For the fans, however, Saturday’s disaster really began on Friday night. The U.S. Men’s National Team, in the middle of World Cup qualifiers, lost a frustrating game 2-0 to Guatemala, in which Mix Diskerud’s back scored an assist in the first goal and the second was scored by 36-year old Carlos “Fish” Ruiz, a man loathed by D.C. United fans for his ignominious tenure on the team during the ill-fated season of 2013, the memory of which still clouds the team. My brother and I had gone out to watch the game at Summer’s and when Ruiz scored that second goal, the half of the bar watching with us groaned in disgust. (The other half, watching a peppy Uruguay-Brazil match, were still enjoying themselves. Bastards.)
This being Easter weekend, my family had planned to have Easter dinner early on Saturday afternoon. My brother, my sister-in-law, my sister (visiting from Massachusetts), and I would then head down to RFK for a pleasant evening watching soccer, after which my brother and sister-in-law would continue on to southern Maryland for her family Easter dinner on Sunday. With a baby on the way, my brother isn’t going to have many more chances for live soccer this year and he wants to make every last game count. And not only would this game be a fun family reunion of sorts but--to my family’s endless amusement--I’d signed up to help carry the American flag during the opening ceremonies. “You should sign up to be a ball kid next,” my mom teased me. But, hey, the e-mail said 12 or older, it didn’t say how much older!
My gang left me at Gate F with the other nerds who had signed up for flag duty. We were given wristbands marking out special status. Thankfully, it wasn’t a bunch of kids and me. I was firmly in the middle of the age range of the group, which seemed to be a mix of dudes, dudes with girlfriends/wives in tow, a handful of ladies, and a few kids--including one who must have just been 12 because the staff member assigned to herding us around needed to assure the kid’s parents that he would personally walk Junior back to their seats after flag duty. (So cute!)
The flag carriers were funneled out through the supporters section and down to the far end of field where we were left to wait and watch FC Dallas ran through their warm-ups. “Why’d they have to stick us down by the bad guys,” quipped an older gentleman standing behind me as we idly watched goalkeeper Chris Seitz stop practice shots. I agreed. But neither of us were serious. The mood was relaxed: the sun was warm; the grass was green; the sky was a beautiful shade of blue; and the crowd noise was barely more than a buzz. I could have happily laid down and dozed my Easter dinner off on the sidelines.
Eventually the players all filed back inside and it was time for the flag carriers! We were corralled into two side-by-side single file lines and a rolled up flag was passed between us. I ended up directly across from a delightful pair of troublemakers, a husband and wife. As we were instructed to back up into a service tunnel--while still carrying the flag and under no circumstances dropping it on the ground--the wife sighed, “I guess this is why they wouldn’t let us get beer first.” Her husband laughed. “But I’m more coordinated with beer.”
We waited in the dank tunnel. I was glad I’d worn sturdy boots. The kid in front of me, wearing socks and sandles, had stepped directly into a puddle of mud. And then we marched out. I’d been under strict instructions from my brother and his buddy D. to keep both hands on the flag lest I end up gif’d like the infamous NFL saluting guy. I was positioned towards the back of the line, desperately trying to keep a hand on the flag as we uncoordinatedly lurched back towards the field. As we unrolled the massive flag, I was moving backwards, hoping there was nothing behind me to trip on and that my skirt wouldn’t blow up in the breeze. Nothing like having your ass towards camera. And then it was done. My 15 seconds of fame. We rolled up the flag and raced back to our seats hoping that we wouldn’t miss anything.
(I'm like three to the right of Talon at the very end of the back row, in the white skirt.)
I joined my group seated in the quiet section and my sister handed me a beer. I’d need it.
The first ten minutes or so were great. We weren’t going to be taking on the English Premier League but the team seemed to be in control and it was only a matter of time until… Dallas scored. Off a ridiculous mistake from Taylor Kemp and Kofi Opare in which they ran at each other Keystone Cops style leaving the ball to be picked up by Dallas and put directly in the net. And then the game was over.
