It’s a story that’s become such an indelible part of MLS folklore that, at first blush, it almost sounds scripted. Die-hard soccer fans in a city without a professional team decide to fix that. They help build grassroots support to bring top flight soccer to their community. A skeptical league commissioner dismisses it out of hand. The movement grows so large, and so loud, that they can’t be ignored. Finally, the commissioner has a change of heart, recognizes the massive opportunity at hand, and decides to try and make it happen. After years of blood, sweat, and tears, the fans are finally rewarded with a team to call their own.
But it wasn’t scripted. And now, the stories of these grassroots fans are being told.
Sons Of Ben
offers an in-depth look at the eponymous supporters group. The documentary puts faces and personal stories to the people who were, as the film describes it, fans of a team before the team even existed.
Director Jeffrey Bell and producer Mike Dieffenbach tell a story of average Joes and Janes who found each other through two common bonds— a love of soccer, and an overriding desire to have a hometown team. The documentary dropped last year in a limited DVD release. But thanks to a new distribution deal with Gravitas Ventures, Sons Of Ben is getting a wider release this week on almost every digital and on-demand platform you can think of, as well as a refreshed DVD edition.
MLS gets a lot of (often justified) criticism for their heavily corporatized message, which they guard and control with a relentlessness rarely seen outside of K Street in Washington. This is especially true with how they engage with and promote the fanbase, with accusations of astroturfing support and being overly controlling with regards to fan speech and behavior. Yet for all the eyerolling over Sounders-Timbers hype, or the “plastic” support for NYCFC, it’s easy for those who don’t follow MLS closely to forget that real people turn up in the stands and yell for 90 minutes straight for their hometown side.
The documentary is at its best when it highlights that truth. Hearing stories of Sons Of Ben members discovering soccer as kids— watching Soccer Made In Germany on PBS, or getting caught up in the excitement of the 1994 World Cup, or falling in love with Arsenal during the Henry/Bergkamp era— hammers home the idea of football as a lifelong passion. It’s something that’s taken for granted in Europe and South America, while US fans are accused of faking it or not knowing what they’re talking about. These early Sons Of Ben organizers are all fairly typical working and middle class Americans that nursed a love of The Beautiful Game since childhood and wanted to bring it to their hometown. It took organizing and hard work and patience, but they got it. And knowing their personal histories, their stories, is what makes that victory so satisfying— even if the Union aren’t your team.
At its heart, Sons Of Ben is the story of ordinary Americans with a simple dream, who worked long and hard to get it, and ultimately succeeded. Whatever your thoughts on the Union, or MLS, or even soccer in America, it’s hard not to cheer for these people.
Sons Of Ben comes out Friday on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and other digital platforms. You can preorder it on iTunes US here: http://apple.co/28M73HB; and iTunes Canada here: http://apple.co/28LG0cN