Take it in the guts – it can’t get worse that this
You’ll soon be old enough to leave them
And without a notion of a care
You’ll lift two fingers in the air to linger there...
Belle & Sebastian, “Lord Anthony”
Hope began leaking out of the away fans section--the darkest, draftiest corner of Talen Energy Stadium, facing away from the scenic view of the Delaware River and Commodore Barry Bridge--around the time Jared Jeffrey was subbed in. As we watched the number 25 appear on the substitution board for our number 13, Lamar Neagle, the man standing beside me turned and groaned. “Benny’s going for a draw,” he said, sounding tired. I nodded. We know Ben Olsen. It wouldn’t be pretty but the game was still scoreless and if we’d played it safe there was a very good chance we could escape with a point.
The score was still tied at zero as clock ticked on into stoppage time. Cold, hungry, thirsty, tired, and really needing to pee, we D.C. United fans had only just resigned ourselves to a frustrating draw when the Union, in a final burst of energy, launched one last shot at our goal, one shot too many for goalkeeper Travis Worra. His valiant efforts of the previous 90+ minutes were undone with seconds left on the clock. The aggressively innane German bro-core anthem the Union had adopted as their theme was still ringing in our ears as the whistle blew. “Doop, doop, doop.” We’d lost.
With that final bit of doop the flaws in the Union’s crowd management plan fully revealed themselves. What genius (and I use that term sarcastically) thought it would be a great idea to place the away fans directly adjacent to the Union’s supporters sections?
As we stood there in that dark, drafty bit of the upper deck, we were treated to the jeers and sarcastic comments of hundreds of Philadelphia Union supporters as they filed out past us. The dejection I’d felt at the loss turned to anger. I watched a couple of shirtless Union players, including ex-United player Chris Pontius, hobnobbing with fans directly below us. I was unbearably cold and hungry. Were they really going to keep us here until Party Boy had taken a studly, topless selfie with every last girl down there?!
Pontius waved to our section as he finally headed back to the locker room and I, with the full maturity of my 30+ years of life on this Earth, returned his greeting by lifting my middle finger in the air, to linger there.
The day wasn’t supposed to end with me flipping Pontius the bird but part of the excitement of sports, especially in MLS, is that nobody can predict how a game will end. Will it be a chippy 0-0 draw undone in the final minute with a last burst of energy or will it be a 0-7 blowout in which the MLS marketing division’s star-studded pet team is mercilessly slaughtered on national television in an ugly and highly visible match that they’d been promoting for weeks as the biggest game of the season, in the process angering and alienating fans of almost all the other teams?
Yeah, I went there. Let’s talk MLS Rivalry Week™, sponsored by the makers of a beer I never drink unless the other options are even more disgusting domestic piss. Last week I lamented the fact that a game with United’s actual rival--the New York Red Bulls--was overshadowed by a cheesy Star Wars promotional tie-in. Our assigned rival for Rivalry Week™ was the Philadelphia Union, not only a team that I harbored no particular ill will towards but a team whose fanbase overlapped significantly with D.C. United’s for many years. Sure, they had taken on our beloved Chris Pontius after years of faithful service to D.C. United, but it was with the blessings of most of the fanbase. Chris had desperately needed a change of scenery after his broken end to the 2015 season and many of us were happy to see that he was doing well a couple hours north. I may have had bittersweet feelings about Party Boy but, in short, there was no rivalry here.
Nor were there particular rivalries between Toronto and Cleveland, Chicago and Houston, New England and Dallas, Orlando and Montreal, Seattle and Colorado, etc. as fans of those teams were quick to complain about all over social media. But that didn’t matter. Rivalry Week™ promotions were designed with one end in mind: hyping the fuck out of MLS’s long-awaited intra-Largest Media Market soccer derbygasm. NYCFC vs NYRB. There were hashtags! Videos! So many tweets! Trade your hideous Red Bulls jersey for a cool NYCFC one!
