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January 23, 2017

An oral history: On their 10 year anniversary, the Sons of Ben are trying to rediscover a lost identity

Soccer Union
12417_sonsofben_kk Paul Rudderow/Philly Soccer Page

The Sons of Ben fill the River End during the 2011 home opener, a 1-0 win against the Vancouver Whitecaps.

On Tuesday, January 17th, the Sons of Ben returned to the place where it all began – McGillin's Olde Ale House, a popular and historic Irish tavern located on a tiny side street in Center City, Philadelphia.

This gathering was different from the one that took place ten years ago.

Instead of three guys sitting around a table, thinking of ways to bring a soccer team to the region, this was an anniversary celebration featuring members old and new, almost a "who's who" of the group that started the grassroots movement resulting in the creation of the Philadelphia Union and an 18,500 capacity, soccer-specific stadium in Delaware County.

A lot has changed in ten years. This is no longer a small, tight-knit gang of friends.

This is a well-established supporters group with several thousand members. Originals have moved on as leadership goes through constant flux. The Sons of Ben aren't just a fan group, they're a bona fide non-profit with a documentary film bearing their name.

It's not really a soccer story; it's a classic American success story. But all groups go through changes and challenges as the years pass, and the Sons of Ben are no different.

On their tenth anniversary, I spoke with former presidents Bryan James and Kenny Hanson. James is the co-founder of the group and led the SOBs from their 2007 inception until June, 2011. Hanson took over from Matt Ansbro in 2013. I also spoke with founding member Corey Furlan, current president Bill Gusler, and long-time SOB Karen Mcgovern.

Bryan James –
"I can't believe it's been (ten years), to be honest. I still remember meeting at McGillin's with Andy Dillon and Dave Flagler and talking about ideas we had for getting the attention of people in the area to identify themselves as soccer fans, and then get the league's attention and some kind of investor's attention. The fact that it's been ten years, it feels like it's happened in the blink of an eye."

Corey Furlan – "I met my wife through the Sons of Ben. I got my career started through this group. It's kind of insane that a soccer supporter's group would touch your life in so many different ways. It gives you this sort of nostalgic feel, like, 'holy cow'. This is something that we set out to do with no real idea of how to do it."

That original group of three became a band of 20 people who were trying to turn nothing into something. One of those members, Ethan Gomberg, suggested the name "Sons of Ben" as a reference to founding father Benjamin Franklin. The group adopted a logo featuring Franklin's skull on a blue and gold background matching the Philadelphia city flag. The "SOBs" could be "Sons of Ben,” or "Sons of bitches,” which was a perfect play-on-words for a rowdy group of Philly sports fans.

With no local team to cheer for, they instead went up and down the East Coast and watched other teams play. They went to MLS Cup in 2007, sat amongst New England and Houston fans, and cheered for a Philadelphia team that didn't even exist. They booed the Red Bulls in their home stadium, using chants like this one:

"We don't have a team,
we don't have a team,
we don't have a team,
we've won as many cups as you,
but we don't have a team."

They also went to local college games.

Karen McGovern – "I still remember when we went to see Yale play Penn in Philadelphia, and we just heckled the crap out of that poor goalkeeper, who had no idea what was going on. Erik Geiger ... that was his name. We chanted his name over and over. That poor kid. A lot of fun memories. We were bastards from the beginning."

There were times when James wondered if his dream would ever become reality. His wife, Mary, saw the Sons of Ben as a fleeting hobby. Marketing efforts seemed to fall flat and the group wasn't gaining much traction.

The break seemed to come out of nowhere, with blurbs mentioning the group in Sports Illustrated and Four Four Two magazine. Nick Sakiewicz, a longtime MLS executive who had most recently worked with the New York/New Jersey Metrostars, saw that article in Four Four Two and also witnessed the group in action at MLS Cup. Sakiewicz, who was considering a job with the Los Angeles Dodgers, put that pursuit aside and instead convinced real estate mogul Jay Sugarman to join him in a Philadelphia expansion project.

