Austin FC, Philadelphia Union Share an Unlikely Bond

The fans were there, even before MLS was

MLS in Austin Supporters Group founder Josh Babetski keeps his Philadelphia Union ties close. (credit: Josh Babetski)

On Saturday, Austin FC hosts the Philadelphia Union in a matchup of two cities – and two sporting cultures – that on the surface appear to be polar opposites. Southwest vs. northeast. Warm and flamboyant vs. cold and industrious. New and fresh vs. tried and true. “Y’all means all” vs. “No one likes us, and we don’t care.”

And yet, the two Major League Soccer franchises are indelibly linked through a shared origin story that fans of both clubs can certainly respect, if not appreciate.

The Union joined MLS as an expansion team in 2010, bringing America’s top men’s pro soccer league to a city synonymous with sports. Already home to the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, and 76ers – not to mention 1.5 million people – in a state with strong soccer ties, Philadelphia notably lacked its own MLS team for the first decade-and-a-half of the league’s history. And while the majority of the city's sports fans may not have known at the time what they were missing, a brash, ballsy group of Philadelphians was determined to educate them.

In 2007, three years before the Union would eventually go on to play its first match, 20-or-so loudmouth soccer fans banded together under the name “Sons of Ben,” a reference to the city’s beloved Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin. Their mission? Convince anyone who would listen – including and especially MLS itself – that Philly deserved a seat at the pro soccer table, and had an established fanbase ready to go.

The SOBs crashed home games of Philadelphia’s other sports teams, raining soccer chants from the rafters. They invaded the 2007 MLS Cup Final in Washington D.C. and cheered for a club that didn’t exist. 20 members became 60, then 60 became 500, and 500 became 1,000. The entire saga is chronicled in the full-length documentary Sons of Ben released in 2015, but long story short, the right people eventually took notice and Philadelphia was officially awarded MLS’s 16th franchise in February, 2008.

Philadelphia supporters group Sons of Ben in many ways served as the inspiration for the grassroots push that led the birth of Austin FC in 2019.

There’s a reason that tale might sound familiar to longtime fans of the Verde and Black. The Sons of Ben in many ways served as the inspiration for the grassroots push that led the birth of Austin FC in 2019.

Josh Babetski is part of the reason why. Before founding the MLS in Austin Supporters’ Group in 2013, Babetski was a proud Pennsylvanian … and also a proud SOB.

“That’s my evil villain origin story,” Babetski told the Chronicle.

By the time Babetski moved to Central Texas in 2013, he had become a full-on MLS junkie. But the prospect of aligning with one of the preexisting Texas clubs – FC Dallas or the Houston Dynamo – wasn’t appealing. It was a problem he knew all too well, but also one he knew could be solved.

“[Austin] seemed like a really good soccer city. I was like, well, maybe that’s the same playbook,” Babetski said. “Show that there’s a supporters group without a team, make noise, create attention, create awareness, and hopefully that will attract something.”

However, while the Sons of Ben were vindicated for their efforts within 13 months, Babetski and a small band of original allies had to play the long game. He recalled barging in on Chelsea watch parties at Haymaker and Arsenal meetups at The Tavern, peddling a vision of an Austin MLS club – and being told to shove it. “‘Why would I support MLS? EPL [English Premier League] is so much better,’” he often heard.

“I would say 2013, ’14, ’15, were kind of the valley of despair. I was sitting here saying to my wife, like, ‘Is this dumb? Am I wasting my time?’” Babetski recalled. “I think what [the Sons of Ben experience] did was it helped me stay the course.”

Finally, when MLS first began its courtship of Austin in 2017, the project Babetski and Co. had kept on life support for years kicked into a new gear. And once again, he looked toward the SOB playbook for guidance.

“Showing up to city council meetings, having watch parties, crashing EPL bars and you know, building up hype. It was a lot of those same techniques,” Babetski said. “Showing that it wasn’t hypothetical. The supporters were here and we were doing all this crazy stuff… that the club does credit with a lot of the success of getting the club here in town.”

Once Austin FC officially entered MLS, Babetski’s group rebranded to Austin Anthem and remains one of the club’s largest supporters groups. Naturally, in the time since, the Austin FC fan culture has evolved into something unique to the Texas capital, with traditions, chants, and characters you wouldn’t see anywhere else in the nation, least of all Philadelphia. But without the shared passion for soccer and a universal determination to not take no for an answer, perhaps neither Austin FC nor the Philadelphia Union would exist today.

Austin FC takes on the Philadelphia Union Saturday, 7:30pm at Q2 Stadium.

For more Austin FC news and analysis, visit The Austin Chronicle's Austin FC hub. Follow “The Verde Report” columnist Eric Goodman on X: @goodman.

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