Philly’s MLS team won the 2020 Supporters’ Shield, the club’s first trophy. Where it’s stored is another story altogether.
Story by Donovan Hugel
Thirty-five pounds of pure silver. Valued at $18,000 when it was first made in 1999 by artist Paula Richardson. A current day value of $21,000.
And Matt Gendaszek wraps it in a blanket.
Gendaszek, the current president of the Sons of Ben, the support group for the Philadelphia Union, wraps the first MLS trophy that has called Philadelphia home – in a blanket.
A black blanket, actually, that has dog fur on it.
“I do this so no one notices it,” Gendaszek said.
Gendaszek is the current gatekeeper of the Supporter’s Shield after the Philadelphia Union won it during the 2020 MLS regular season with a league-leading 47 points.
Wherever he needs to take it out of his home in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood, Gendaszek wraps it in the same blanket to keep it hidden and so it doesn’t get damaged. Whenever he takes the trophy with him, he also carries a bag filled with a soccer ball, a Yard’s sponsored Sons of Ben beer, a Union scarf and the trophy’s stand.
In a sports-crazed city that is starved for championships and trophies, Gendaszek and the rest of the Sons of Ben are cherishing whatever time they have with the shield, while at the same time doing all that they can to share it with the rest of the fans, and the players who won the actual thing. After all, it’s the first major trophy that the Union have won in their 11-year history.
And they want to keep it in the near and far future, especially after the story in which Gendaszek received the trophy, which involved him texting an airplane security guard and having to navigate on certain days who got to have the shield between Union coach Jim Curtin and the players, and the rest of the fanbase the team.
Gendaszek joined the Sons of Ben in 2010 before the Union were set to play their inaugural season. At the time he was a “self-proclaimed Euro snob” who thought the MLS “sucked.”
“I remember the guys who were starting the Sons of Ben,” Gendaszek said. “They’d be at the bars showing the Premier League and one of them’s like, ‘Hey, man, we’re trying to get an MLS team started.’ And I said, ‘MLS sucks, dude’ and turned my back to him.”
After learning from his cousin that the tickets were cheap and they could be sitting at the equivalent of the 40-yard-line, Gendaszek was convinced to become a season ticket holder.
But he didn’t want to be the cranky, bad-tempered fan around a bunch of kids who just wanted to watch soccer, so he had the idea to join the Sons of Ben.
“I didn’t want to be that guy sitting there dropping F-bombs in front of a bunch of youth soccer kids whose mom brought them to the game,” Gendaszek said. “I go, ‘Why don’t we join the Sons of Ben, and we’ll be in the supporter section? So me, my dad, my uncle and a couple of buddies all agreed to that and we all agreed to that. We had a great time and we just joined from then on. We’ve always had our seats in section 136 in the riverend.”
Even after helping to gain a sponsorship from Yard’s Brewing with the making of the Rowdy Ale, the first ever beer ever for a supporter’s group, Gendaszek was only in charge of setting up tailgates for home games.
But due to his job and the traveling that came with it, he was put into a marketing role to better help the fan group’s branding.
“I started out doing tailgates, which is the grind,” Gendaszek said. “You’re lifting kegs and setting up tables and that kind of stuff. I probably did that for two seasons and then I took a new job and I couldn’t really do that anymore because of my work schedule. Our president then, Bill Gusler created this marketing branding role instead for me because I was pretty good at getting sponsors and that stuff.”
Gusler ended up moving to Florida in 2018 with no warning to Gendaszek, who became the interim president immediately, and held it for a year. He ran for president immediately afterward, won and held it for two years, then just won the recent election again.
Members nominate themselves for certain positions. Due to the size of the group, only half of the members cast votes in elections, which happen every two years. The other half of the members will vote in the next election.
“I’ve got two more years and then maybe I’ll pass the mantle along to somebody else,” Gendaszek said.
In case you didn’t know already, the Union didn’t have the physical Supporter’s Shield when they actually clinched the regular season title on Nov. 8 when they beat the New England Revolution 2-0.
The shield was still in transit from Los Angeles after Los Angeles FC won it in 2019, so the club got creative and had a replica Captain America shield turned into the Supporter’s Shield.
The Independent Supporters Council controls the shield, and the Sons of Ben weren’t supposed to have it before the game, but convinced the ISC to get it to them so they could award it to the team following the game against the Revolution, which took place on a Sunday.
“There was a snafu between LAFC and UPS,” Gendaszek said.
It was supposed to have arrived at Gendaszek’s house that Thursday, but due to the Los Angeles forest fires, shipping was delayed, and Los Angelinos Originales, the supporter’s group for LAFC, never marked down for weekend delivery on the shield.
