What if I told you that with enough passion, organization, and luck, your efforts could lay the foundation for a multi-million dollar professional sports franchise right in your own backyard? Well, 20 miles from your backyard anyway. What if I told you that less than a decade after your efforts begin, your team would play in and host back-to-back finals of the oldest soccer tournament in the USA? Have you ever heard of anything that crazy before? The new documentary Sons of Ben chronicles a fan group in Philadelphia, PA who accomplished just that.
For me, there are two kinds of documentaries. One kind is compelling because of the manner in which it is told, something that rises above a talking-head structure. The other kind is propelled forward by sheer force of the story its telling. For Sons of Ben, the latter is true, and that’s okay.
Grounded by a great story, Sons of Ben is a talking heads doc that showcases the story of the Sons of Ben. The Sons of Ben is the chief supports group to the the USA’s Major League Soccer franchise, the Philadelphia Union. Set in the mid-2000s and going through to 2010, a small group of local diehard soccer fans banded together to lobby MLS to bring a professional soccer club to Philadelphia. That’s right, this group formed BEFORE there was even so much as a hope of a team in the city. In a time when MLS was still recovering from contractions of two Florida-based teams and when most of their franchise decisions were based on money, the Sons of Ben helped convince MLS to buy into Philly.
If you are unfamiliar with soccer culture, this might be where things get confusing…and unfortunately the film doesn’t help much with this. Despite being a brisk 75 minutes, the film hardly touches upon the history and importance of supporters club through the beautiful game throughout the world. In fact, it hardly lays the groundwork for MLS or the MLS franchise proposal process. Thankfully, I know enough about all of that to follow along, but a non-soccer viewer might feel more lost.
Where the film excels is making a character of the Group itself–the Sons of Ben, or SOB’s as they like to be called. The filmmakers have in-depth interviews of some of the original members/founders of the SOBs, detailing their giddy joy at the mere idea of a soccer club in Philly to their personal strife en route to the Union’s inaugural match in 2010. I dare you to keep a dry eye as one member recounts the moment he finally knew soccer of be coming to Philly or during one member’s tale of addiction. It’s magic, especially for anyone who understand the love of not only a sport, but of a sports team.
Added points to the filmmakers for snagging insight from MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Philly soccer journalist extraordinaire Jonathan Tannenwald, and the CEO of the Union’s majority owner, Nick Sakiewicz. Despite the success story that IS the Sons of Ben, the film doesn’t shy away from shining a light on the broken promises that both politicians and the Union front office made to the community of the Chester, PA. Indeed, when rich investors promised to revitalize a run-down, crime-ridden, predominately black neighborhood, there was hope throughout the community. Alas, a crashed stock market later, and promises can be broken in an instant. The doc expertly demonstrates the divide between the SOBs and the Union, highlighting the SOBs charity efforts in Chester while emphasizing how little the Union’s stadium has truly helped the economy of Chester.
Ultimately, it’s a story of passion and above all, brotherhood. The Sons of Ben are more than just a supports group–they’re the rock, the foundation to this club–they are a union of themselves. If you’re a soccer fan, a Union fan, or even a fan of sport, I highly recommend this documentary that will remind you what it’s like to be a fan.