After that first goal, all cohesion seemed to have been drained from D.C. United. Passes went nowhere. Fabi began steamrolling over everyone else on the field, really ripping into Nick DeLeon at one point. Bobby Boswell seemed to have left his mental wherewithal back in the locker room. Patrick Nyarko seemed to be attempting to pull the team forward through force of sheer will. Chris Rolfe was trying to come out from underneath a small storm cloud. And Marcelo Sarvas got furious, real furious after Fabi missed a penalty kick.
To be fair to Marcelo, there were some egregious missed calls that should have gone DC’s way. His fury at the ref when he landed that red card and was sent off echoed the fury in the stands. We’d all stood up when the penalty kick was lined up--many with cell phones out ready to record--and then Fabi missed. Badly. What the fuck was happening on the field? Why couldn’t we just put the ball in the net?
On the quiet side, without organized chants and songs to keep my energy up, the fight drained from me about the same time Marcelo angrily stormed off to the locker room. My sister kept us amused by narrating what she imagined Benny Olsen’s “Disappointed Dad” lectures would be based on his body language. We started people watching. The families who began trickling out. The herd of bros straight out of my nightmares in a veritable rainbow of khaki and blue shirts. The young girls sitting behind us who were people watching us in a crazy mirror-universe of people watching. We tried to keep the sour mood growing in the stands from overwhelming us.
Towards the very end of the second half, a group of young kids to our left began an earnest chant of “Let’s go, DC!” I joined in. The game isn’t over until it’s over.
But then the game was over and the mood in the stadium was like a deflated balloon.
On Wednesday I’d gone to a Wizards game with my friend E., possibly the person most amused with my newfound sports fandom besides my brother. As we watched the Wizards blow a nice lead in the third quarter and eventually lose--in between heckling Chris “Mr. Kardashian” Humphries (“Where’s Kim? WHERE’S KIM?!”) and booing the Hawks in general--we had a long talk about sports narratives and superstition. Neither of us are superstitious but human psychology is funny. Placebos don’t work except that sometimes they do. If you believe a placebo is working, it may actually work. Not always but sometimes. Superstition is bullshit but human nature isn’t. Missing two penalty kicks doesn’t mean you’ll miss a third but if you believe that you’ll miss, if you let yourself get talked out of taking that third penalty kick… then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We don’t know yet if this 0-3 loss, this deflated performance, is the low point of the season or a harbinger of worse things to come. We don’t know if Benny’s experiment with Nicky in central midfield will tank or if we’re seeing growing pains. Is this a team that is willing to put a bad game behind them and come out stronger or is it a team that has already given up, in March?
Before the U.S. Men’s National Team game last night, I spent some time watching videos of Carlos Ruiz and between some real gems--Ruiz overturning a water cooler like a giant baby after getting subbed out--there was this depressing post-loss video from 2013 in which the eternally uncharismatic Molly Bruh interviews Ruiz in her trademarked monotone.
It was startling to watch the passionate Ruiz half-heartedly spout sports cliches: “We tried our best to score a goal and that’s good.” But there is no conviction in his voice. If the 2013 season could do this to Carlos Ruiz, an outsized ego of a man who still has balls enough to score against the U.S. national team in 2016, what would it do to the men on D.C. United right now? We cannot let this depressing mess happen again. We have the pieces. We have some really good players. Now, let’s put the ball in the net! Chris Rolfe, dude, you got this. Don’t let Fabi bully you off another penalty kick. You can do it. I know you can. Bobby, get your head in the game, bro. With Hamid out you have to organize the defense. If you’re going to check out, fully check out and let six-thirty Birnie and Opare get the start. Nicky, work on finishing, my friend. Travis Worra, we got you. Keep working hard.
I’m going to be here until the bitter end but for the love of Marco Etcheverry, let’s win some fucking games!