“So we’re thinking that maybe it’s going to get to Philly on a Saturday and I can pick it up then,” Gendaszek said. “So I’m telling the team that we may not have it because for UPS, if you don’t mark down Saturday delivery, they’re not coming on a weekend. Needless to say, I’m in South Philly where the sorting facility is trying to check on Saturday a couple of times to see if it’s there and then the arrangements had been made to make the fake shield. On Sunday I’m at the airport, and I literally had a security guard’s number who worked at the airport, and I was texting him to see if a plane landed. He was just sitting there at his desk replying, ‘Nah, no plane landed from LA. Sorry.’”
Gendaszek didn’t know the security guard prior, and got his number by walking into the building and convinced him to either call or text him once a plane from Los Angeles had landed.
Even with the fake shield, Gendaszek and two other board members still had the opportunity to walk it out to the team.
“Even with the fake shield, it was still an environment you dream of,” Jess Gusler, the Sons of Ben vice president, said. “Trophy on the line, and we were the only fans in the stadium and you could still feel the intensity. It was still weird, but walking the trophy out still felt like we all accomplished something together.”
For the entire 90 minutes and some change, Gendaszek and Gusler stood in separate sections of the stadium, completely away from everyone else.
“You’re just isolated,” Gendaszek said. “I could yell at the opposing goalie, but I didn’t want to get thrown out on the day I could be walking the shield out. That was really surreal because here it is – Mount Everest, we’re reaching the top as a Union fan. This should be the greatest day ever, and I’m sitting there with the best seats you can get, but I’m by myself. Peak 2020. The Union are good. I’ve got the greatest seat in the house, but I’m by myself.”
Yet the moment was still a surreal one.
“The players didn’t know if this was the real shield or not,” Gendaszek said. “They just knew that they won something and it was really cool. There was probably like two minutes before we walked on the field where I thought ‘Just suck this all in. Don’t get overwhelmed. Just look around and suck it in.’ I was trying to make eye contact with my girlfriend and my dad who were in the river end, but our group went nuts and lit every smoke bomb we had. I couldn’t see the river. And because it was, it was covered. Then just watching the guys celebrate what they just did. So it was surreal.”
Gendaszek got the real shield the day after. The team had that Monday and Tuesday off from training, but had COVID testing on Tuesday. Gendaszek was asked to bring the shield in then, and said it was cooler than watching them win it on the field and celebrate with the fake trophy.
From young players that came up through the Union’s academy teams to established veterans, that personal moment with the shield was what they worked for.
“I hung back in my car so they could have time,” Gendaszek said. “They got the shield and then wanted to go outside by the mural and take pictures. To see rookies like Anthony Fontana and Brendan Aronson to veterans like Ray Gaddis, that was almost cooler than watching them win it on the field, because it’s that personal moment when you’re looking at guys like Alejandro Bedoya who’ve played for the national team and has made a good chunk of change. That’s why they play the game. Sometimes we think these guys are playing the game for the money, the cars and the girls. But then when they get that first piece of hardware with their team, that’s why they run wind sprints.”
In a funny moment with the team having the shield, Union coach Jim Curtin didn’t originally know the shield would be in the custody of the Sons of Ben, adding that the team was “really excited to share the trophy with the fans and the rest of the city.”
For Curtin and the rest of the Union’s staff and players, it took a little getting used to having to share the trophy with the fanbase, but the two sides have it all worked out now after a little bit of miscommunication early on. Getting to share the trophy with the fans is more meaningful to the team than getting to keep it to themselves anyways.
“It should almost be like the Stanley Cup of our sport,” Curtin said. “It’s a cool trophy, it’s a unique trophy, and the fans being in charge of it is a very good thing. It’s fitting for the Philadelphia Union. The fans are the lifeblood of our club. They were here long before the team was even here. It’s a perfect award for us to win and for it to be with the fans at all times is special. Everybody cherishes that moment that they get, even as something as little as a photograph with it goes a long way with keeping everybody happy. It should go to the fans first and foremost because they’re the most important thing in our game.”
For all that 2020 was, winning the Supporter’s Shield offered a sense of happiness and hope for both the Union, the Sons of Ben and the rest of their fans.
“Winning the first trophy for that club was going to be special regardless if we had 18 or 19,000 people in the stadium, it would’ve been incredible,” Gendaszek said. “But for fans, for the hardcore Union fans that are in it, it made 2020 special. It kinda took the pandemic and said ‘This year wasn’t that bad.’ You know what I mean?”