Philadelphia’s Latino soccer connection
New York, 2006. The former soccer player and current soccer executive, Nick Sakiewicz, wanted to found a new soccer team after the sale of the New York MetroStars, where he served as president. He started to look around the country to establish a new club.
“I started to come to the city around the end of 2006 and I felt in love with the city and the people and the soccer fans here. I started working really hard on getting a self stadium built and the rest is history,” Sakiewicz said.
The city Sakiewicz is referring to is Philadelphia, which at the time had teams in four of the five major sports leagues of the nation (the NFL, MLB, the NBA and the NHL). In 2008 Philadelphia made made it five out of five by adding the soccer team founded by Sakiewicz — the MLS Philadelphia — to the roster of Major League of Soccer (MLS) competitors.
It wasn’t until a few months later that the club changed its name into the Philadelphia Union as it’s known today. The club decided to be as democratic as possible, allowing the fans to choose the name for them. Around half a million of fans participated in the naming campaign. “We decided that it was what the fans wanted the name of the team to be, so we named the team the Philadelphia Union,” Sakiewicz recounts.
They chose the colors of the team in the same way. Navy blue and gold represent the Continental Army uniforms soldiers wore during the American Revolutionary War. The light blue is a tribute to Philadelphia’s flag and the “Sons of Ben” supporter club.
Symbolism is a great part of team story. It is also its tribute to the City of Brotherly Love and its remarkable role in the history of the United States. The name (Union) and the colors are just the beginning. History also inspired the Philadelphia Union’s crest, which is made of 13 stars representing the original 13 colonies. Benjamin Franklin and Pennsylvania Gazette’s famous rattlesnake and the Latin quote “Jungite aut Perite” — “Join or Die” — are also part of the crest.
But, why was it so important for Philadelphia to have its own soccer team? According to Sakiewicz, “it’s no secret that soccer has grown dramatically across the country over the past 20 years. Philadelphia has millions of soccer fans living in the region and they are very passionate about the sport. The Greater Philadelphia Region was underserved by professional soccer because it didn’t have a team. So we wanted to bring this team to Philadelphia to serve the passion that all the soccer fans in the Philadelphia region have. Now they have their team.”
The result was the Philadelphia Union, a team that always had a great bond with Latino culture. Since the beginning they had a number of Hispanic players born and raised in the official soccer land: Latin America.
“Central and South America have been an important part of the world for players in Major League Soccer, not just to the Philadelphia Union but the league in general. All 20 teams, soon to be 24 teams, are recruiting and scouting in the Latin markets. Mexico, Central America, South America… it is a great market to scouting. There are many talented players from a number of countries down there and those players have been very productive in Major League Soccer over the years. Also, it’s always important to have a team that reflects your community and so we’ve tried to build a team that reflects the community that we are playing in. And that is why we have a mix of players on our roaster that are either Americans of Hispanic heritage or players that come from the Latin nations,” Sakiewicz said.
In its first year in the MLS — the Philadelphia Union played its first match March 25, 2010, losing 2-0 against the Seattle Sounders FC — there were six Hispanic players on the roaster. They were Juan Diego González and Roger Torres, from Colombia; Alejandro Moreno, from Venezuela; Eduardo Coudet, from Argentina; David Myrie, from Costa Rica; and Cristian Arrieta, a Puerto Rican.
In its six years it has been in existence, 18 Hispanic players from eight different countries — Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, México, Panamá, Puerto Rico and Venezuela — have been part of the team. Currently, only three of Union’s players are Hispanic.
One of the Hispanic members of the squad is the Argentinian Cristian Maidana, also know as “Chaco,” after the region in Argentina where he was born and where he started to play soccer. He started his career in Buenos Aires, in a club called Banfield.
“My mom decide to move to Buenos Aires,” he said. “She didn’t have a job or anything there, but there were no opportunities in Chaco. If I would have stayed there I would never be what I’m now. So my mom took the risk for me, and my siblings, and she decided to go to Buenos Aires.”
After a few years in Banfield Chaco signed with Spartak Moscow. That was a “complicated move”, he said. “We decided to go there and at the beginning it was good until I couldn’t acclimate because of the lifestyle.”
He came to Philadelphia in 2014 — after playing in Spain, Argentina and Mexico. “I was lucky I arrived here,” Chaco said. “It happened in an odd way. I didn’t have a club to play for and my current coach went to a practice to see another player. I didn’t know, but I had an amazing performance that day and he said ‘I want him.’ We didn’t have any problems signing the contract and everything was easy. Living here is very different. My family is very happy here and I am too.”
He has a lot of reasons to be happy, professionally speaking. The team may be having a rough couple of weeks but a few weeks ago Chaco took league lead in assists this season.
Chaco is not only happy with his team, he also likes the city. “Philadelphia is a good place for me. I live very close to here (PPL Park) and it’s very quiet. My children go to school in here and they don’t have any problem coming back home. I live peacefully. Nobody knows (who I am) and for me it’s better. I go wherever I want. The truth is this is a nice city to live in,” he said.
Chaco said that at this point he doesn’t want to leave the team and the country. “I’m having a good time and my wife and my kids are happy. I want to be here and for a long time if that’s possible. I want to end my career in Bandfield, but stay here for now.”
