Sunday, June 5, 2016

[D.C. Untied 13] D.C. United vs Seattle Sounders, June 1, 2016

The early summer evening couldn’t have been more ideal. A light breeze, the soft glow of twilight. There was more of a crowd than I’d expected for a random Wednesday night game against a West Coast opponent. I hadn’t realized how popular the Seattle Sounders were until surrounded by a sea of their puke green jerseys. I felt a bit self-conscious, having come right from work, still dressed in my work clothes and wearing no D.C. United gear whatsoever. Thanks to the new security restrictions, we are no longer allowed to bring in bags large enough to fit a change of clothes and, alas, I can’t wear my Birnbaum jersey to the office. But the unease passed as soon as I’d settled in, Tecate in hand, to watch the teams warm up. With the District Ultras still sitting out the first half of home games in protest, I’d taken to sitting in random seats behind the Screaming Eagles section, just like my brother and I used to do before I was really a fan.


Sitting by myself, I was content to be outside on a beautiful evening, thinking about life, people-watching as the seats filled in around me. This was what I wanted when I signed up for season tickets all those months ago. Someplace to be. “Filmi Girl!” I turned at the sound of my name and smiled. Some of my new Ultras friends were making their way down the stairs towards me and I was soon caught in a giant bear hug. “How’s it going, Filmi Girl?!”

How it was going was that I was nervous. The chatter before the game from the message board nerds had felt too confident. “Seattle is terrible right now!” But weren’t we terrible right now, too? A late goal from our brand new Sierra Leonean striker Alhaji Kamara--making his debut appearance--had given us the win in Kansas City on Friday but we hadn’t looked all that sharp before that happened. Besides, Alhaji Kamara was not yet ready to go 45 minutes let alone 90 and with our most reliable scorer Alvaro Saborio off playing with the Costa Rican national team in the Copa America games and speedy winger Patrick Nyarko out with a concussion and Bobby Boswell’s wild swings in competence, it just didn’t seem likely that Kamara was going to sub in during the dying minutes of the game and win it for us two weeks in a row.

And I was right.

The first half, much like the first half against NYCFC (another “terrible” team we’d gotten overconfident about), was full of missed chances. Three or four shots ended up on top of the goal. If one of those had gone in it’s possible things might have ended up differently. But they didn’t. And coming back from halftime, D.C. United gave up two goals and collapsed in on themselves. We’re lucky we only lost by 2. The image that sticks with me is (I think) Jared Jeffrey collapsed on the ground in front of the goal, utterly dejected after another opportunity went nowhere.

Once again as the second half wore on, the mood curdled in the stands of RFK and the air grew heavy. People started drifting out towards the exits and it felt like D.C. United had already done the same in spirit. Once we were finally back in our section those leading the chants for the Ultras tried valiantly to keep the momentum going but it was tough going to sing through the ennui, even for me. Why was I cheering for a team that didn’t want to win?

After 45 minutes of depressing soccer, the pleasant mood from earlier that evening had been completely trashed. I called my brother while I walked to the Metro and asked what the game had looked like on TV. Was it as bad as it felt? “They had no cohesion,” my brother said. “They looked like they’d never played together before.”

I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the highlights, such as they were, but I trust my brother’s judgement. Going into this mini-break, D.C. United still feels like a team that has yet to figure out how to play together. How much is Ben Olsen’s fault for switching the midfield around just as Nick DeLeon and Marcelo Sarvas were beginning to click? How much is due to injury? Nyarko and Rolfe out with concussion is nothing that could have been planned for. How much is psychological? Not giving up mentally after letting in a goal was the trademark of 2015’s squad. This year they’ve crumpled as soon as they’re scored against. We need that tenacity back.

This Copa America break gives D.C. United a much needed chance to rest and start fresh going into the summer.

And it also gives me a chance to rest and reflect on my experiences this season so far.

Here’s the highlights: I’ve had an absolute blast meeting new friends, cheering for D.C. United, and learning more than I thought I could possibly want to know about soccer and soccer tactics.

But not everything has been positive, of course. Getting treated like a criminal is not something that I--a 30-something white lady with an office job--am used to and it feels incredibly shitty to have the worst assumed of you for stepping a bit outside the lines of “family friendly” behavior.

It also feels shitty to be told that your support for the team is worth absolutely nothing, that your passion and interest do not register as dollar amounts on a spreadsheet and therefore do not matter. On top of just being a dick thing to say to somebody who has dedicated a lot of time and money to supporting a team, it’s also a really stupid thing to say to customers whom you depend on to come out provide the authentic “soccer atmosphere” that you sell to your other customers because your team has no superstar players and is only intermittently a winning team. (All I’m saying is that it’s not an accident that I often see the field level customers turn around and take pictures of us going crazy in the stands.)