Hey, MLS, I hope the publicity of that 0-7 blowout was worth annoying the fans of teams in all the non-NYC markets by shoving fake rivalries on them. And here’s my soap box: the appeal of the D.C. United fan experience is that in a sea of corporate entertainment this was one thing that wasn’t managed to death by some Assistant Vice President of Fun Related Activities. The gameday experience is by and large created by the fans themselves. Even when I was a casual D.C. United fan, attending matches maybe once or twice a year and reading exactly zero promotional content from MLSsoccer (dot) com, I knew in my bones that the New York Red Bulls were our mortal enemies. Things like tifo and banners and smoke and confetti are fun not just because they lend a carnival atmosphere to the stands but because there is an element of chaos. Tifo are the unfiltered fan id. What front office dweller with a business degree in intersectional marketing is going to come up with a sign like this:
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) May 20, 2016
That’s pure Union id, hitting D.C. fans right in the heart with a cheeky Zero Wing reference: “All your Pontius are belong to us.” And it does annoy more than a little to see MLS using this stuff as promotional material at the same time as they try to stifle and mute us. Are we valuable as fans (with the loyalty that implies even when teams are playing poorly and note that there can be only one MLS cup winner per year) or simply as open wallets?
Which brings me to my second point: fans don't need their experiences managed from the top down but Talen Energy Stadium needs a massive lesson in crowd management. Talen has a negative reputation with traveling fans from various clubs and after attending one game there I understand why. Security procedures are arranged to flame fan tempers as high as possible. Not only are the away supporters and home supporters directly adjacent so we can yell and taunt each other for 90 minutes straight but away fans are penned into a tiny area of the stadium, a tiny area that home fans have free access to. This means that not only are there are massive lines for the restrooms and concessions but there is also nowhere for tensions to diffuse. There is literally nowhere to go to avoid trouble, if trouble happened to find its way to that tiny area of the stadium. It was like being in a fishbowl. Rowdy away fans have been blamed for trouble at Talen but I think the security procedures should share at least some of that blame. If I, a nice 30-something professional lady with zero history of violence, was feeling genuinely angry after 90 minutes of being freezing cold, hungry, scolded for swearing, scolded for flipping the bird, unable to move freely to find food or a restroom, and being taunted by Union fans 15 feet away who were not being scolded for swearing and could flaunt their giant soft pretzels… then I can only imagine how easy it would be to get a 20-something guy to snap, one with an already short temper and fueled by far more beer than I can drink these days.
If Talen moved the away fans to the opposite side of the stadium and sent a pretzel or soda vendor around once in awhile I would bet that most of their problems with away fans would clear up immediately. Hangry away fans will cause problems. That’s just a fact of life.
(This isn’t a knock on the actual security personnel assigned in our section, all of whom were very professional and as kind as they could be to one of our brethren who managed to get himself beligi-drunk before kickoff. Nor indeed on the United fans responsible for organizing the trip who also did a fine job.)
And so my spring run of United games comes to an end. The next game I’ll attend is in June. It’s been a rollercoaster emotions this season, with massive wins followed by heartbreaking losses. Spurts of brilliant teamwork undone by poor play. Some players working their asses off every second of every single game. It’s humbling to watch young Travis Worra and veterans like Marcelo Sarvas and Patrick Nyarko clearly leaving everything on the field in search of a win and frustrating to watch others I’ll leave unnamed phone it in right beside them. The dispiriting loss to a poor NYCFC side, the shellackings by FC Dallas and LA Galaxy… But change is coming around the corner. Big Bill Hamid should be back in goal soon and we’ve signed a young striker, Alhaji Kamara, holder of the title: “Funniest Red Card Reaction Ever”.
I cannot wait to see that passion unleashed at RFK. I cannot wait to see our very own Bill Hamid back in goal. I cannot wait for this patchily brilliant 2016 team to find their form. I cannot wait to get back out and cheer with my fellow fans.
The bus ride back from Chester, PA was one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve had as an MLS fan. The mood was sourer than the bus ride back from Harrison, NJ last year after the Red Bulls knocked us out of the playoffs for the second year running. The brutal frustration of that stoppage time loss, the frustration of having been taunted all evening without being able to respond, cold, hungry, alcohol buzz long worn off… A handful of young guys sitting in the back of the bus serenaded us most of the way home. A cathartic frenzy of mournful soccer chants, drumming on the seats, and shots of gut rot liquor for anyone who wandered back to use the restroom until--energy spent--they all passed out.
For all the frustrations this team brings its fans--the uneven performances, the lack of communication, the seeming indifference towards us from the front office--I still care about those guys on the field and I still care about my fellow fans in the stands. That mournful chant broke my heart. Sung with all the sorrows of the world on their shoulders. “United mi buen amigo esta campaña volveremos a estar contigo te alentaremos de corazon…”
I cannot wait for D.C. United to win again.