Saturday, August 27, 2016

[D.C. Untied 19] D.C. United vs New York Red Bulls, August 21, 2016

Picking up the story from where I left off in the last post. I’d just gone to the Q&A on Tuesday evening, the 16th of August.


I was still in the process of emerging from jet lag as the week finally rolled into Friday. I’d made it through. And my reward was that one Mr. Steve Birnbaum (the “Pear Tree,” as my Dad calls him) was going to be doing a little autograph signing in the Wells Fargo right by my apartment building. I have no idea what sort of sponsorship Wells Fargo has with D.C. United but I will say this: I’d never have had a reason to set foot in a Wells Fargo without the lure of an autograph from Six Thirty Birnie himself.

The event was set to take place from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. Not wanting to seem too eager, I showed up at the cool, way more casual time of 4:05. A couple of the bank staff were outside with signs and a balloons and they seemed excited to see me. “I’m here for that,” I said, pointing to their sign.

“Just walk right through to the back,” said the Wells Fargo staffer. “He’s really nice.”

As advertised, when I’d threaded my way through the tiny bank branch, there was Steve “Big Time” Birnbaum standing and chatting with a couple and doting on their baby. All the jokey comments I was going to zing him with about making sure his ladyfriend kept those preppy photo shoots coming flew out of my head. My stomach started to hurt and I could feel myself beginning to flush. I was star struck.

I’ve met actual movie stars, big time directors, high ranking politicians, rock stars. I’ve done interviews with some, met others by chance. I once waited on Michael J. Fox’s table when he came to the restaurant I was working at. Hell, I even met Birnbaum earlier this year and busted his balls a bit about being a Clarendon Bro. In other words, I’m not easily thrown off my game.

Blame jet lag, blame the fact that I’ve spent considerably more hours between February and now watching Birnbaum play, or even just blame my dumb lady hormones at responding to the undivided attention of a very cute guy. Whatever the cause, faced with actual Steve Birnbaum, I turned into a flaming red moron.

“Hey,” said Steve, with a big smile. He sat back down behind the little desk they’d set up. “You were at the game last week.”

“Yeah,” I replied, blushing, holding out my jersey for him to sign. I’d been pretty sure he’d spotted me waving my Birnbaum jersey around like an idiot after the last game and given me a thumbs up as he walking off the field. I was right.

“You going to be there on Sunday?” He asked, attempting to sign despite my inept jersey holding technique.

“Yeah.”

“Great! We need all the support we can get.”

I went to shove the jersey in my overflowing work bag, face painfully red. “I stand down with the Ultras so I usually just yell at the opposition goalie.” I paused. “Or at Taylor.” Birnbaum usually plays the right centerback role and the Ultras are positioned to be on the left side of United defense, so we mostly just see Taylor Kemp up close and personal for 45 minutes a game. “I was after him the whole game like, ‘Goal of the week, Taylor!’ Goal of the week!’”

“Taylor needs somebody yelling at him.” Steve grinned. “Did you see his goal?”

“Yeah. I was in Japan, though, and it was early and I was watching on my tiny iPod screen just yelling quietly at it. It wasn’t the same.”

“Maybe that’s what helped,” he said. “Did you want a picture?”

“Uh…” I had been standing and nervously fidgeting with my bag. “Yeah?”

He stood up and came around to the other side of the desk. I passed my iPod over to one of the many staffers on hand to observe my idiocy.

Steve Birnbaum is tall. Very tall. And I had the rare opportunity of being made to feel petite as stood next to me.

There was nobody else waiting to meet him.

“Do you want some stuff?” He asked, walking back to the desk.

“Stuff?”

Steve gestured to the mountain of swag in front of him. “Yeah, they’ve got magnets… stress balls…” He started squeezing the little soccerball-shaped stressball. “These are pretty cool.”

“Uh, sure. Thanks.” I took some assorted swag. “My cats like those balls.”

“Here, take this, too.” He signed a 8 x 10 glossy photo of himself and handed it to me.

“Thanks, I’ll bring it into work.” I wouldn’t but for a very good reason I’ll get to later.

“Thanks for coming in.”

“See you tomorrow!”

And I escaped into the hot summer Arlington afternoon clutching my 8 x 10 glossy and a stressball for my cats.

****

Tomorrow? Oh, yes, I’d meant tomorrow. There was a open practice Saturday at RFK from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. and there was no way in hell I was missing it.

