Wednesday, September 14, 2016

[D.C. Untied 21] New York Red Bulls vs D.C. United, September 11, 2016

And a note from me: Get well soon, Sean!!

The story of D.C. United at Red Bull Arena begins almost two weeks ago on Thursday, September 1 at Yankee Stadium. Days after an incredible 6-2 hosing of the Chicago Fire, D.C. United traveled north to New York to face N.Y.C.F.C. To say that expectations were high is an understatement. D.C. United had just scored six goals. They looked good and the fans were ready for the first winning streak of the season.

The problem is that N.Y.C.F.C. is a team that can win games. They’re very uneven and their defense is one of the worst in the league but they can win. N.Y.C.F.C. spent big money on David Villa (17 goals) and Frank Lampard (12 goals) for a reason. If they’re going to win, they’re generally going to win by outshooting you, not by keeping goals out. D.C. United, on the other hand, under former defensive midfielder Ben Olsen, has spent the last few years winning by defending and has spent most of this year unable to score much of anything and scraping out a fair number of 1-1 draws. You have to add up our top seven goal scorers this season to equal the total of N.Y.C.F.C’s top two, and one of those seven is centerback Steve Birnbaum!

But D.C. United seemed to have figured it out. And they played the first 75 minutes of the game against N.Y.C.F.C. like the team we’d seen take Chicago out behind the woodshed. Fluid attack, keeping N.Y.C.F.C.’s chances to a minimum… but we’d only scored once. And we’d lost that 1-0 lead too many times this season. Would this be the game that broke the streak? As the clock ticked on towards 90 minutes, all of us watching at home started to hope. Yes, it would be today!

And then it all came crashing down.


Lloyd Sam misses a wide open goal and D.C. United just deflates.

Luke Mishu, filling in for the solid Taylor “Shooter” Kemp, makes a massive blunder, sending a backpass to Hamid that ends up directly at the feet of David Villa, who promptly scores.

1-1.

United crumbles.

Frank Lampard gets one in past young Jalen Robinson, filling in for Steve “Big Time” Birnbaum who is out on National Team duty.

2-1.

Lamar Neagle, a late minute sub, equalizes in stoppage time but not 30 seconds later Lampard gets his second and the game--which had been 0-1 to D.C. for almost 80 minutes--ends 3-2.

We’d lost.

If only Boswell and Robinson had marked Lampard better...

If only Mishu hadn’t sent that backpass directly to Villa…

If only Sam hadn’t blown that chance…

If only Mullins had sent in that ball just before halftime…

If only…

The fact of the matter was, for whatever reason, this team had stopped fighting somewhere before the 80th minute and that is why we lost. The game is 90 minutes long... plus stoppage time. KEEP YOUR HEAD IN IT!

Fan angst was overwhelming in the days following. A lot of people declaring the season was over. Renewed cries to fire Ben Olsen. The hype train on Mullins turning to a shit train. And worst of all Acosta had gotten a yellow so he’d be out for the next game against the Red Bulls, which collective wisdom now held that we were going to lose.

I was not immune from the angst and spent much of the next day under a storm cloud.

****

A week later, on my way to work, I see a tweet from D.C. United saying there will be a Meet and Greet with Patrick Mullins that evening at the Renaissance Hotel in Dupont Circle.

I won’t have time to go home and change into something cute or even to pick up my Mullins jersey for him to sign but, god damn it, that won’t stop me from going to meet and greet the new guy.

The Renaissance Hotel is a Marriott--one D.C. United’s brand partners--and swankier than I usually a stay at. The doorman greets me as I walk into the lobby. There are no signs directing us to famous soccer player Patrick Mullins who just scored a hat trick and no staff around to help. I wander over towards the bar in the lobby area to see if I can find anybody and there sitting at one of the tables, casual as could be, is famous soccer player Patrick Mullins.

I’d been expecting a situation similar to when I made an ass out of myself in front of Steve Birnbaum--a table, some photos to sign, staff on hand to hold cameras--but this was a genuine meet and greet. The bar table had a D.C. United flag draped over it acting as both spill protection and banner. Patrick was sitting with his back towards the entrance, chatting with a woman also about my age, who had also come straight from work. There was nobody else at the table although a D.C. United staffer was milling around on the far side of the table.