That investment group became Keystone Sports and Entertainment, and 13 months after the founding of the Sons of Ben, Philadelphia was announced as Major League Soccer's 16th franchise.

James –
 "We were just focusing on one milestone at a time, but we were able to accomplish something bigger than we could have imagined. We kind of looked at it as, 'okay, let's start this to kind of prove that it happened.' In the movie, we said that our goal was to get a hundred people signed up. Once things started happening and the name got out there in Sports Illustrated, and Four Four Two, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, suddenly we had people coming out to events. It just happened."

Furlan – "It was kind of like one of those pipe dreams. We talked about it a little bit in the movie. We kind of thought that, if we got a hundred guys involved in this, that it would be a success, you know? Because there was no real history of anything like this ever being done. We didn't really know what we were doing or how we were doing it."

McGovern – "I think it took us all by surprise, to be honest."

James – "I think maybe the proudest moment was at the franchise announcement, in February of 2008. That's when the hard work that we'd done, weekly and sometimes nightly with that original group, from Andy Dillon and Dave Flager, which eventually expanded to include Brad Youtz, Matt Ansbro, Corey Furlan, Chris Hapka, Mike Naioti, Tom Roletter, Mark Dunfee – those guys kind of pushed the ball forward to the point where, 13 months after we started it, the league was in our city with cameras rolling, hosting our franchise announcement. There was a Polish-American string band there, playing 'Four Leaf Clover.' We were mentioned by Ed Rendell and Don Garber. And then being invited on stage personally to hand scarves out to the ownership group, that was something that's unforgettable to me. The partnership that Nick Sakiewicz and I worked on with the rest of the Sons of Ben to make this happen definitely made that day surreal, and the most rewarding."

Furlan – "It started as eight to ten guys together at McGillins. Now it's a group with a couple of thousands of members and it's recognized across the country and even around the world. That's pretty wild."

A lot happened in the next three years. The Union put together their first roster and played their first home game at Lincoln Financial Field, a 3-2 win against D.C. United. PPL Park was finished in June of 2010 and christened with a 3-1 win against the Seattle Sounders. There was enthusiasm and excitement over a new team, and it didn't matter that they finished with eight wins, 15 losses, and seven draws. Philadelphia had its very own MLS franchise.

That momentum carried into 2011 with a much stronger squad and the first playoff berth in club history. PPL Park was selling out, the team was starting to build a decent following, and it looked like soccer would be able to carve out a small niche in a parochial and provincial sports market.

The summer of year two might have been the pinnacle of early Union success. That's why it was strange, then, when James stepped down in the middle of the season and passed the SOB presidency to Matt Ansbro.

James – "I think one of the hardest things about being president of a supporter's group is being held responsible for every single thing that everybody does. It got tiring, really quickly. The fact that a lot of people were coming to games, not necessarily to support the team, or to support the team, but to do it in an altered state – I got tired of having to take time out of my work schedule to talk with ownership about how to handle that. Aside from that, and probably primarily, was the fact that all of that commitment took time away from my family, which, now ten years down the road, has grown. It took time away that I could be spending with Mary. All of those things considered, both from a career and family standpoint, the old buzzword is work/life balance, but I had neither. I had Sons of Ben, then work, then life, and I needed to even that out.

Furlan – "It's almost like working a second, full-time job. Actually, not 'almost' – it is like working a second, full-time job that you don't get paid for. There comes a point in time when you have to step back and let the next group of people take over."

James – "I think there's a great deal of time commitment, and I don't think it's often talked about. I think you could probably hear similar things from Matt or Kenny. I think it's part of the reason why Ami (Rivera), who was the first female president that I knew of, as far as a U.S. supporter's group, didn't last a year. I mean, besides being pregnant, the freaking grind of being responsible for 2,000 people who don't feel like they (have to be) responsible to one person or one thing, except for having a good time, that's very difficult to manage if that relationship isn't strong.

