Monday, August 22, 2016

[D.C. Untied 18] D.C. United vs Portland Timbers, August 13, 2016

YES I'm back! My jet lag is swiftly falling away and I should have the second part of this up in the next day or so. For the four or five of you who read this. Heh. Comments are welcome, feel free to message me or tweet at me or whatever. I know I don't always get everything right and I know that there's a lot I don't know about soccer and being a supporter but I'm learning. Slowly learning. I've also been told by certain people they don't care if I use their names. If you are one of those people who doesn't care if I use your name, let me know. I try to err on the side of caution and privacy but am happy to attribute quips at my expense where credit is due.

“You look like a zombie.”

That was how Tim greeted me at the District Ultras tailgate on Saturday. I had nothing to say in response. It was a fair assessment. He’d been watching me slowly shuffle my way across Lot 8 towards the river. I’d even downed a cancer-giving Red Bull--before setting foot on sacred RFK ground, thank you very much--but it was no use. I felt like a zombie. I’d been back in the United States for less than 24 hours and the only thing capable of powering my beyond-fatigued corpse was the thought of being back in section 127 cheering for D.C. United.


Returning from vacation is always difficult. More so when that vacation was a magical 2 weeks in Japan with good friends who I only see once a year and with whom I can indulge my love of sublimely ridiculous pop culture (which I will try to write more on later). Unlike previous visits to Japan where depression had set in the second I’d touched down on American soil, this year I had D.C. United to ease my comedown. A game on Saturday, a fan event on Tuesday, a meet-and-greet with the always charming Steve Birnbaum on Friday, an open practice the following Saturday and then another game on Sunday. If a full slate of D.C. United couldn’t get me through my first week back in the good ol’ US of A, then nothing could.

The sun began to sink and late afternoon turned to early evening. We filed into RFK an hour late thanks to a heat delay. It was so humid that even the zombies among us were glistening with sweat. We were allowed two bottles of water but no bottle caps for ridiculous security theater reasons. Not trusting myself with two open bottles sloshing my way through the bowels of RFK, I brought in one and then promptly drank it on my way to section 127.

A special tribute to player-turned-assistant coach Davy Arnaud was supposed to take place before the game and even in my fatigue haze I didn’t want to miss it. I’d grown quite attached to Davy in all his gritty midfield glory and had been sad when D.C. United announced at the beginning of the season that he was retiring. Davy had been brought down with a concussion sometime late in the 2015 season and had never fully recovered. It only seemed fitting that D.C. United and the fans should celebrate a man who’d given up his health for us. Sadly, at least on the loud side of the stadium, the tribute was underwhelming. The video screen at RFK too tiny to capture Davy’s larger-than-life persona as a player and he was standing too far away for us to really see what was going on.

Still, we cheered for him.

And then the game began. My nervousness and fatigue swiftly forgotten as the Ultras dug in for 90 minutes of chanting.

I’d left this series on a low note back in July, feeling that this team was unable to gel, like trying to add pineapple to a tray of jello. We couldn’t reliably score and we couldn’t reliably defend. Steve Birnbaum seemed to have forgotten how to play with the team after weeks riding the bench with the USMNT for Copa America. And add the patchy chemistry between defenders Kofi, Bobby, and young Jalen Robinson, it felt like we were spinning a roulette wheel at the beginning of each game hoping that, somehow, this combination of centerbacks would be able to work as a unit.

After the disaster in Philly--the last game I’d been able to attend--we’d tied 1-1 in Columbus with what would turn out to be Fabian Espindola’s swansong goal in the dying embers of the game. The following week in Toronto, United had been unable to shut down top scorer Giovinco. We lost 4-1. But pieces were in motion. The squad had changed considerably by the time they returned to RFK for a stretch of four home games. Espindola had been traded away, his usefulness at an end. In his place we’d picked up young, former University of Maryland talent Patrick Mullins, who’d been riding the bench behind David Villa at NYCFC. We’d also picked up Kennedy Igboananike from bottom-of-the-league Chicago, who (rumor has it) were looking to dump his salary. Iggy hadn’t been the David Villa-Giovinco-Race For the Golden Boot player they’d hoped for but he can do things like this and this and, who knows, he could still be finding his legs after coming over to MLS from Scandinavia in 2015. New addition Lloyd Sam was swiftly finding his place on the team and our own Patrick Nyarko was working his way back to full health following an awful concussion. Add to that Bobby Boswell and Steven Birnbaum re-finding their groove and D.C. United seemed ready to tear up these four home games and emerge victorious with all 12 points.

