It somehow seems fitting that a season of serious ground-hopping that began outside of the UK (Ireland in July) should also finish away from these shores, in this case my first match across the ‘pond’ in the United States. In fact I’ve not had too bad a year as regards overseas jaunts, taking my February sojourn to the Netherlands into account as well as … err, Guernsey and of course the Isle of Wight. OK, tenuous those last two I know but they did still involve expensive air and boat travel respectively!
You will recall I’ve long operated a policy of combining business trips with footy matches, so when the prospect of exhibiting at Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia cropped up, my first thought was to pore over the Major League Soccer fixtures list looking for something ‘local’ whilst I was there. Nope, nothing – so let’s check out the second tier, the North American Soccer League. Another blank. OK, let’s not despair, let’s look at Level 3, the United Soccer League. Eureka, there’s a game at Harrisburg in Pennsylvania state, a mere 100 drive from Philly! Virtually just down the road.
Although this is primarily a football blog, I must mention the beer scene in the USA, and Philadelphia in particular. The craft beer explosion goes from strength to strength (sometimes literally) and already dwarfs that in the UK. Although most of it is what old lags like me would probably refer to as keg (they are beginning to dabble in cask) these guys certainly know how to do it well and leave the world of Watneys Red Barrel far, far behind. The range and variety of beer styles rivals that of the Low Countries, and they seem to have no trouble getting it into bars. So much of our week in ‘Rocky’ country (it was filmed there) was spent sampling (for research purposes you understand) in the Khyber Pass, Devil’s Den, Manayunk Brewery Tap, and our favourite, the Misconduct Tavern on Locust Street, where early in the week we watched the key Chelsea v Spurs game and then later fell into the company of a guy from Southern Tier Brewery, of New York State, who insisted on buying us one too many of their magnificent 10%abv Choklat Oranj which provided me with a sore head the next morning but is now my favourite beer in all the world!
Our working week over, it’s time to hit the road with my business partner and brother-in-law Simon, who lives in the States so speaks the same language as the Sat Nav, which helps tremendously. First a trip to the eerily quiet Talen Energy Stadium, home of MLS side Philadelphia Union, to take a few piccies of the exterior, then a quick detour across the river into New Jersey and then Delaware (to add them to my ‘states visited’ list) and subsequently another new tick in Maryland (lovely countryside) before heading back into Pennsylvania and the exceptional Gettysburg Visitor Centre (American Civil War fans will know all about this) before finally arriving into Harrisburg, actually the state capital of Pennsylvania, despite its modest size in comparison to Philly.
The City Islanders, like many American sports teams, are a franchise but have been in the city for 12 years. Their nominal home ground is the Skyline Sports Complex on, believe it or not, City Island, but for the current 2016 season they have moved next door, to the KNB Field, home of the local baseball side, the Senators, as Skyline has fallen below the standards expected of the USL. A major drive is under way to secure grant funding to enable the club to upgrade the facilities on the Island, but the KNB field is not a bad place to operate from in the interim. It’s a little squarer than your average soccer stadium, but with the option of an impressive but (strangely) empty seated stand in one corner and lots of elevated vantage points around the pitch, we choose to sit in a section of uncovered seating close to the away support for visiting FC Cincinatti, which must number around 40 or so, pretty reasonable for saying they have a 900-mile-plus round trip!
As is the norm in any US sporting venue, you don’t go short of fast food, but sadly it’s chips (sorry, fries) for me as the Vegetarian is as well catered for here as he is in the UK. Some things don’t change. But there is local craft beer on sale (Troegs I recall) plus the ubiquitous Blue Moon ‘wit’ beer, an acquired taste but a real change from the norm.
A crowd of just over 2,000 is about a third of the KNB’s capacity and although not that raucous, they seem to quietly enjoy a tepid game that often descends into dour midfield tussles, aimless dribbles and misplaced passes, only raising the tempo when the home side takes a first half lead, then having to watch the visiting fans get just as excited when the equaliser is slotted in. As we are no longer in need of a 1970s style shoot-out, both teams share the spoils and I have a new tick in my ‘overseas grounds visited’ column.
So after a season where I’ve seen nearly 100 games and visited 81 new grounds, I may now take a couple of months breather until it kicks off again with our traditional Irish trip in July. Then the hopper scramble to get tickets for the Olympic Stadium as early in the season as possible, new grounds at Fylde and Darlington, new step 4 ticks at Kidlington and Bowers & Pitsea, and then maybe something overseas… Isle of Man, anyone?
Programme: 5 bucks and it’s a colourful affair which runs for the season so contains no team news
Floodlights: Yes (forgot to count!)
Club Shop: Yes a table set up selling numerous variations of tops, scalves, hats etc. Curiously the club eschew the Harrisburg name, with all merchandise just stating ‘City Islanders’. There’s also a much bigger indoor club shop for the Senators baseball team
Toilets: By the side of the Senators shop
Birdlife: Some strange looking birds in the locality, the only one of which I have managed to identify is the American Robin, a kind of thrush with a red chest
Kop choir: Just the one song “let’s Go Islanders, let’s Go’ sung mainly by the kids
Away fans: As previously mentioned
What’s In a name? Liam Doyle. Nothing wrong with the name, but the programme notes say he’s from The Isle of Man, UK. Now don’t accuse me of being pedantic but I’m pretty sure IOM is not in the UK!