Lititz soccer fans flock to Philly despite Wenger’s absence

By on July 18, 2012

By: BRUCE MORGAN Record Express Sports Editor bmorgan.eph@lnpnews.com, Staff Writer



Photo by Preston Whitcraft
Some of the many local fans who made the trip to PPL Park Saturday whoop it up for the camera.

Word started to circulate two or three week ago.

Former Warwick star soccer player Andrew Wenger, who is now a rookie forward playing for Montreal in MLS (Major League Soccer), had suffered an injury and might not be available to play when the Impact headed to Philadelphia in July.

Despite the hopes of numerous Lititz soccer fans who were looking forward to seeing Wenger and his Impact teammates play last Saturday night against the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park, that indeed turned out to be the case.

As much as Wenger must have been disappointed not to make the trip due to a left hamstring strain, the Impact were sharing those emotions after dropping a 2-1 loss to the Union in a game in which they had opportunities to win. For another Montreal player with local ties, Manheim Township grad Zarek Valentin, that loss made him 0-for-2 in games he has played in Philadelphia in his MLS career.

"Obviously, it’s been two difficult results," Valentin, who rooms with Wenger in Montreal, said in Montreal’s locker room after the game. "(I’ve been) unlucky coming back here, I’ve lost both games. But overall, I think we had some of the better chances. I just think if we capitalize on those and get a little tighter in the back, we can start pulling out some results."

For the many supporters of Wenger and Valentin who showed up at PPL Park on Saturday night, however, their experience was not a loss. Scattered throughout Sections 132 and 131 on the east side of PPL Park, not far from the Sons of Ben supporters group for the Union, were family members and friends of Wenger wearing his blue replica Montreal jersey with number 33 on the back. The general consensus was that although they were disappointed not to see Wenger playing on Saturday, they still left the park with an entertaining, positive night out.

"I was talking to his dad over the Fourth of July and he had said that he was injured, so I had kinda thought that he might not be playing," 2008 Warwick grad Brynn Adams said. "I was hoping obviously that he was. I was little bummed and I know he’s probably more disappointed than anybody. But it’s still cool to see (the Impact) – this is his team. He trains with these guys every day, he lives with Zarek, so I still think it’s cool. I know there will be other opportunities (to see Andrew play)."

Adams and Wenger have remained friends since they swam together with the Woodridge swim team back in their elementary days. It was only recently, in fact, that the two got together for breakfast at the Tomato Pie Cafe in Lititz while Wenger was home. So Adams, for one, wasn’t surprised to see a large throng of people from the community at PPL Park on Saturday, knowing that Wenger has done a good job of keeping in touch with his high school friends and appreciating what the town of Lititz has done for him.

"He was just so likable in high school," said Adams, who is preparing for her final semester at West Chester University in the fall. "You were drawn to him and he’s funny, he’s charming, he’s just a good guy. And he’s a good friend … I think that says a lot about him, how many people came tonight, even though he’s not playing. I think that says a lot about him as a person and the kind of person he is."

Allison Goldstein, a 2008 WHS grad, was another of those who swam with Wenger at Woodridge and often went to see his games when he played with the Warriors. As the Impact and Union got underway in the second half last Saturday, she provided a little perspective for what Wenger is accomplishing in his career.

"in high school, we’d go to a few of his games that were close by to watch him play because he’s such a phenomenal player," said Goldstein, who recently graduated from Saint Francis University where she played field hockey. "It’s unreal that a small town like Lititz would have an athlete like Andrew. I wish we could see him play because seeing his name on the back of jerseys … it’s unreal."

Like Adams and Goldstein, Casey Osborne would also return to PPL Park in the future for an opportunity to watch his 2009 classmate play for the Impact. His mother mentioned to him about a week earlier that she was going to the game and he decided to accompany her. Osborne played soccer with Wenger for about six years before trading his soccer cleats for golf clubs.

"I was like, ‘That’d be cool to go watch,’" said Osborne, who is preparing for his senior season at Alvernia College where he is a member of the golf team. "It’s a shame (Andrew’s) not playing. I was disappointed, but I’ve never been to a professional soccer game, so I thought it was kinda cool just to come anyway. It would’ve been a lot cooler if he would’ve been playing, but it’s still cool to be here."

Outside of the diehard fans who might have traveled south from Montreal on Saturday for the game, Mark Lovette might have had the distinction of traveling the furthest to PPL Park. Lovette and other family members were in Williamsburg where their son John is attending school William & Mary. Heading north, however, they ran into a bit of a snag.

"We got hung up – President Obama was speaking in Richmond today and they had I-95 closed, so it took us six and a half hours to get up here," Lovette said. "But we’ll go back to Lititz tonight."

John played soccer with Andrew while in elementary school and still connects with him on Facebook. The Lovettes are friends with the Wenger and Gibbel families, so they were receiving word a couple of weeks ago that Andrew’s status for Saturday’s game could be doubtful. But they already had tickets for the game and decided to use them anyway. And watching the caliber of play exhibited by Wenger’s teammates on Saturday night also gave them a good indication of how far Wenger has reached.

"He got recognized for so many different accomplishments at Duke and being selected number one in the draft, so to have someone from a small place like Lititz to have an opportunity to play on a level like this is pretty cool," Lovette said.

Clearly, Wenger has proven that he belongs at the MLS level. He has started in three games for the Impact and has scored three goals from his attack position so far in his rookie season.

"Things are going well for him," said Valentin, a second-year MLS player. "He’s adapting well, and obviously when you have guys that have played internationally, it helps him to learn. I think he acknowledges that and just wants to take in as much as he can and I’m hopeful that he comes back and keeps scoring goals like he was."

Since the start of Wenger’s MLS career, he has already made some adjustments which are paying benefits.

"I think one (adjustment) is just the physicality of the league," said Valentin, who scored his first professional goal in the Impact’s 2-1 win over the Columbus Crew on July 8. "I think he’s learned that he needs to initiate contact because if not, center backs will just bump him off the ball. He’s gotten a lot better with that."

Asked how Wenger’s mindset has been through the hamstring injury, Valentin said, "Obviously, it’s always a little bit frustrating when you’re injured. He wants to get back as soon as possible and help the team out in whatever way that is. But he knows that he just has to keep pushing and it’s also a tough thing because you want to get back so bad, but you also don’t want to rush it. So he’s kinda in between those."

There could be some light at the end of the tunnel for Wenger, however.

"I know he started running with the team this past week," Valentin said, "so hopefully in the next few weeks he can come back."

That will be good news for the Impact and coach Jesse Marsch, who couldn’t hide his frustration after his squad dropped a 2-1 loss on Saturday when the Union’s Carlos Valdes scored the game-winner in stoppage time.

"There’s no words to describe how we gave that game away and it’s familiar to other games we’ve played this year," Marsch said. "Until we figure out how to get results, I don’t where to go right now. It’s a little frustrating."

Asked what the loss of Wenger means to his team right now, Marsch said, "Andrew’s been good, he’s done a good job for us this year. But at the same time, the guys on the field have done a good enough job too to get us through results when Andrew’s been gone. But Andrew, we think, is a very talented young attacking player who is going to be very good." More WENGER, page B5