Army-Navy soccer a booming success in Chester

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Navy's Andrew Hopkins ( left) fight for ball control with Army\'s Rex Epps in the second half of a match at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester. The 0,092 on hand was the largest crowd in college soccer this season.

The national anthem finished, a cannon boom shook from the river end of Talen Energy Stadium. The game began and the cannon boomed again.

"Army loves cannons," said a Navy guy.

There were some mental gymnastics for all the soccer players Friday night on this field in Chester.  Once the Army-Navy Cup began, Army players needed to forget the names on the front of the other shirts. Navy players had to do the same with the Army jerseys.

"Keep it as normal as possible," said Navy senior and reserve defender Mark Shiiba, from nearby Swarthmore. "There can be a lot lost in the excitement."

A big-deal crowd for any other game, either team, might reach 1,000. This was officially 10,092, the largest crowd in college soccer this season.

For any college squad, playing in a pro stadium is a big deal. Shiiba grew up 10 minutes away going to Union games, so this trip is already special.

"Electric - they lift you up," said Army freshman Keenan O'Shea of the whole experience.

The 2016 Army-Navy football game is in Baltimore (back to Philly next year), so this was it this year as far as this area's having a piece of it. This was the fifth Army-Navy Cup held in this stadium and the past results had been what you would have guessed and even hoped for. A tie, two overtime Navy wins, last year's 2-1 Army win. Somebody like Shiiba can recite all those scores without notes, even the tie that came before he got to the Naval Academy.

Official tally now: two for each academy, one tie. No game decided by more than a goal. A single goal was enough this time for Army to win, 1-0.

The soccer rivalry doesn't have all the same trappings as the football rivalry. (What does?) Nobody is trying to steal a goat - there was no goat here - and the game ball isn't delivered by foot from the two academies. There was, however, a parachute team from Fort Bragg delivering game balls. (Traffic on the Commodore Barry Bridge didn't have to worry about those guys. They nailed their target).

First chant of the night: "Let's go Army," a couple of minutes in, from the section of Cadets who made it from West Point. About 120 Midshipmen had come up from Annapolis and were seated four sections away. Any little play resulted in a cheer or groan from some section. The first shot went to Army, which meant the first save to Navy.

Do they set off the cannon on a score? What do you think? With 231/2 minutes left, a ball caromed dangerously to O'Shea and the midfielder's shot from just outside the box would have made the regular pro users of the stadium proud. Navy's keeper had no chance.

"It deflected back out," said O'Shea, holding the cup awarded to the winning academy. "I just swung my foot how I've always been taught to do and it went inside netting. The most amazing experience you've ever felt in your life."

As the seconds counted down, there was no more need to keep it together. An Army backup goalkeeper hopped up and down. Water bottles flung airborne. At the final whistle, Army starters and reserves raced for the Army section while Navy players sprawled on the turf. Three Cadets raced back across the field for a water bucket to douse Army coach Russell Payne.

There was the ritual that helps define Army-Navy. Both lineups stood in one line in front of the Midshipmen section as Navy's alma mater played. Army's players sprinted to the Cadets section and the Midshipmen lined up as Army's alma mater played.

The whole thing works so well here the academies are talking about adding their women's teams. (Don't stop there. Bring Army-Navy hoops to the Palestra, baseball to the Camden riverfront, have an Army-Navy track meet at Franklin Field.)

And a note to the Sons of Ben, the Union's most faithful who fill the river end here on other nights: Think about a cannon.

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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