I’ve grown to love D.C. United but it’s because of the men on the field and my new friends in the stands. Here’s what the business types need to understand about fans: you cannot assign a dollar amount to my willingness to stand out in the freezing rain for 90 minutes waving a flag and singing at the top of my lungs but if you treat us with respect I am willing to shell out a steady stream of dollars that is representational of the love I feel for the team. Maybe it will open a few eyes if I say that I’ve bought quite a bit of fan merchandise but zero official merchandise since the Ultras began their strike and I don’t think I’m the only one.

But I do love those guys on the field and I want them to do succeed. I still believe we’ll be seeing Bobby Boswell hoist that MLS Cup over his head at the end of the year. We can’t give up yet! Look, Alhaji Kamara is out hitting tires with a giant hammer in a parking lot. DOES THAT NOT INSPIRE YOU?!

Because, speaking of which, I love the Major League Soccer players. They are all sorts of earnest, sarcastic, ridiculous, showboating, dumb as rocks, whipsmart, handsome, ugly as sin, buff, dadbods, questionable facial hair, questionable tattoos, manbuns galore, hideous whiteboy dreads, kind, and total dicks. I’ve had a lot of fun playing the MLS Fantasy game and--here is where the business side did something really smart for fans--it’s done what it’s supposed to and gotten me invested in other players on other teams. I like when David Villa scores not just because he’s extremely emotional and an absolute joy to watch on the field but because it gets me points. I love having points. And thanks to my love of points I’m now willing to turn on Univision or Fox Sports or whatever and watch a non-D.C. United MLS game because I genuinely like the players and care about the outcome.

And, hey, Major League Soccer #content team, I like the players. You need to stop with the fan profiles and articles about fans and reporting on tifo. It feels exploitative and honestly kind of pathetic. I write about fans because that’s what I am and I’m writing for myself. I’m pretty sure most people don’t care what the Timbers Army did except for the Timbers Army. The rest of us want to read about the guys on the field, okay? Leave fan culture to the fans, leave players social media on social media, and do pieces on the teams and players, things the rest of us do not have access to. And how about more analysis? I’ve learned more about soccer from the fans writing on blogs than I have from MLS content. You aren’t going to turn non-soccer and casual soccer fans into megafans with posts about Da Boy’s instagram feed and a roundup of the weekend’s best tifo.

Last week I picked up a Karen Armstrong book I hadn’t read in a while and it got me thinking a bit on what it means to me to be a fan of D.C. United. Armstrong writes a lot about the human experience and how we, as humans, have shaped our cultures to meet our fundamental spiritual needs. One of those needs is the transcendent experience, leaving aside the mundane and feeling a part of something bigger than yourself. Music can trigger this for me but, as I’ve written before on this blog, the kind of live music I enjoy has become difficult to find here in America and is the main reason I began making an annual trip to Japan. I used to find it in Indian film but, again, the communal experience watching a masala film with a packed crowd that I enjoyed so much has been increasingly hard to find. Theaters aren’t as full as they used to be and the types of films I was drawn to are harder to find.

Where that leaves me is at RFK. It doesn’t happen at every game but when it does… wow. The feeling of connection with the crowd, with the players, with the sun and the rain. The elation of that Rolfe goal goal against New England late last year that sent us into the playoffs. Saborio and Acosta combining to send in two against Vancouver earlier this year for our first win. It’s not a simple joy of seeing our guys win. That happens too but “joy” doesn’t capture that feeling of transcendence when the emotions of the crowd and players align and you can feel that something special has just happened.

RFK stadium isn’t just a crumbling relic, it’s a sacred space, overlaid with memories and emotions of the hundreds of thousands of people who have traveled up and down its cement walkways over the years. Crossing the parking lot and entering the stadium, we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, a small community of fans across the DC area who support this team and the players who go out on the field and give everything they have for us. It’s one of the rare chances some of us have to interact with people outside our own limited social spheres, most of us live tightly constrained by ethnic, class, age, gender, and cultural barriers. Getting to know players from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil--countries mainstream Americans think nothing about unless there is some sort of earthquake or civil war--and getting to know them as people. Having a chance to get to know my own Spanish-speaking neighbors from countries like El Salvador and Honduras and Bolivia. That is something really special. We live side by side but never interact. D.C. United gives us a chance to sing together. For me, that is a bigger selling point than any Star Wars night could ever be. You can’t hold us back. We are United.

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