The Sons of Ben: Philadelphia soccer fans benefiting Chester

As filed – without edits – for today’s edition of the Philadelphia Business Journal.

BRINGING A PROFESSIONAL SOCCER TEAM to Chester may have little to do with bringing professional soccer to Chester.

In February, Philadelphia was officially granted Major League Soccer’s 16th franchise, to be played in a 20,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium that is leading a major waterfront renovation in Chester. The Sons of Ben, a group of soccer fans eager for Philadelphia to join the growing league that formed in January 2007, led the excitement that surrounded speculation preceding the announcement. Now that their mission to bring the world sport to the city has been completed, they’ve taken to bettering the community of 36,000 that will house their still unnamed Philadelphia soccer franchise.

“Once it was announced that the stadium would be in Chester and the funding would be all set, we reached out for a way to get involved,” said Bryan James, Sons of Ben president and founding member.

The soccer group found a benefactor for their charitable interest with Chester in the Bernardine Center, which has provided food to needy residents since 1986.

“That’s a cue from other great sports club in the MLS,” he said. “They’re always involved in charity, whether it’s their team’s charity, soccer outreach, or something thats personal to a leader in that group.”

In December, the group raised $1,500 and donated 560 pounds of canned goods. In March, the group raised another $2,300 from more than 250 people. They made a $1,000 contribution and spent $1,300 in hams for the Easter holiday.

“I think because, unlike other sports where you buy a season ticket and you’re around some people you like and some people you don’t like and some people you don’t know and are there for different reasons, here you’re with a few thousand people focused on one thing.”

Currently the group, which has nearly 2,600 members, meets twice-weekly and is involved in charitable works and group trips and events. On June 8, 170 members are headed to East Rutherford, N.J. to cheer on the American team during its friendly match with Argentina, a week before World Cup qualifying begins. For the Sons of Ben, heading to Giants Stadium is a precursor for what is expected to be a heated rivalry between the Philadelphia franchise and Red Bull New York, which was an inaugural MLS team as the New York New Jersey MetroStars.

“They’ve had some unkind things to say to us, but that’s one of soccer’s great traditions,” he said. “You try to be witty. Just as insulting as Eagles fans, but doing it more creatively is the fun.”

In August, they’re planning another road trip to an MLS game.

“To jeer our rivals,” he said.

While the group’s interests surely lie in the sport, they’ll keep active in other ways.

“We don’t have a team to support for the next two years, but we’re already laying the ground work,” said James, a native of Wilmington, Del. who now works in Center City. “We’re happy to be part of the Chester community and happy to give back.”

Their team doesn’t even take the field until 2010.

“Our goal is to continue to build our momentum in any way we can,” he said. “Fortunately, the team gets it. They involved us in the team announcement.”

For James, 35, soccer came to him late.

“I didn’t get into soccer until college,” said James, who went to Elon University in Elon, North Carolina. “I was completely hooked. I was bummed that Philadelphia didn’t have a league, but the league is more mature now so we can cotninue to grow exponentially.”

James took a 10-hour round trip to see D.C. United play its inaugural home game in 1996.

“I still can’t play it very well, but i love it,” he said. “I’ve been a Philadelphia sports fan since I can remember… both passions can come together.”

The Philadelphia region is better for it, but the focus on Chester goes beyond soccer.

“The idea of giving back, while having fun, that is something that’s very applicable to any group of sports fans,” he said. “It’s a very captive auience, very caring people if it speaks to them. So we were happy to reach out to Chester to make it an impact there.”

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Image courtesy of Soccer in Silicon Valley.