For several years now, New England Revolution fans have had to sit and watch while other teams in MLS make major signings and bring in known quantities to bolster their ranks. Meanwhile, the Revs have relied on the draft and unknowns from across the globe as they struggled to replace departing top-level talent.
Seated at a table next to the back bar in McGreevy's a few weeks ago, Benny Feilhaber represented a shift from that philosophy. The USA international midfielder was acquired via allocation order back on April 19th after what some would say were incredibly fortuitous and unexpected circumstances: both Chivas USA and the Philadelphia Union passed on his rights. It wasn't just luck, though; many Revolution fans were initially pessimistic when Feilhaber's signing with the league was announced, believing that the current front office just didn't have the drive or the ability to make something happen in a situation like this.
Not all fans were willing to sit on their hands in idle hope, however. Members of the Rebellion supporters' group took to Twitter and started campaigning with the hashtag "#BringBennyToBoston." It caught almost immediately, eventually becoming a trending topic on the social media website and creating a real sense of urgency and expectation in the fanbase.
The initiative was the brainchild of founding member Brendan Schimmel. "All through the World Cup, Benny Feilhaber proved that he's one of the only creative attacking midfielders [the USA] had, and the fact that we had a chance at a good player in a niche we needed to fill was too good to be true," he explained. "So we created good alliteration - people like alliteration - and it was easy to catch on, and it caught on like wildfire."
Brendan's hashtag escaped the notice of no one in the Revolution universe. In fact, Feilhaber himself followed along rather closely and was impressed with the effort and the acceptance he gained from a group of fans he wasn't even sure he'd be playing for. "I was really following twitter to try to get any updates I could get because I was just kinda sitting and waiting, trying to find out where I was going and when Chivas was still up first, that hashtag had already started," the midfielder revealed from his table where he'd spent the last hour and a half greeting eager fans at the Boylston Street bar. "It was pretty amazing to see and I thought 'well, Chivas will probably take me but if I drop down to New England, that's awesome, too, because obviously the fans really want me there."
No one expected #BringBennyToBoston to explode the way it did, least of all Schimmel himself. "I think it ended up catching on a lot bigger when we realized that the Union would pass on him once they had the opportunity and there was a realistic expectation that we could get this guy, and it got bigger and bigger and bigger."
"I actually laughed at [Brendan] at first," admitted Kyle Santos, the other Rebellion bigwig (they've never done much with titles since I've known them). "It's not up to us to make that decision, it was up to Chivas and it was up to Philly. And if they both made the mistake, we'd be stupid not to jump on that. So, yeah, if it was a rallying cry to help the team, then it worked."
He elaborated: "It was more of a way to unite Revs fans for a common cause for once. And if it didn't work then it didn't matter, because it sucks but that's the way the system works. If the others passed on him, then that was a rallying cry for Revs fans. So I guess it worked."
It certainly did. We all know the story since Benny's arrival: an assist in his first MLS appearance, four solid performances and a goal unfairly called back for offside last week are the highlights of his impact thus far, and as he continues to grow into the team things look to be getting better and better.
However, the campaign didn't just have an impact on the Revolution's on-field performances; the Rebellion has certainly seen some positives from that phenomenon. "We saw like a 20% increase in hits on the actual website because we had a post to go along with it," Brendan said. "But on twitter, there were constantly people re-tweeting our stuff, we grew that way. We got maybe 50-100 new followers just from Twitter on that. Membership's been trickling in after that, but as the product gets better on the field people will be more apt to join. When we get more and more numbers in the fort we can show more and more of what we're about."
Feilhaber himself remains humble, despite inspiring a twitter phenomenon and warranting his own meet-and-greet event. "I've enjoyed myself. It's a little bit crazy, I can't believe people actually showed up to see me."