Kevin Kinkead/for PhillyVoice

Sons of Ben at the 2010 MLS SuperDraft in Philadelphia.

The transition wasn't easy. After all, this was no longer a small group of friends, but a large, legitimate, and established supporter's group. More than a thousand people were now involved. Some joined in 2010 and 2011 and were not part of the original wave of SOBs that fought to bring a team to Philadelphia.

The group also began branching out into new territory. The Sons of Ben started to do charity work in Chester and added more leadership roles. Soon, the SOBs were a 501(c)(3) non-profit group with a reach across the Delaware Valley.

Around that time, in early 2013, Ansbro moved to Texas and Kenny Hanson assumed control of the group.

Kenny Hanson – "After Bryan stepped down, there was still a significant amount of presence from some of the original guys. I think when Matt left there was sort of a move away from that. Corey was still on the board when I became president, Lorenzo (Rivera) was still on the board, and Brad Youtz was still on the board. The transition with Matt leaving was a bit challenging because, look, quite honestly, there were things that I didn't know when I moved into that role. If I had known those things, my decision might have been different. But Corey, and Brad, and Lorenzo, they really helped me with that transition. It would have been much different without those guys around, for sure."

McGovern – "I got to see a lot of the inside stuff. I was dating an elder at the time. There were Skype meetings, where the elders would just try to stay on top of things, and I remember just how difficult that was as the group got bigger and bigger, just to make the team happy and keep the spirit of the group alive. I know it was difficult to be an elder. So it didn't surprise me when we went through the changing of the guard. It's a role where, especially as a president, it's easy to get burned out. I can't see anyone taking on that role for more than two years. It's hard, especially now."

Hanson – "There were some things that we were working on with the 501(c)(3) that needed to be addressed when I started. We were able to get those things worked out, and it took a lot. I think in any organization, nobody really knows 100 percent what's going on behind the scenes."

The changes didn't just happen in leadership. Sometime around 2012 or 2013 the group makeup began to change. Membership looked a bit different. Originals moved on while new folks continued to join. That resulted in a bit of fracturing among the Sons of Ben as a whole. Some people were accused of joining the group for the cheap tickets or the merchandise package. Different factions had different ideas on how the group should act, what songs should be sung, and who should be in charge.

The River End was still mostly full, but there were many games featuring disappointing attendance and waning enthusiasm. For all of the praise heaped on the group, they made up less than 20% of the Union fanbase. The other 80% was suburban families and casual soccer fans.

James – "A lot of the people that bought Sons of Ben tickets bought them because they wanted cheap tickets, and not necessarily because they wanted to be Sons of Ben. That created a blockage of people that just stand in the section during games and yell out language but never participate in chants. It's a problem that current leadership and future leadership will have to address to actually shake things up. One of the things that the old timers and I were talking about was, maybe we should have gone general admission from the beginning, to make sure that the passionate people were where they needed to be, singing and chanting and not just standing around having a good laugh during the games."

Bill Gusler – "I think there were a lot of people who were in it for the right reasons, especially from the start, but some people might not have been in it for the love of the team or the group. Those people tend to burn out quickly. They sort of weed themselves out. If it's not something true, then you end up kind of falling out. It really is important to be involved for the right reasons. Don't just hop on board because you think it's going to be something that's fun to do, or that it's going to help your professional life, or that it makes you cooler, or some shit like that. The thrill of making it happen, and doing it the right way – you have to be in it for the right reasons. You have to love the Sons of Ben and you have to deal with all of the petty shit, the drama, and the hard work. You have to play peacekeeper and work with the front office, but also know where the limit is and keep that in check. We're an independent group. We're not a sideshow. We're here to support the team on the field. Some people in leadership get that and some don't."

McGovern – "You had people who were also passionate about soccer, but maybe not in the same way that we were. I'm talking about families who maybe were a little surprised regarding our chants. We kind of had to learn to compromise so that everybody can feel welcomed and have a good time, but certain things we didn't want to compromise on. I'm glad we made sure to keep standing and to chant in the River End. That's important to us. You still get people who show up and complain, like, 'some guy yelled at me because I was sitting down.' Well, yeah, because you're in the River End and you're supposed to stand."

