Sons of Ben unite behind Union

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A Philadelphia Union fan cheers during a game.

WIDE-EYED and attentive, Ben Franklin watches a soccer game from atop his father's shoulders. He's six years old.

His full name is Benjamin Franklin Mitchell. His parents, Jeffrey and Rachel, are two of the biggest Union fans you'll find. They named their son after one of the city's biggest icons, but also after the official fan section of the Union, the Sons of Ben, who populate the southern end - the River End - during games.

That section at Talen Energy Stadium can reach 3,000; on this, a gorgeous Wednesday night in June, the number is closer to 1,000.

But to experience it all, you start all the way at the back of the parking lots, in Lot C, under the shadow of a red-and-white electric tower.

There, Steven Sprowl, one of the inaugural members of the Sons of Ben, stands with a few of the organization's higher-ups .

Most fans who mill around the lot wear Union jerseys. Among the most ardent Sons, more specialized clothing is in order.

Sprowl wears a cotton-candy blue top with a Sons of Ben patch. Around the crest it reads, "Ad finem fidelis," Latin for "faithful to the end." Other Sons diehards wear customized jerseys.

This night's tailgate crowd is sparse. It's not a regular-season game. The 7 o'clock kickoff is a short turnaround from the end of the work day. While the opponent, the New York Red Bulls, are a rival, this particular tournament, the U.S. Open Cup, doesn't draw a ton of fans until the finals - which the Union have lost in consecutive years.

This isn't a peak Union evening.

Even still, Sprowl says, with the Union in first place in the MLS Eastern Conference, they've noticed a serious uptick in attendance.

"Philly loves a winner," he says.

The spike in attendance comes with pluses and minuses.

On the bright side, members say, the fan section has been as loud as ever at recent games.

But the newbies don't always pick up on the time-tested chants and traditions, an inevitable learning curve for new participants.

When the clock reaches the 20:10 mark, for instance, fans are supposed to hold up their scarves - yes, scarves in June - in honor of the team's inaugural season.

As the clock ticks to 20:11, one of the chant leaders scrambles to get the section's attention. The few informed fans participate, but it's a disjointed affair.

"People who come down here lately, especially on off games like tonight, they just don't know about this stuff," Sprowl says.

On busy nights, about a half-hour before kickoff, the Sons march from Lot C to the stadium en masse. On this night, it's more of a leisurely stroll.

Closer to the stadium, a father of two guides his aimless son,dressed in a home Union jersey, across a street. Couples dot the fence lining the Delaware River, content for now to let the first few minutes of the match slip by. A rich blue sky, spotted with billowing cotton clouds, blankets the view.

A sparse crowd? Maybe. Those here, though, are enjoying the River End in its finest form.

Inside, a few minutes from kickoff, the Sons of Ben release an interesting-smelling mixture of blue-and-yellow gases as players take the pitch. In the southeast corner, a few dozen Red Bulls fans have made the trek, and they break into chant to counter the Sons' raucous cheering.

"There might be more of them than us," a concerned onlooker notes.

"Not more," another replies. "They're just fatter."

The animosity between the fan sections is tangible. Middle fingers are flung with casual glee at these games. F-bombs, too.

"We tell the kids, any bad words you hear tonight, they stay here," Sprowl says, laughing.

The game starts. The Red Bulls dominate early action. Sprowl and company look a bit concerned, but the chants continue. A co-opted version of Depeche Mode's Just Can't Get Enough gets lots of play.

And then, a free kick for the opponents in the 17th minute. And then, a muttered "uh oh," followed by an exclaimed "oh, crap." Goal, Red Bulls.

A blue-and-yellow checkered flag hangs low, and moans circle. It's still gorgeous out, but the game itself couldn't have started worse for the Union.

The first half unfolds similarly: 14 shots for the Red Bulls to just one for the Union in the first 45 minutes.

The second half feels different. Perhaps being embedded in the fan section has something to do with it. After sitting down for 15 minutes, the Sons start the second half invigorated. Flags wave high. The Depeche Mode chant rings louder than at any time in the first half.

And then, the Union break through with a goal in the 55th minute. Tie game. Eruption.

"Took long enough," one fan remarks as she claps. Most just seem grateful for something to cheer about. High-fives abound and insults are lobbed at the opponents' corner, draped in red.

Five minutes later, another goal. A perfect lob leads to a tap-in at the doorstep and more eruption. The red corner is silent now, and the Sons notice. "You're not singing over there," they chant in sing-song.

After a dismal first half, the Union are in control, as are their fans. Thirty minutes left to play.

The evening sky bruises a dark blue over the west-end lights. Scoring chances are exchanged, but no punches are landed. The 75th minute passes, then the 85th.

Across the section, hands raise to the backs of heads in anxiety.

Then, a controversial handball and an outburst from the Red Bulls coach, which the Sons enjoy greatly.

The stadium plays Twist and Shout over the loudspeaker as a couple of Red Bulls players do just that. The Sons erupt in a laughter tinged with nervousness. Still a minute left.

And then, finally, the whistle blows. The Union win, 2-1.

"Go back to New Jersey," the Sons chant, serenading the defeated fans in red.

Union coach Jim Curtin stretches over the railing and shakes hands with Sons members in the River End.

A deep shade of navy blue - Union blue, perhaps - has fallen over the stadium. The fans leaving are anything but.


ahermann@phillynews.com

@AdamWHermann