There was some sort of television game show event going on in most of the parking lot so we were directed to park in Lot 8A. The sky was clear blue and the sun shone down heavily, even though it was still fairly early in the day. It was hot.

We stalwarts were directed to sit whereever we wanted in the lower bowl and I ended up behind the goal line next to a dad and his preteen son. The turnout was pretty good. Some young boys with their associated parental units, a couple of ladies whose attention was kept very focused on Saborio’s thighs as his shorts rode up, some of the bros from the Tuesday night event, all sorts of people were there to show some sort of solidarity with the team.

The team came out and moved immediately to the shady side of RFK--down at the exact opposite end of where I was sitting--and began doing warm-ups. Down on our end, the sunny end, we watched Travis Worra and Bill Hamid as they began their training with goalkeeping coach Zack Thornton. And then a few minutes later the rehabbing Alhaji Kamara and Colin Martin (I think?) began running some drills down on our end, too. As the healthy part of the team began practice in earnest, Chris Rolfe ran some laps around the field. It was good to see him.

There was something almost zen-like in watching Kamara and Martin run through the drills. The rhythm was so steady--tap, tap, pass--that it startled me when the pattern broke. Martin hit the ball too high and Kamara had to head it back over to the assistant running the drills.

It was hot.

And bright.

My hat did nothing to protect my face from the sun. I was sure I was turning pink. Sweat beaded and dripped down my back.

A D.C. United staffer came over and told us to gather over at the far end of the stadium so Coach Olsen could talk to us.

From the shady end, we got a better view of the set piece practice and scrimmages going on. Benny himself had joined in on one of the scrimmages, giving Travis Worra some real trouble. We cheered.

As practice wore down, Coach Olsen came over to answer any questions and to give us fans a little pep talk. It was much of what he’d said on Tuesday. “Who was here on Tuesday?” Quite a few of us raised our hands. “You guys must be getting sick of me,” he quipped with a smile.

Ben Olsen is really likable.

I strongly suspect the rash of events has much to do with the beginning of season ticket renewal season. (Spoiler alert: it worked.) But I also think it was good to try and get the fans back on board. I’m not going to lie, it was really tough going for a while, unable to score, lurching from crushing defeat to crushing defeat with only an improbable wonder goal from Jared Jeffrey or Alhaji Kamara in between. We’d seen our star players injured--Chris Rolfe, Bill Hamid--or just struggling to fit in on the field like Espindola had been doing. But now things seemed to be on an upturn. We’d won last week for the first time since June but the two draws also had a lot of positive takeaways. And last time we’d faced the Red Bulls, we’d crushed them like Esky had.

I was looking forward to Sunday. And I think Coach Olsen was, too.

****

The weather forecast predicted not just rain but thunderstorms for Sunday afternoon. The game was scheduled for 3 p.m. and though there was still some blue sky winking in between the ominous grey clouds rolling in as I walked to the Metro, I was glad I’d thought to put my wallet and phone and assorted-crap-ladies-carry into water-tight plastic baggies inside my purse.

By the time I reached RFK, the blue had disappeared. Clouds hung low and heavy, as did the sense of anticipation. Unable to focus on anything except the game that lay ahead, I stood off to the side at the Ultras tailgate with a foamy keg beer, just lost in thought.

It started to spit rain.

We ran for cover under some big trees.

Laughing, I pointed out that if there were to be a thunderstorm, under some big trees is probably not the safest place to be. “I was here when the lady got struck by lightning at the Tibetan Freedom Fest, you know.” They’d stopped the concert and sent us all home. I missed my chance to see Verve and Radiohead.

The rain stopped and we went inside the stadium, ready to jump and cheer and yell “Fuck the Red Bulls” for 90 solid minutes.

Despite the brewing storm, the game kicks off at 3 p.m. as scheduled. D.C. United looks good. They’re aggressive, pushing and prodding at the Red Bulls’ defense. Are we going to get an early goal? Multiple double-birds get flipped at the Red Bulls supporters section.

Then it starts to really rain. The skies open up and seconds later, lightning streaks across the dome of RFK. The clock stops at precisely 8:56 into the match. I turn from the pitch to the giant drum and throw my hands up towards the sky and rain, still dancing and chanting with the rest of the Ultras. We last a few minutes until security comes to clear us--and the Barra Brava, who’d also remained, on the exact opposite side--for our own safety. I know. I was here when that lady got struck by lightning, you know.

