Soccer fans out to light spark

Today, the Sons of Ben club will charge into Baltimore for the MLS draft, where it will push Philadelphia's bid for an expansion team.

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The Sons of Ben continue their efforts to try and bring a professional soccer team to the Philadelphia area. Brad Youtz, Bryan James,and Dave Flagler. (Charles Fox/Inquirer)

With the competition for a pro soccer expansion team entering its final stage, the Sons of Ben are hitting the road.

Today about 25 members of the fan club will tool down I-95 in a car-pool caravan to Baltimore, where the Major League Soccer draft provides a stage for them to plead with officials to please, please, put a team in Philadelphia.

For months, the Sons of Ben - a boosters group for a team that doesn't exist - have lobbied MLS chieftains and Pennsylvania politicians, gathering signatures on petitions and on pledges to buy season tickets. Now, with a decision imminent, they see themselves not just as supporters but as players in the drama, exerting all possible influence to try to tip the decision to Philadelphia.

Today at the Baltimore Convention Center, the Sons - or SOBs, as they're winkingly called - will chant, cheer and rally, "trying to prove, any time we can, that you need these fans in the league," club president Bryan James said.

"We're kind of behaving as if we already have a team," said James, a Philadelphia financial analyst who lives in Wilmington. "What's going to happen when we do?"

Except that the question isn't when. It's if.

No decision is expected to be announced today at what MLS calls its SuperDraft, one of the few off-season events that bring together top league officials, team representatives, owners and fans. But the league has set an end-of-the-month deadline for naming its 16th team - and the Sons want their voices heard.

"It's tense," said Sons member Catherine Kulp, 44, of Jeffersonville, who played the sport in high school, later coached, and now referees.

In the contest for a team, St. Louis is believed to be slightly ahead of Philadelphia, with other cities pushing for consideration. MLS wants its expansion team to have two key assets: stable, deep-pocketed ownership, and either a soccer stadium or a commitment to build one.

Organizers in St. Louis have a stadium deal, but lack enough rich investors. The group in Philadelphia has the money but no stadium agreement.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has said Philadelphia's chances ride on the stadium - specifically the state's ability to provide $45 million to help pay for construction. The investors who would own the team say the $115 million stadium, on the Chester waterfront, would anchor a $500 million complex of stores, restaurants and housing.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Chester) has said he's optimistic about funding, and Gov. Rendell supports the project, but in recent weeks Harrisburg has been silent.

If the state kicks in, the Sons of Ben are ready to make noise - for the Philadelphia Athletic, or Athletics, or Independence, or whatever the team is called. Since September, the fan club has nearly doubled to 1,073 members. The Sons recorded 1,910 season-ticket pledges and collected 6,193 names on a give-us-a-team petition to the legislature.

The Sons say those figures, while substantial, represent only a fraction of the soccer supporters in the region, and predict fans would attend games in huge numbers.

The journey to Maryland isn't the Sons' first road trip. About 90 members traveled to Washington last year to see the MLS championship game and cheer Philadelphia's prospects. Many are taking off from work to go to Baltimore.

"It's a chance for us to make our presence known to the league," said Mark Dunfee, 27, the Sons' director of communications.

Dunfee, who teaches Spanish and French at Willingboro High School, fell in love with soccer while studying in Spain and France. It helps that, in France, he also fell in love with absurdist theater, "and this is very absurdist. We're rooting for a team that doesn't exist. But there's something cool about that."

The fan club developed on its own, not through the league or the investment group, which is led by Jay Sugarman, chief executive officer of iStar Financial. The organizers first gathered in 2006 when word circulated about a possible pro team. Nothing came of that, but a nucleus of fans wanted to keep up momentum. Today the group consists of men and women, kids and retirees. They maintain a strict standard for membership: If you like soccer, you're in.

Philadelphia architect Andrew Dillon, an SOB founder, designed the club's logo: a skull with wire-rim glasses and a wispy fringe of hair like Ben Franklin's, a crack in its forehead similar to the Liberty Bell's. A crossed oar and scythe celebrate the region's boating and farming history, while flashing lightning bolts and an olden-style key honor Franklin's famous experiment. Oh, and there's a soccer ball.

And the Sons intend to do more than cheer. Last month they donated 561 pounds of food and $1,500 to the nonprofit Bernadine Center, which helps low-income Chester residents. The Sons said the project was the first of many that would build relations between fans and the city.

Sandra Drain, 37, a relatively new fan from Broomall, helped lead the food drive. Among the Sons she has found camaraderie and commitment, and she enjoys the irony and silliness of belonging to teamless fan club.

"You've got to admire that passion," she said. "It's really contagious."

In recent months, James has seen the Sons ride emotional peaks and troughs, excitement rising with good news and falling with bad. He expects no surprises in Baltimore today.

"We're just going to have a good time," he said, "and remind Garber and the league once again."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Mari Schaefer contributed to this article.