I remember going to Detroit Tigers games as a kid with my father and watching with apprehension as the old Corktown ghetto enveloped us on the way to the stadium. The relief of finally reaching Tiger Stadium, a gleaming beacon in the middle of blight, was always palpable even in the innocence of youth.
Corktown wasn’t always a ghetto, but the neighborhood suffered tremendously in the race riots of the 1940’s and 1960’s and gradually turned into one. These days, all of the ghetto ballparks are gone, with new stadium developments in all four of the North American major sports either taking place in revitalized downtown areas or areas marked for gentrification, or out in the suburbs surrounded by safe, calming parking lots and highways.
But then there’s Major League Soccer. The redheaded stepchild of North American sport builds their stadia where they can find a land deal or a community willing to subsidize their construction, and I couldn’t help but remember my childhood experiences of driving to Tiger Stadium as we pulled off the newly-constructed highway off ramp into the blighted neighborhood of Chester, Pennsylvania and down to the riverfront, where PPL Park stands as a gleaming beacon in a sea of urban decay.
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Local favorites, traditional stadium food and specialty items all make up the plentiful options at PPL Park. You can't help but think Cheesesteak when near Philadelphia and there are four different kinds offered at $10, which includes a side of fries. The steaks are quite filling and the traditional one I had was pretty good. There is even a vegetarian cheesesteak, although to be honest, I'm not sure how that works. Other Philly favorites include soft pretzels in the shape of a U for Union ($4.50), Turkey Hill Ice Cream and Chickie's and Pete's famous Crab Fries ($7.50). They even consider nearby Jersey with a sandwich called "The Striker" that features Pork Roll and Cheese (which is big in the Garden State).
Traditional favorites can be found around the concourse, but even those are spruced up, like the several varieties of specialty hot dogs and hamburgers (a theme now common at stadiums across the country). Macaroni and Cheese is big at PPL with different types, including one served with a unique lobster cream sauce ($12). The Barbeque stand is excellent too with Pulled Pork ($10) and a Brisket ($10). You will notice that many of the prices are high, but at least the quality is decent and sides are usually included.
Coca-Cola is the soda provider, while Budweiser takes care of the beer. It will cost a pretty penny to drink with a bottle costing $7.50 and a large draft running a staggering $9.50. Local products including Victory and Dogfish Head can be found as well.
Approaching the stadium you'll find a tailgate-friendly carnival atmosphere that combines some of the best aspects of both European and American sporting culture. The riverfront parkland surrounding the stadium is used to great affect on game day and people seem to arrive early to soak it all in. Once inside, you're in a fairly utilitarian stadium not too different from a lot of the rest of the league. Major League Soccer doesn't have the budget to blow on all of the fancy bells and whistles that a new ballpark or NFL stadium would, and so the experience is focused on the pitch, with a U-shaped main grandstand and the "River End" filled with the Sons of Ben supporter's group.
PPL Park is spotlessly clean, the seating areas have a steep pitch so you can see the field well, the team name is spelled out in the seats like all good football grounds, and the atmosphere is terrific. The only complaint we had from our visit was that the stadium only has one scoreboard, located over the heads of supporters in the city end. One would think that a second scoreboard would make sense so that all supporters can see it, particularly because the River End's horizon with the sky is bare. Some decoration would go a long way, either spelling out the name of the city, or flags, or goodness knows what.
What is it about MLS stadiums in boring or unattractive locations outside of the big city? Harrison, Carson, Commerce City, Bridgeview, and Chester are just some of the league's home bases. The issue with Chester (a city of 33,000 about 10 miles southwest of Philadelphia) is that it is both boring and unattractive. The city is rather downtrodden with boarded-up buildings and other spots that you would not want to venture into. No worries for getting to the stadium though as they keep that area very safe with police presence. As for the stadium, it was supposed to be a key in starting a huge urban renewal project along the waterfront. After four years, there is almost no sign of that as only a nearby existing historic building was renovated for office space. The rest of the surrounding area is full of lots and its best just to head right to the park.
Thankfully, designers did create a lot of green space around the stadium, which is perfect for impromptu soccer games amongst friends. There are also picnic tables and a plaza for music where fans can enjoy a festive atmosphere before entering the stadium. This is a great venue to consider some pre-game tailgating. Fans can also take a stroll along the water where walkways line the river's edge.