The rain pours down into the stands. Puddling in the field.

I go into the concourse and get a cheese pupusa and giant beer because fuck it.

Stuffing my face with delicious warm cheezy goodness, I watch the other Ultras prowling around. They won’t let us back outside. All this kinetic energy, this anticipation, suddenly has no outlet, no release.

I finish my food and follow a couple of bros as they sneak off. “We found a way in,” they told me, conspiratorially. “All you gotta do is go up and around. They aren’t checking up there.”

We sneak in through the 300s and pick our way over sheltering customers until we reach the mass of Ultras who’d gathered just at the edge of the covering over at the far right of the loud side. They had a drum. Somebody was playing. Somebody else started the singing.

Throw the Metros down the well!

So our country can be free!

You must grab them by the horns!

Then we’ll have a big party!

If I had the wings of an eagle…

Vamos, vamos United…

Warm-ups were going to be begin (again) at 4:15 p.m.

The rain had slowed from a downpour to drizzle and staff were on the field squeegeeing as much water off as they could. The referees were kicking a ball around, testing the conditions. It looked liked trying to hit a ball out of a bathtub. This was going to be fun.

As soon as security allowed, we were back down in sections 127 and 128 keeping up the energy as United began their warm-ups. A round of “You’re not singing over there” aimed at the Red Bulls fans, was soon re-directed at the Screaming Eagles, who returned the song with some bird flips but got the hint.

The game restarted.

And even if it wasn’t great soccer, it was an extremely entertaining game, testing the athletic skills and endurance of every player out there. There were skids and falls and missed balls and, most hilariously, a ball sent directly into D.C. United’s number one enemy Felipe’s nuts, which got a huge cheer from the Loud Side.

Despite some prime opportunities for Nyarko in the first half, the Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright Phillips was the first score and we went into halftime down a goal.

I didn’t actually start to feel the creeping doom until Felipe (may his name be cursed) scored the second goal in the 64th minute.

But me of little faith. Just as I had started to accept that we were going to lose, Sam is brought down right in front of our eyes in the Red Bulls’ box.

Penalty kick?

Penalty kick!

Marcelo steps up.

It’s in!

WE’RE BACK!!!!!

Seconds later, what looks like a lost opportunity on a set piece is kept play by my boy Birnbaum and headed in by Mullins!

2-2!!!!!!

I hug the shirtless bro on my right and then turn and give the bro on the other side a double high five of glee.

2-2!!!!!

The rest of the game is a nail biter as the clocks gets closer and closer to 90. Will we do it? Will we? Mullins comes off for Iggy to big cheers. Well earned. Never. Give. Up. If I have to yell, “GET UP MULLINS” in every single game, I will.

A last chance for Taylor “Goal of the Week” Kemp goes just wide and we end 2-2.

A win would have been wonderful but this draw felt pretty damn close. We looked good out there.

We looked good.

Some Wells Fargo staffer had come around handing the Ultras “Meet Steve Birnbaum” tickets towards the end of the game and I ended the weekend as I began it, in the arms of one Mr. Steve Birnbaum.

I was exactly as inarticulate as I’d been a couple days before.

“There she is,” said Birnbaum as he saw me. “Enjoy the game?”

“There was a fist fight in our section,” I replied, utterly ignoring poor Luke Mishu on my left. “Did you see it?”

“No,” he said.

“Okay, bye!” And I skipped away to wait for my photo. Which I brought into work on Monday.


****

And as a postscript, my brother told me this story:

He’d arrived early to the Maryland Soccerplex for D.C. United’s Open Cup Game against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and had ducked into the main building to use the bathroom. As he’s washing his hands, in walks Ben Olsen. Now, my brother is the biggest D.C. United fan I know. He’s followed the team for 20 years. He knows the history. Ben Olsen isn’t just a guy, he’s the Ben Olsen, the guy who’s given almost half his life to the club, his personality strongly coloring the way the team now plays.

Benny spots my brother, standing there in his jersey, and says, “Hey, here for the game?”

Now, my brother, who isn’t just a fan but is also very friendly and is generally the type of guy who can hold a conversation with anyone. Here he is face to face with with a guy who has loomed large over his soccer days. And my brother, he says, “Yup.”

“Okay, see you out there,” replied Ben.

And then my brother exits the bathroom.

****

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