CHESTER, Pa. -- They came out to PPL Park to see Landon Donovan and David Beckham of the Los Angeles Galaxy, for sure, but the majority of the stadium-record crowd of 18,779 on Thursday night also came to see a win by the Philadelphia Union, the hometown team.
And that's as sure a sign as any that soccer ... as a spectator sport ... has matured in our country. Of course, there were a few giggling teenage girls in the crowd (and more than a few metrosexual men also paying homage to their icon), but they were in the minority.
Most of the fans showed up to boo Beckham, to grudgingly cheer for Donovan after his exploits for the United States in this summer's FIFA World Cup and to will the Union to victory by any way possible. People in the region are rooting for the blue-and-gold shirt now, and that's real progress.
What I mean by that is this ... in the past (maybe even two or three years ago), Thursday night's crowd would have treated Beckham with kid gloves. Even a Philly crowd! But we're well beyond that now. Every touch by Beckham was greeted with the traditional Philly boos, and the verbal invective followed.
Oh, by the way, the Galaxy won the game 1-0 on a 27th-minute header from Edson Buddle that resulted from an inch-perfect corner kick by Beckham. It was Buddle's 16th goal of the season, and he was able to put his noggin on the ball when the Union's Michael Orozco Fiscal slipped in the area while trying to mark Buddle's run.
Driving through rural New Jersey along Route 322 on the way to the stadium with my son Alex on Thursday night, I kept thinking about that magic number: 19 million. That's how many viewers tuned in to the United State's men's round-of-16 match with Ghana at the World Cup.
Apparently, the game drew more viewership than some World Series or Stanley Cup finals matches of recent years. That means something. Even in a baseball-crazed city like Philadelphia is at the moment, the Union game Thursday certainly qualified as a "big event." And that's way cool.
The match itself was a real tactical affair, as Union manager Peter Nowak threw Sebastien Le Toux (he of the 13 goals and 10 assists) up front with Danny Mwanga. But, instead of putting Roger Torres in the midfield for a bit of skill and possession, Nowak adhered to his usual conservatism and trotted Andrew Jacobson and Stefani Miglioranzi out there.
Even when the Brazilian midfielder Fred, who seems to have settled back into the mediocre form of his early season play after a summertime bloom, went out of the match injured with a bloody head, Nowak called on the pedestrian Kyle Nakazawa instead of Torres (he eventually came on in the second half).
Nowak also could have thrown young striker Jack McInerney into the fray and shifted Le Toux back into midfield, but the manager seems to lack that killer instinct, even when we're playing at home and in front of a national TV audience (ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes). With the loss, the Union falls to 7-14-7 with two games remaining: vs. the New York Red Bulls at home October 16th and a season-ending match at the Columbus Crew.
One good development to come out of Thursday night's match (besides the bumper crowd) was the play of Union keeper Brad Knighton ... he absolutely stoned Donovan on a second-half breakaway ... and central defender/club captain Danny Califf. Both had been a bit shaky in recent weeks, but they showed up for work on Thursday night.
If only there were more games this season to get everything right. Oh, well ... bring on the spring and Year 2. All the off-the-field parameters are in place. Seriously, it can't get any better on that front. What we need next year is a playoff team and a squad capable of making a U.S. Open Cup run. This fan base deserves nothing less.