Hanson – "People are caught up in (outside things). Before, it was about coming to the game, hanging out, and showing camaraderie. There was a big brotherhood and sisterhood that existed between a large majority of the members, and I think a lot of that has been lost in translation because a lot of people joined well after that. They don't necessarily have that connection with the organization and the group and that may never happen again. There will be people who may never care about the organization like (others) once did. People are more interested in, I don't know, whatever merchandise they're going to get that day, or how many drinks they're going to have before they walk into the game, and where the tailgate is because it 'might be too far, or I might have to leave'. Maybe they're going to sit out there until after kickoff. Those are things that didn't happen in the beginning, and those things are now pretty rampant."

James – "I think the biggest struggle we've had in Sons of Ben after 2010 is the fact that people have gotten older and moved away, but also the core ideal hasn't been able to be maintained by many of the members. When people go to Eagles games or Phillies games, they don't feel responsible for anybody but themselves. If they're in an altered state, then there isn't much merit to how they act. Unfortunately, in a supporter's group, someone is responsible beyond yourself. That person gives up an awful lot to handle that. The idea that somehow we can shepherd 2,000 people is a ridiculous notion."

The Union were struggling on the field, which aided fan erosion. The novelty of a new team had also worn off.

In probably started in 2012, when manager Peter Nowak was sacked after going through a bizarre spell in which he traded Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Califf, two consistent starters and fan favorite players. That Union team finished with a record of 10-18-6 under the guidance of former assistant John Hackworth.

Hackworth turned things around in 2013, and the team started to win again, but fell short down the stretch and missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.

Furlan – "I think we got spoiled because we made the playoffs in the second year that we had a team. I think that kind of prolonged it a little bit. But it absolutely detracts from it. You have people like myself; I'm at every game whether they win or lose. I go all the time. I think I've missed six home games since the creation of the team. I think there are some people on the periphery who just say, 'hey, it's fun, if they're good I'll be there'. That's the same with every Philadelphia sport. If a team is doing well, it's packed. If they're not doing well, you can buy tickets on the day of the game. It absolutely goes hand in hand. If the team is not that successful, then people don't show up."

McGovern – "It's hard to stay motivated when your team is losing. Some of us are used to it. Philadelphians are used to our teams losing. When the Phillies won, I was shocked. I was like, 'wow, wait, this is Philly, right?'. I think a lot of us were just used to losing. You work really hard for something, it takes up all of your time, and the team doesn't go in the direction you want it to go in. Of course, I can understand why people would be frustrated by that. I'll turn to (my husband) Rick and say, 'are we going to renew our tickets next year?'. But every time I step into that stadium for (the home opener), it's a rush. The stadium has this roar that gets me so motivated and I remember, 'oh yeah, this is why I'm back.' "

Hanson – "People did wear out. They kind of thought, 'hey, it was cool to be a SOB five years ago, but six years into it, we're not winning, and it's not like it used to be'. There are people who left because of that. It's funny because things are never going to be like they were in the beginning, ever. With any organization, there's always going to be change and evolution, no matter what. People are going to come and go. I saw what I thought was a bit of a resurgence, honestly, between 2012 and 2013, then that carried to the '13 and 14' years because there were some changes. There was a new tailgate spot. We went to the finals of two consecutive U.S. Open Cups. We had an all-star game here. There were things happening here, and maybe it didn't (resemble the early days), but there were (positive) things happening. From a numbers standpoint, our membership actually rose in 2013 and 2014. Our numbers were drastically higher in terms of actual membership."

Even with good membership numbers, the lack of on-field success continued, culminating in a fan protest that took place in May of 2015.

