BLUE IN THE USA: PART FOUR
US-based ex-pat Chelsea fan Stephen Rea is our columnist for the duration of the team's summer tour. In his fourth article he reports on fans in Philly...
In Philadelphia, America's cradle of democracy where the country was born, I'm reminded that this is still a very young nation. With their global cultural dominance, it's easy to forget that my mum's house in Belfast is older than most of the 50 States - hell, some are younger than my grandmother. At Chelsea's game against the MLS All-Stars you could see how their developing love affair with the beautiful game is still in its infancy.
The intense North American Soccer League sun blazed then fizzled in the seventies and eighties, but this current incarnation has deep roots and is here to stay. No question. Even in the eight years I've lived here, the game's exposure and profile has blossomed and grown in the crammed American sports garden. Last year the average attendance at an MLS game overtook both ice hockey and basketball, so it's now the country's third most popular sport. Just baseball and the NFL to catch.
But fans' culture and behaviour is still developing and evolving as their own ideas mix with imports from England. It made for an interesting night with things old and new, borrowed and blue, on display at PPL Park.
The USA is not a perfect country - the shiny new Philadelphia Union ground was built in the heart of the rusting and depressed city of Chester if you needed reminding about the underclass who prop up the American Dream - but hosting a sporting spectacular is one of the many things they do really, really well.
The stadium was ringed by a sea of Fanzone tents holding games, promotions and corporate hospitality, while inside the supporters were entertained by routines featuring everything from choreographed flag displays to cannons. The pregame festivities culminated with the national anthem - to my mind one of the most uplifting and stirring on Earth, and especially poignant after recent events in Colorado - as the Stars and Stripes zipped across electronic scenes, fireworks erupted, and fans held aloft cards turning the ground red, white and blue. Plenty of ammunition to arm the purists who complain about football's corporate sell-out, but as someone who did stand on terraces in the wind and rain whilst side-steeping puddles of urine, I know which I prefer.
During the game we had behaviour recognisable from the Old Country. For some reason the home fans targeted Frank Lampard and John Terry to boo, and as any longtime fan will tell you, you can be sure they were immediate both nailed-on certainties to score. Hello America, and welcome to the world of ironic football.
Occasionally the supporters even sang with an English accent! It was hilarious. It makes sense to a degree: People copy what they see and hear on TV, and when I was young kids who had never been out of Northern Ireland would shout, 'Hey guys, it's the cops!' in a Brooklyn accent after watching Starsky & Hutch. Bizarre all the same.
Equally strange was the pre-match booing meted out to some MLS All-Star players. I understand they were from the Union's geographic rivals - New York Red Bulls' Thierry Henry got it for instance - but this was like an international game. Would Blues fans boo Steven Gerrard at an England fixture?
The sport and the people who come to watch it are at different ages and stages on either side of the Atlantic. Fans near me had brought binoculars and didn't know all the rules. For a handful of Chelsea followers, their main worry was if they would be allowed to bring celery into the stadium.
Like I said, the fan-base here is growing and learning. And before we get too patronising about the silly Americans, let's recall that not so long ago in Britain fans also booed players, not because of their club but due to the colour of their skin.
The Chelsea in America supporters group brought across ex-players Frank Sinclair and Paul Canoville for the current four-match US tour. At each stop in Seattle, New York, Philadelphia and Miami, they give a talk and answered fans' questions, mc-ed by Chelsea TV's Neil Barnett.
At the event before the game in Philadelphia, Paul spoke about what it was like to be the club's first black player at some grounds during one of the less savoury periods in the game's history. It seems a lifetime ago now. In general football back home - and the fans - have grown up.
Frank and I took a walk up to see the Museum of Art and the steps made famous by Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky movie. Sure it wasn't a bad Oscar-winning movie and all, but personally I much prefer the tale of another underdog who triumphed despite great odds at a city in southern Germany a couple of months ago…
Stephen Rea is a regular blogger on chelseafc.com and author of 'Finn McCool's Football Club', a tale of supporting Chelsea from the USA and a pub team in hurricane-hit New Orleans. Friend him at www.facebook.com/stevorea