“So, what’s going on here?” The first words out of my mouth. “What are we doing?”

“Hello, I’m Patrick.” He turned and extended his hand in greeting. I shook it. He looked just like his photos, lanky with a long thin face to match and close-cropped sandy blond hair. He looked like any number of my brother’s bro friends who attended University of Maryland, which, as it turns out, Patrick did.

I grabbed a seat next to the other woman, across the table from Patrick, and we three sat and talked for about an hour and a half. It was really pleasant. Patrick is really pleasant. He asked us what we did, how long we’d lived in D.C., how long we’d been fans… and he seemed genuinely interested in the answers. His mama done a good job. It didn’t take me long to sink into my most comfortable of modes: know-it-all-librarian. He asked me about all the supporters groups and I told him who we were and where we stood at RFK. “The Screaming Eagles stand in the center. They’re the oldest group and the least rowdy. The Barra Brava are at the far end by the video screen. They’re the drunk group. They throw beer.”

“Oh, that explains why it smells like the Thirsty Turtle down there. It surprised me the first time I had a goal celebration down at that end. Why does it smell like stale beer?”

“And then I’m in the District Ultras. We’re on the opposite side of the Screaming Eagles. We go crazy for 90 minutes but we drink our beer instead of throwing it. Those of us who drink beer.”

He asked about D.C. United history and, again, seemed genuinely interested in the answers, excited to be part of a club with a comparatively long history. He even talked about coming to United games occasionally when he was a student at University of Maryland. I told him about my 20 years of attending games with my brother. The other woman at the table, my doppleganger, told how she’d started going to games after developing an interest in soccer during the 2002 World Cup (not the first time I’ve heard that story, by the way, D.C. United marketing people) and between the two of us we had years of anecdotes to share with Patrick, who, again, seemed genuinely interested in hearing them and a bit surprised that the fans knew and cared this much about the team.

Taylor “Shooter” Kemp. (“You guys know that nickname?! I didn’t even know that nickname.”)

Josh Wolff jumping in the stands.

The infamous ESPN body issue (which is still used to make fun of Ben Olsen, according to Patrick.)

How much we miss Pontius.

How much we still love Charlie Davies.

That first time Beckham came to RFK and the sweet sound of tens of thousands of United fans yelling, “FUCK YOU, BECKHAM” instead of “FUCK THE RED BULLS.”

About what assholes Red Bulls fans are in general.

My favorite goal, the play-off, play-in game winner from Rolfie. (“Against the Revs, right? See I know my United history!”)

He told us about his family, all of whom are accountants--“So, you’re the black sheep of the family?” Zing!--and his Maryland-born girlfriend with the Masters Degree in Public Health Policy. “She’s the brains of the relationship,” he said, grinning. He told us about growing up in Louisiana, the impact of Hurricane Katrina, and how much he loves to play soccer. On that topic, he reminded me a bit of Bill Hamid in the greatest interview ever where Billy compares soccer to a symphony. The flow of the game, the rhythms, each game is different. And unlike basketball or football, it just flows without stopping. One continuous melody.

I asked him about the hype following his hat trick at the Chicago game and he said he’d had to turn off his phone the next day. It wasn’t us, the fans, he stressed, but the MLS publicity machine. They pick up players, hype them for a few months, then drop them. But he told us his parents had been at that game. What a game for your mom and dad to see!

“I walked right out of the stadium into the team store and was like, ‘One Mullins jersey, please.’”

“Wow! I think you’re the only one with my jersey,” he said, all humility. (Not true, Patrick. Not true at all, as we’ll see.)

We got treated to Patrick’s Lloyd Sam impression. (“You guys have to follow him on Snapchat.”)

And he told us about the N.Y.C.F.C. game. How much the loss had sucked. How Luke Mishu hadn’t let the mistake get in his head at practice that week. How they were definitely going to win on Sunday.

