. If the NHL and the NBA were starting from scratch again, it’s what they would do.”
Tepper never even played the game. When he was inducted into the Philadelphia Soccer Hall of Fame in 1999, everyone asked what teams he’d played for. First, he looked at his suit jacket’s label, and offered, “Versace.” Who else, they asked? He looked at his necktie’s label and declared, “Jos. A. Bank.”
“I know the traits of a good soccer player, though,” he says. “And the Main Line deserves a lot of credit for developing the game. Whether you’re in Radnor or Narberth, the soccer is great. It’s a real hotbed.”
But the naysayers are lurking. One recent morning, 610 WIP-AM morning show host Angelo Cataldi quipped, “Who’s a fan of soccer?”
“Here we go again, I thought,” says Tepper. “Some people always want to put down soccer, but [Cataldi] is in the entertainment business.”
So was Tepper. That said, little shakes his pride—pride in knowing that, of all the pro soccer and lacrosse franchises that have come and gone, the KiXX and Wings still thrive. Now, some of the Philadelphia Union’s new fans are the kids of older KiXX followers.
These days, you’re likely to find Tepper on the Main Line, bouncing between more than one of his grandchildren’s soccer games—though he stays in the background.
“I’m really just the grandfather there,” he says.
Kelly Rowland knows the turf, the lay of the land—an important advantage in soccer. She also knows the game, its players and fans. In the offices of the Philadelphia Independence at the United Sports Training Center in Downingtown, she’s the resident expert.
“That’s what they should call me,” she jests. “Who else could be better to sell the game of soccer in Philadelphia? If I could’ve picked the perfect job, this is it.”
The Wallingford resident and 2003 Strath Haven High School graduate is the director of outreach programs for the Independence. The new team begins its 24-game schedule on April 11 at West Chester University’s 7,500-seat John A. Farrell Stadium against fellow Women’s Professional Soccer expansion team the Atlanta Beat. The Independence’s second game against the Boston Breakers will be nationally televised April 18 on FOX’s Soccer Channel. It will feature former Boston players Heather Mitts, Amy Rodriguez and Sue Weber, who now dress for the Independence.
Rowland has worn many hats with the Independence, the second-year league’s eighth franchise. But the thrust of her work is partnering with local soccer clubs—a program called Clubs of Philly. Her list included 35 clubs as 2009 ended. “The response has been great, and it’s continuing to grow,” says Rowland, a former All-American at Florida State University, where she roomed with Radnor High School soccer star Toby Ranck, a former FC Delco player.
Rowland fondly recalls the most recent former pro female league, the Women’s United Soccer Association, and the Philadelphia Charge, which played at Villanova University before games were suspended in 2003. Her senior year, Rowland’s Strath Haven team attended a game. She remembers the large crowd and Mitts, a standout Charge player who has returned to Philly. After the league folded, Charge coach Mark Krikorian became her coach at Florida State.
“Soccer can be a small world,” says Rowland. “Now, our league is more fiscal-minded. We’ve learned and corrected the mistakes, and we think we’ll get the support the old Philadelphia team had. Maybe the soccer gods are looking down on us.”
Independence head coach Paul Riley welcomes pro soccer’s joint return to the region, adding that his team may play a game or two at Chester’s new PPL Park as part of a doubleheader with the Philadelphia Union. “The synergy will help us both,” says Riley. “Some have suggested it will hurt [the women], but the fans who go to our games aren’t the same as those at men’s games. We have our own niche. The women’s fans aren’t sitting at home watching on TV—they’re playing the sport.”
Riley lives in Long Island, N.Y., where he’s director of the 60-team Albertson Soccer Club and coach of the Albertson Fury and the Long Island Fury. He admits there’s some pressure for WPS to succeed. “The league has to make it, or there isn’t going to be another go-around—or it’ll be 10 years before there’s another go-around,” he predicts. “For the sport to make it, this league has to make it. We’ve picked good cities, and with all these kids playing, I can’t imagine people not coming.”
The United Sports Training Center is indicative of progress. There are three indoor turf fields and 20 outdoor fields. Within the community, the Independence is committed to helping coach and train young players in their own venues and club environments. It’s a determined decision not to come on too strong and to encourage affiliates and supporters. Much of that is Rowland’s responsibility.
“The level of the women’s game and its leadership has grown so much,” says Rowland. “I wish this had all been brought to the area when I could’ve still played a few years.”
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