I’d watched both games, eagerly, in Japan, early in the morning, on my tiny iPod screen. Nervous anticipation as Mullins got us an early lead against Montreal, watching with one eye on the clock as I got dressed for a day of fun in Tokyo, but there is was, that familiar sinking feeling of deflation as United gave up an equalizer with minutes to go. The following week I was on an early morning train to Mt. Takao for a day of hiking, silently willing Birnbaum’s stoppage time equalizer to hit the net from halfway across the globe. Two home games, two early leads blown, two ties. Would we draw 3 times in a row? Could we afford to draw 3 times in a row and still make the playoffs?

Still, no matter how dire our circumstances, almost each and every game begins with an initial buzz of optimism from the crowd. All the supporters groups cheering at full volume. Everybody standing up, ready for something to happen. And before the initial buzz of crowd energy had a chance to wear off… GOAL! Steve Birnbaum!

But it wasn’t over. We’d blown a 1-0 lead just two weeks ago. We needed to score again. And then… Acosta! GOAL! 2-0!!

Halftime. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been awake and was pretty sure that only pure fangirl adrenaline was keeping me on my feet.

The second half was tough. Tiredness lurked at the edges of the field, waiting for me--for us--to give up. Patrick Mullins had 1, 2, 3 good chances. All for nothing. He lay on the ground in front of Gleeson, the Timbers goalkeeper, in utter defeat. “GET UP, MULLINS!” I yelled. “GET! UP!”

The Ultras chanting died down to a lull as the clock ticked into the last 10 minutes of the game. Listening to the silence from the Screaming Eagles on our left--their singing never as enthusiastic in the second half as in the first--I almost gave in. But I couldn’t give in to fatigue. The team couldn’t give in to fatigue. We couldn’t give the Timbers a chance at an equalizer. Do not let your guard down! The Ultras rallied and I used every last remaining bit of energy to jump up and down and carry the guys through the final stretch. And then… we’d done it. Our first win since June 25th.

I whipped off my Birnbaum jersey and waved it around in glee. We did it! WE DID IT!

Stefan and some of the other guys stayed behind banging the giant drum. I danced with them, smelling of sweat and gleeful beer showers, unable to leave the bright floodlights of RFK just yet.


(Picture thanks to Tim.)

****

Tuesday brought the Question & Answer session with Ben Olsen, Taylor Kemp, Patrick Nyarko, and Amos Magee. They had us sitting somewhere in the 200s on the Quiet Side of RFK. Another hot, humid evening. The air stuck to our skin like cobwebs but the complimentary beer and the hand fan I’d brought back from Japan helped mitigate the feeling a bit. The crowd of fans cut across all ages and demographics. An old timer, clearly a veteran of these events, sitting up front got a hearty welcome from Ben. A young girl there with her mother got in one of the best questions of the night: “What would you guys be doing if you didn’t play soccer?” “Gym teacher,” quipped Ben, who was leaning back in his chair, legs spread, only needing a whistle to complete the image. Amos told an involved story about playing Dungeons & Dragons that I very much appreciated. Nobody asked anything too difficult--the interview with Markus Halsti, the lackluster record--until one final question from a tiny boy in the front row. He’d been waving his hand patiently for a good ten minutes but had been overlooked. Now it was his turn. He took a breath and spoke: “Why did you send Espindola away?”

Right to the heart. This kid gets it.

We were briefly united in emotion, laughter at the kid’s innocence, a small hit of grief for the departed Fabi, who’d served the club so well.

I do wonder if these events are as enjoyable for the players as they are for us, the fans. A chance to see each other as human. If Taylor Kemp wasn’t a soccer player? “Uh… I’d probably have done something with my business degree and then hated it and quit and gone back to Colorado to… do Colorado stuff.” Can you imagine Shooter behind a desk? My image of him is sprinting madly up the left wing, launching the ball over the heads of defenders, constantly in motion. Patrick Nyarko, the immigrant kid, would be a doctor in NoVa somewhere. Aunties clucking over him to get married already. His uncanny grace, the power he summons to speed past every other player on the field… wasted in some suburban McMansion carpool.

And there’s us, the mob of drunks and rowdies yelling and berating on game day. The needy little kids pushing for autographs. The pedants on message boards and comment threads always complaining. Annoyingly tweeting food politics articles at Chris Rolfe because we want him to know we haven’t forgotten about him. We’re also the ones who follow the wins and losses, carefully tallying points gained and dropped. Each game taken as seriously as if we were out on the field. Yelling at Patrick Mullins to GET THE FUCK UP as if our collective willpower alone could force his body to rise from the ground. Maybe it’s just a job for these guys but maybe it helps sometimes to know that they’re also playing for that young girl brave enough to ask a question, for the old timer who’s full of well meaning advice, for the bros who carefully collect statistics and track club milestones, for the thousands of people who come out to put their own hearts on the line at RFK. Sharing in losses and victories alike. It's a game but it's not meaningless. Not to us, anyway.

****

To be continued...

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