Any description of the Philadelphia Union must mention the Sons of Ben, the only fan club in North American sporting history that predates the club they were formed to support. Back in the early days of MLS, the Bens would travel to indoor soccer games at the old Spectrum and MLS matches in nearby Washington and New York and sing songs about Philadelphia while jeering both teams on the pitch. Such enthusiasm convinced the powers that be in MLS that Philly was a ripe market for soccer, and the Union began play in 2010, using the blue-and-gold colors selected by the Sons of Ben, which were themselves lifted from the City of Philadelphia flag. The Bens are still one of MLS's finest supporter groups and lend a terrific atmosphere to the matches.
It is also worth mentioning that while parking for PPL Park is in surface lots and city streets surrounding the stadium, access back on to the freeway is easy. You should be able to pull out of your parking space in a nearby lot and be back on the freeway in less than ten minutes. Police presence postgame is high to ensure the safe removal of supporters from the area, and the city grid effortlessly displaces cars. The only complaint is that the car is the only truly viable option to get to and from the games. SEPTA runs a shuttle from the Chester Transportation Center, but it runs infrequently and takes forever. Better public transit options from downtown Philadelphia would be welcome and would save on the high cost of parking.
I absolutely recommend going to a game at PPL Park and quite likely fans will want to return after their first visit. But I just can't get past that ridiculous parking charge of $20, though it can be avoided by using a private lot or taking the rail and then shuttle. Outside of that, ticket prices are average by MLS standards as they range from $25 to $50. The preferred sideline seats are $40 or $50. The experience is worth those prices.
Even though this should be expected for a stadium so young, it is remarkable how clean the park is. Floors and walls throughout the concourse and in the stadium still have this new look and it really elevates the place for fans.
The great atmosphere does not just include the game as fans get things going on the outside with tailgating in the parking lot. There is an Eagles football feel to the parking as many of the cars feature a tailgate.
Terrific detail went into the creation of the team's logos, colors and jersey. The Union nickname refers to the "union" of the 13 colonies when Philadelphia became the first capitol of the new United States. Meanwhile, take a look at the logo. Every single aspect of it has a meaning, from the colors and the circle, to the shield and the 13 stars at the bottom. It is just an awesome representation of the city's history.
Overall, PPL Park is a beautiful and raucous addition to MLS and worth the visit for away supporters or soccer fans in general. The ground was built with a little higher budget than first-generation stadia like Columbus Crew Stadium and it shows, and while no one would mistake the surrounding area for anything other than the residential ghetto which it is, one also hopes that someday some sports bars and shops will go in nearby. Without them, the park is a gleaming spaceship settled down in an area where it doesn't really fit - beautiful, but entirely self-contained.
PPL Park is the home of Major League Soccer's Philadelphia Union. It is a brand new stadium for a brand new team, and my expectations were high going in. Taylor Twellman of the New England Revolution on Twitter recently called it the best stadium in MLS.
He was not wrong.
There are not many fan bases that can say they helped bring a professional team to town, but in Philadelphia the passion for an MLS franchise, spearheaded by supporters “Sons of Ben”, was instrumental in securing a team. The 2013 campaign is the club’s fourth season, and the Philadelphia Union have established themselves nicely in the city’s otherwise busy sports scene. While the location of the stadium outside of Philly remains the biggest downfall of the experience, the rest of PPL Park is just about perfect. From the passionate fans to the aesthetically pleasing design and amazing view, this soccer-specific stadium remains as one of the best in MLS.
Best skyline view of the dozen or so MLS stadiums I've seen in person, and probably #1 overall. The view on the official review is near where I usually sit around section 113 in the corner. I've taken SEPTA and the shuttle on my roughly half dozen visits over the past couple of years and they provided quality motorcoaches each time. The trains operate once an hour but the timing works for games that begin and end on the hour but tight for games ending at :30. Yes the parking is $20 at the official lots as I saw the signs, in comparison the PATH garage near Red Bull Arena is only $10. Noisy passionate River End crowd adds to the atmosphere.
1000 W 2nd St
Chester, PA 19013
2520 W 3rd St
Chester, PA 19013
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1450 Providence Ave
Chester, PA 19013
2628 South St
Philadelphia, PA 19146