“I’m going to Red Bull Arena, so you better win.” I said, only half-joking.

“Leave the 3 points to us,” said Patrick, all confidence.

Before I left, I asked him to sign the one thing I could think of to bring, a print-out of the slogan he writes on his shin guards: First. Last. Only. It was something I’d read in this profile by Thomas Floyd and, again I can’t emphasize this enough, Patrick seemed surprised that people were paying attention. “That article was the first time anybody’s asked me about it,” said Patrick.

Well, we’re paying attention now. D.C. United fans are both passionate and nerdy. At least this one is.

Tradition.

(Anybody who knows me will recognize this pose. The "ACTUALLY..." pose. But coming from a family of accountants with a policy wonk girlfriend, well, no wonder he was so sweet to me.)

LOOK HOW TALL HE IS!

****

7 a.m.

Sunday, September 11, 2016.

I’m sitting towards the back of a mostly empty bus in the parking lot of Key Elementary School. It hasn’t even been a year since my first road trip, my first trip to Red Bull Arena. The animosity of the Red Bull fans, the razor sharp tension of the playoffs, and the quietly depressing ride home, our season over.

In my totebag are two giant bottles of water, two cans of beer, a bottle of coffee, two cereal bars, and a book. I won’t need the book.

The sun is just poking above the horizon as we drive through the empty city to pick up the rest of the gang at RFK Stadium. The handful of Ultras all pile in the back with me. “Do we have the drum?” Yes, we have the drum. I smile really big. This is going to be fun.

After the crushing, last-second snatching defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory game against N.Y.C.F.C., the mood among many D.C. United fans had turned to gloom and doom. “We can’t finish our chances!!” cried hundreds of D.C.-area sports nerds in frustration. I’d let it get to me for a day. Just a day. Now, on the bus to Red Bull Arena, I let no doubt creep in. We were going to win. Patrick had promised me.

With the game starting at 1 p.m., we didn’t have time for the traditional stop at the Irish pub in Harrison and the march in. We pulled up directly to the stadium and mingled outside for a bit with the guys from the N.Y.P.D.F.C. It was September 11th and we would be celebrating the first responders who risked their lives 15 years ago.

I had (and have) mixed feelings about participating in this kind of performative, masturbatory patriotism. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 have been used to justify many things I find… “deplorable.” The war in Iraq. The torture. The men held without charges in Guantanamo. Warrantless wiretapping. The culture of fear cultivated by those with the most to gain. Security theater at airports. Mistrust of our Muslim and Arab brothers and sisters. And the total abandonment by the government of the same first responders and veterans who have risked their health and their lives for us. We’ll wave the flag for them but turn our backs when we hear about the high cost of cancer treatment.

And now we have professional athletes like Colin Kaepernick sitting out the anthem in dignified protest at the conditions many, many black Americans face in their day-to-day lives.

What good does it do to have some rich fucks and entitled media failsons hold a celebration of American values and #neverforget-ing? What aren’t we forgetting? What have we already forgot? What did we, as a country, never know? What do all the non-Americans on the field think about this pomp and circumstance? What do Americans like Bill Hamid, who marched in a Black Lives Matter protest, think?

I took my hat off for the national anthem. Not for the symbol but for the people around me. The drunks and the old timers, the bros, the lanyard monkeys, the service workers. That guy standing by himself reading Gibson. The giggly young woman with an endless supply of beer. Our group mom who brought extra toilet paper for the bus because we ran out last time. All of us who had woken up butt-early on a Sunday--and those who had worked the nightshift and sacrificed a day’s sleep--to sit on a bus for eight plus hours to cheer on our team. This is the America I love, a true melting pot of people, all of us just trying our best to make it through the day.

And then the game began. And United looked lost without Lucho Acosta in the midfield. It felt like nobody knew what to do once they’d reached the box. Shoot? Pass? Nyarko was tentative; Nicky unable to shake off defenders; Sam seemed to forget which team he was playing for.

At halftime the score was 1-0 to Red Bull and even that seemed generous.

“Whoever scores the next goal is going to win,” I said to the woman next to me.