Does he think that soccer could ever become the leading sport in the United States, as it is in countries like Spain or Argentina? “A lot of stars are coming to the country and I think in a short period of time this is going to be one of the best leagues in the world,” he said. “I hope soccer keeps growing. I don’t doubt it will end up being one of the best leagues, along with the Spanish one.”
Fernando Aristeguieta, the Union’s Venezuelan player, thinks soccer will became a major sport in the country but that it will take more time. “Not in a short period of time,” he said. “ Maybe in a distant future because soccer is something that is passed down through generations. It’s something cultural. It’s a grandfather, a father and a song sitting in a table speaking about soccer and their first days in the field or the grandfather telling them the first day he took his kid to the stadium.”
“There’s something cultural, Aristeguieta added. Here they have the same thing in other sports, but not in the soccer, because the sport is relatively new in the country. I’m familiarized with this phenomenon because in Venezuela the same thing happens, soccer is dramatically growing but it’s not something that came down through generations. […] A strong feeling about the sport doesn’t exist yet, but growing. People feel very connected to their team here but what is needed is that these people (who like soccer) have children and their children have children…..”
Aristeguieta’s soccer history started much the same way Chaco’s did: playing at school. He started to play in Caracas Sub17 when he was 15 years old. When he turned 17, he became part of the Division I team, on which he played until he was 20.
“You have to be very lucky,” he said. “When you are growing up you see a lot of people, who at the beginning seemed to be better than you, who in the end did not make it. There a lot of factors that we have to take into account, not only the talent and the work, also the luck. I’ve been lucky to make it.”
After Caracas he played in the second and first divisions at Nantes (France). Then he spent a few months in Spain, where he couldn’t stay due to the team’s financial problems. He became a Union player this season.
“I needed a change in my life and in my career. It happens here,” he said. “The truth is, I’m happy. When I came here I started to play a lot and that was what I needed: to play again and to feel good on the field. Also to change a lot of things. I was a lit bit bogged down there (in France).”
As for the language, Aristeguieta said it isn’t a barrier. “When I arrived in France it was, because I didn’t speak the language at all. There was only one Venezuelan player and two or three who spoke English; that helped. When I came here I could speak English and that made everything easier.”
To feel part of the team and the city wasn’t a problem for Aristeguieta either. “In the end, people always feel more connected to foreign people because they understand your situation better. But the Americans have been very warm since the beginning, at least on my case. I feel close to them as well.”
Richie Marquez, another Hispanic player, also shares the sense of unity Aristeguieta talks about. “We all have a good relationship and it is not because we are Latino. The players who speak English, the ones who don’t… We are all friends. Even those who don’t speak English talk with those who only speak English. I don’t know how they do that but they do it,” he said.
Marquez was born in California but his parents are from Mexico. He said it was his father who made him love soccer. “I started to play soccer when I was 6 or 7 years old because my father played too. He grew up playing and I inherited his love for soccer.”
The Mexican-American player is another of the new faces at the Philadelphia Union. He was playing for the Bulldogs of Redlands University (NCAA Division III). “I’m very thankful to the Union because they give me this opportunity,” he said.
Maybe because of that, his most important game was the game against Toronto. “It was my first game with the Union and it was very special for me,” Marquez said.
The fans are another positive aspect for him: “The stadium is always ful,l and the passion for soccer keeps growing. That’s good for the team.”
La Union Latina
Some of the fans Marquez is referring to is a group called “La Unión Latina.” That’s the name the Latino section of the club chose a few years ago, when it was born.
“We created it (La Union Latina) at Lot B, where we use to tailgate before the match to have lunch,” explained Rubén Vasquez, the founder of the fan club. “When I saw that, I get motivated. At the time the Colombian players used to come out with us after the match.”
La Union Latina has around 150 members. “We are all friends … we are like a family.” According to Vasquez, this soccer family is growing, and not only among the Latinos.
“When we were in our countries, we lived soccer. So it’s impossible for us to live in Philadelphia and not support the team as we would do if we were in our home countries,” Vasquez said.
He also said that they are 100 percent with the team, even when they lose. “We (Latinos) are masochistic, so it doesn’t matter if they lose. We always say: ‘It doesn’t matter if you are on top, we love you the same, Union.’”
The fans are currently focused on having their own place on the stadium — they don’t sit together, they are scattered in Sections 1-14, 1-25 and other places. “We are fighting to be recognized as an official fan club, because we aren’t recognized as such because the team already had its own (Sons of Ben). Now they’ve realized we are growing in number and we cheer up a lot. They want to make us an official supporter club. They’ve even offered us a section, but for that we need to have 200 people to buy the season passes. That’s what we are working on at this moment.”
Vasquez said that what they are trying is to be a supporter club composed of families. “We don’t want to only have the dad, but also the mom and the children. This is for everybody. You don’t have to be Latino. Our doors are open to everybody.”
They extend the invitation to all the fans of the Philadelphia Union to join them in Lot B a few hours before the match. La Union Latina also has a Facebook page, Section 114- La Union Latina, where they answer questions and provide information on how to join. Because, as Vasquez says: “The doors are open.”