The team had lost seven of 11 games to start the season, slumping to the bottom of the Eastern Conference table. In a show of displeasure, the Sons of Ben marched a casket from their tailgate area to the gates of PPL Park, opening the lid to reveal a picture of Sakiewicz inside with the words, "Serial Franchise Killer" painted underneath.

The coffin was left outside of the stadium and protests did not take place during the game. Some members felt as though the demonstrations should have continued in the River End, but leadership wanted to draw the line there.

Hanson – "I think one of original, core, fundamental things about the Sons of Ben was to bring the team to Philadelphia and support it for 90 minutes. People can support in different ways. I don't think supporting the team includes a protest inside the stadium. There are people who disagree with me on that. I think if you talked to some of the old school, former members, and people who were on our board at the time, I think more people probably sided with me on that. I think everybody has the right to their opinion and they pay for their (memberships). That was a decision the board had to make, then they had their opportunity to do it. We certainly didn't shut anybody down."

Kevin Kinkead/for PhillyVoice

Kevin Kinkead/for PhillyVoice

Sakiewicz did not have a great relationship with fans or media by the time he left the team at the end of 2015. The club continued to struggle on and off the field. There was no superstar player, no practice field, and no training complex. The technical staff was a barebones operation with no general manager or sporting director. The Union were falling behind their MLS peers.

But Sakiewicz's relationship with SOB originals was always strong. James, Furlan, and many of the founding members speak highly of him as the person who was most important in creating the Philadelphia Union.

James – "I have a lot of respect for Nick, and he knew exactly what he was signing up for. There's video from the 'meet the ownership' event before we had the team announcement, where he said, 'I know full well that when we're on a losing streak, you guys will be booing me.' Our relationship never changed. He is very in touch with the people and awesome at the marketing side of the business. I think I'm awfully happy to have Earnie Stewart in there now, who seems to be bringing in the right kind of players to make the team successful. Nick brought in players that he thought would make us successful. Between Peter Nowak deciding to blow everything up, or - maybe that's just the way it was characterized and it was about not getting the right players, or not having the right amount of money available - there was definitely contention that arose between the fans and the front office because of the lack of results on the field."

Furlan – "There are some people who don't know Nick from a can of paint, and they see a lack of success, and the way some things were handled, public relations type of things that went back and forth. Did I want people walking into the stadium carrying a casket? No. I think it was a little bit obnoxious, but it is what it is. People have the right to voice their opinion. It's not like he wasn't trying to run the team to the best of his ability. It just got to a point where they needed to go separate ways. It had to start over."

Hanson – "My relationship with the front office, for the most part, was one of mutual respect. My relationship with Nick was pretty solid. I liked him a lot. From day one, he made very clear his commitment to the Sons of Ben. I think that's the one thing that people don't know about Nick. And I don't really know about (current Chief Business Officer) Tim McDermott, but I can tell you that there's no owner, or general manager, or anybody who works in that organization, that is ever going to care more about the Sons of Ben than Nick Sakiewicz did. When you talk to him about it, his level of excitement was off the charts, compared to any other person I ever had a conversation with in that front office. People look at it and say that he made some bad decisions with players, and that may or may not be true. I'm not really focused on that. But the way he treated the Sons of Ben, and the support he gave us, was unmatched."

Cynics might think that the front office was trying to leverage the group as a marketing tool. Maybe they were becoming too involved or trying to insert themselves into private SOB affairs.

The relationship between Union executives and an independent supporter's group was always a topic of discussion.

Hanson – "The answer here is yes and no. They never tried to insert themselves into our inner workings. There were things that they would ask us to do, maybe they had a sponsor and hypothetically speaking, that sponsor wanted to get us involved, then we would talk to that sponsor. There were a lot of times where we had a conversation and it didn't work out. But we may have come to an agreement, you know, 'we'll promote your Dogfish Head thing if you give X amount of dollars to charity, or if you can do something charitable for Help Kick Hunger, or Coats for Chester'. We were never asked to participate in something that we didn't want to participate in, but I would always give them respect to have a conversation and listen to what they had to say. That was the extent of it."