55 minutes in Bradley Wright-Phillips scores. 2-0. I felt an incredible inertia come over me. Why had I come? “WHY DID I EVEN COME HERE?” I yelled at the pitch, to nobody in particular.

A volley from Sacha “You have a stupid mustache!” Kljestan hits the post. I’m so out of the game that I start tweeting:


But me of little faith. United had fight left in them. I don’t know where they got the strength. Was it Ben Olsen yelling from the sidelines, so furious that he’d kicked over his water bottle and had needed Chad Ashton to hold him back on numerous occasions? Was it the sour memory of that game last week at Yankee stadium where they’d turned a win into a loss in the dying minutes of the game? Was it Captain Bobby Boswell, remembering how we the fans had turned on them--on him--after that away loss to the Union in July?

Kenny, drumming for the Ultras, started up another round of my favorite chant, the one that never fails to get me motivated: “Oh D.C.U. We stand by you. Your loyal crew. Your tried and true.”

Ten minutes left in the game and United is just throwing numbers forward. The Red Bulls are growing more and more tired. Even their fans have started emptying out, confident that the result will hold. The stadium grows emptier and emptier. The Red Bulls tireder and tireder.

Then, in the 88th minute, Captain Bobby gets smacked in the head by Bradley Wright-Phillips, winning a free kick just behind the 50 yard line. Marcelo sends it forward. Kemps intercepts a poor Red Bull clearance and weaves through midfield to send the ball to Mullins who has parked himself right in front of goal. Mullins has a pack of defenders on him so he passes the ball left to a wide-open Nyarko who sends it back across goal. It’s a beautiful cross to United’s very own offensive-defender Steve Birnbaum!

Birnie heads it down back to Mullins!

Mullins is taken out by a defender.

But here’s Nicky! He quickly recovers the ball and sends it back to Birnbaum.

Birnbaum shoots again.

Deflected. But it’s headed right back for him and he sidesteps to the right and boom!!

The ball slides through traffic and glides cleanly past Robles.

GOAL!!!!!!!!!

We go fucking mental.

(I myself have a talent for getting into the center of these crowd shots. Heh.)

There are five minutes of stoppage time. We can still win this thing.

The Red Bulls try to hold onto the lead. There is time wasting and more time wasting from their guys.

Hamid makes a HUGE save, denying Bradley Wright-Phillips his second of the night and at that point the game is over for them. Red Bulls are crushed.

United presses forward again.

Corner kick and Hamid runs forward to join the set-piece.

It’s deflected off a Red Bull.

They retake the corner.

Buescher sends it in directly to Birnbaum’s head. He knocks it down and it rolls right to the feet of an unmarked Luke Mishu.

Mishu kicks it out of the air towards goal.

It kind of bounces off the post but LAMAR NEAGLE IS RIGHT THERE AND HE JUST THRUSTS HIS PELVIS AND SENDS IT ALL THE WAY IN!

WE TIE IN THE LAST MINUTE OF STOPPAGE TIME!

The defeat on the faces of the Red Bulls is visible even to us, high above the pitch in the away fans section. They collapse on the field. A 2-0 win turned into a 2-2 draw and D.C. United takes home the Atlantic Cup.

There are draws that feel like loses, draws that feel like draws, and draws that feel like wins.

This 2-2 was none of those. This was no simple win, this draw felt like victory. Sweet, sweet victory. For this team to fight their way back from a 2 goal deficit in the dying minutes of the game. To stay in the game for 90+ minutes. To put behind them the loss at Yankee Stadium and whatever anxieties about playoffs and next season might be lurking. For Luke Mishu to redeem himself. For Bobby to not let the traveling fans down, again. Birnbaum having the confidence to step up. Hamid making the crucial saves to keep us in the game. It may not have been pretty and it may not have been a win but it felt like a victory to us. We sang all the way home… even louder when LA gave our conference rivals Orlando a massive smackdown.

And I think it felt like victory to the team too.

We’re still in this playoff race.

Come on, boys.

Let’s show the Chicago Fire that D.C.’s win last month wasn’t a fluke.

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