Kevin Kinkead/for PhillyVoice

The Sons of Ben march on Baltimore in 2011.

Leading the SOBs now is Bill Gusler, a member since 2010. Gusler is the group's former philanthropy director and took charge on an interim basis when Ami Rivera stepped down in August of 2016.

Gusler is working with Tim McDermott and a new-look Union front office, one that went through sweeping changes after Sakiewicz's departure.

In a way, this is both 'Union 2.0' and 'Sons of Ben 2.0,' two groups that are simultaneously evolving.

Furlan – "(Bill) was always one of those people who was willing to pour his heart and soul into this group. Everybody involved has been willing to become invested in this, but Bill has done a phenomenal job of being involved. It goes back to the days where I would call him up and say, 'hey, I got this idea for an overhead banner, can you draw something like that up?'. (And he would say), 'sure, great'. He would drive down from.. he was living up in the Poconos, almost. He would drive down on a Saturday to paint. We would sketch it all out on a piece of paper, then we'd paint it. I think his biggest challenge is, with any group of people, there becomes schisms within the group, like little splinter groups underneath the big umbrella. The biggest thing right now is trying to focus everybody on why the Sons of Ben exists. It's there to support the Philadelphia Union. Win, lose, draw, rain, shine, whatever it may be, that's the most important piece to the puzzle. I think, recently, that's kind of gotten lost. It's become focused on everything but supporting the team. I know the passion exists in the city, and I know people have the ability to get involved, and that's the biggest thing that I want to see happen, and I'm sure Bill does, too. Let's get the focus back on supporting the team, and stop the bickering between separate groups. I've been involved in that myself. I can't say that I haven't. You can use that as a rallying cry to get everybody back together because I think the team is going in the right direction, and I think the team is going to be successful, if not this year, then the following year. We need to stop the childish nonsense and get everybody on the same page."

James – "Look, it's a supporter's group for a soccer team. I don't care about the other stuff except, when I was in college and in a fraternity, one of the best ways to make sure that your members stay at least somewhat grounded was by participating in some meaningful charity. But doing it every week, or at every tailgate, I don't think it resonates with people. I think that's alienated people as well. Getting back to the core mission of Sons of Ben, which went from getting a team in Philadelphia to supporting a team in Philadelphia and then supporting the community – if you can do both those things and do them well, then, quite frankly, invite people who are just standing there, bumps on the log, to enjoy the atmosphere in another section if they're not going to participate. That's a conversation that's difficult to have."

Gusler – "Are we still showing up on gameday? Yea. Are we still singing? Yea. Do we still have away trips? Yea. Are they as good as they used to be? No. Some of that stuff becomes diluted. It's that weird part where people are buying memberships just because the (gift) package is cool, maybe there's a cool scarf and they can only get it because they join the Sons of Ben. Or, maybe they just join because we do a lot of charity work, which is my fault. I'll take that blame because when I came on I was the philanthropy chair. So doing all of that charity work, I guess we just kept going with it because we were good at it. A few people brought that up and I said, 'yea, you know, we're doing way too much stuff,' and maybe that wasn't on par with our values and what we were trying to do. We've been slowly trying to cut that back. Honestly, this year, I don't see us doing more than three, possibly four (charity events). If the family of (late SOB member Eric Shertz) wanted to do another fundraiser for the scholarship, then I'm not going to say no to that. We'll have a new charity person coming in but I plan on keeping it to Help Kick Hunger, Stache Bash, and possibly Pints Fur Pets since everybody has fun at that and it's a little bit different. But yea, we've sort of gone way off course."

McGovern – "It's hard to recreate what you had in the beginning. It's not going to be the same. We're not the same people, and you have to take into account that this has grown bigger than the original group."

Gusler – "We've steered off course a little bit, but when that happens you start to realize what you're missing. We haven't been doing what makes the Sons of Ben the Sons of Ben. Now we're doing what we can to get back to basics."