Thursday, October 20, 2016

[D.C. Untied 24] D.C. United vs New York City FC, October 16, 2016

October 2, 2015, just about a year ago, was a rainy Friday night at RFK. I know nothing of what’s happening in the season beyond the fact that I have a good time hanging out with my brother and cheering for the guys in black. I don’t know about Davy’s concussion and how the season has been in freefall since he’s been out, with United hemorrhaging points. I don’t know that this game will break a six game losing streak. I don’t know anything about “Bennyball” or Pontius’s hamstrings or, indeed, anything about soccer beyond the need to put the ball in the goal to win.


But standing there, shoulder to shoulder, poncho to poncho, with my brother and another friend, on the bouncy stands in the lower bowl, just behind the crazy flag-waving Ultras, I remember the pure joy I felt when Saborio scores the stoppage time goal that secures the win. The stresses of the work week and real life were momentarily forgotten. The joy was fizzing in my chest, down my spine, in my fingers and toes...WE WON!

I recognized the sensation immediately because I knew exactly what it was, this joy buzzing through my veins, warming my cold body. Somewhere during all those games my brother had dragged me to, I’d crossed the line from casual supporter to full blown fangirl. This wasn’t just me having fun with the flags and yelling and pageantry of the supporter groups, which was how I’d enjoyed D.C. United games for the previous 19 years. Something else had clicked in. I was now a fan.

Having spent the last 30+ years honing my fan-craft, I know exactly what I have to do. I cram 19 years of D.C. United history in my head, swallowing message boards whole, identifying the big narrative threads, the major players, the vocabulary, the inside jokes, the gossip only hinted at, the fan complaints, the unwritten rules of fan conduct, sifting through a massive volume of data to try and figure out where I could squeeze myself into this small and very dedicated fandom. And I remember being unbearably crushed when I realized that the season was drawing to a close and all my fun would soon be over.

And now, just over a year later, even with all my new knowledge and new game-friends and so many new experiences, I still haven’t had enough. Once again, I’m not ready for the season to be over but luckily it seems like D.C. United and I are on the same page about that.

Last Sunday D.C. United once again faced off against the team from New York City. The scrappy team everybody had written off as garbage against the league’s marque team, the Manchester City subsidiary with the big promotional budget and even bigger names. Remembering the spate of “Pirlo” jerseys I’d seen in the crowd at previous games against “City”, when D.C. United’s twitter feed began advertising a sell out crowd, even bigger than the 25,000 against Orlando City, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those tickets were to see the stars, the tiny goal scoring former Spanish national team forward David Villa and legendary Italian midfielder and part time winery owner Andrea Pirlo.

I wanted United to make those blue-shirted day trippers in the stands forget Pirlo and stand up to salute the name “Bobby Boswell.” This is our town.

A. was able to make it out for her first game since the very first home game of the season back in March. “This is a completely different team than the one you saw,” I told her. The memories of that frigid draw against Colorado, our sole goal from the departed Fabian Espindola, seemed so far removed they might have been from another lifetime not just half a year ago. In the present, the sun gleamed in a clear blue sky and the air was warm for mid-October.

The languid feel of the sunny afternoon fell away as we stepped into RFK. Warm ups were just starting but the crowd was already starting to trickle in. It was business time. Circumstances and the general suckiness of Metro had forced me to drive in so I was going to be taking care of business with a nice glass of lemonade. A. bought cotton candy and we made our way down and around to the Ultras section, joining the handful of people already there.

Banners were taped up, flags handed out, drums tested, and more and more people crowded in down front, spilling over into the sections around us.

One knee braced on the barrier, I turned to look down the long edge of the stands towards the opposition goal. The Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava were already bouncing. I felt, more than heard, the low rumble of the drums. “D.C. UNITED!” Hundreds of voices, maybe thousands. I turned to look up at the upper bowl behind us, suddenly needing to see the crowds for myself. People! So many people!

And then game on!

United come out strong. The crowd groans then cheers as early shots from Rob Vincent and Patrick Mullins go wide, leaving City’s goalkeeper, droopy-eyed Josh Saunders untested. Bill Hamid is standing strong on our end. The crowd likes what we’re seeing. United is pressing high, toying with the defense. City needs to build their attack out of the back and United is not going to let them do it. Trying to release some pressure Saunders sends a ball over to City’s young English midfielder Jack Harrison who tries to trap it but is pressured out of possession by Nick DeLeon. The ball bounces towards Lloyd Sam who gets a head on it and sends it towards the center to Jared Jeffrey. Sam starts his run as Jeffrey picks out Acosta, who is inexplicably wide open. Patrick Nyarko is speeding up the left wing, Mullins just a hair behind in the center. Acosta sends it back over to Sam who crosses it in. Nyarko slides in trying to get a boot on it. He misses but Mullins has circled around on the outside so as Saunders has thrown himself to the ground to deal with a potential shot from Nyarko that doesn’t come Mullins is there to just tap it right past the prone goalkeeper. GOAL!

1-0!!

Minutes later Nyarko pressures the City defense into giving up a corner. Sam sends in a beautiful ball. Captain Bobby Boswell leaps high and heads it in past the hapless Saunders.

2-0!!

RFK explodes with cheers.

But I’m still nervous. We’ve seen before that David Villa can claw back a 2 goal lead entirely on his own. Do not let your guard down, United, I think. “GO BACK TO YOUR WINERY, OLD MAN!” I yell at Pirlo as he swans by.

Somehow in the jostle of the crowd I’ve ended up standing next to two of my favorite people, Steve and Lori, long time fans and incredibly kind--they took me under their wing for my very first road trip last year, talking me down from my nervousness with stories of Columbus’s score board catching on fire and Chris Pontius dancing with the fans at Red Bull Arena. They’re also both extremely knowledgeable about soccer and I feel justified in expressing disgust at the ref as he lets yet another City foul go unpunished when I hear Lori yelling the exact same thing. We raise our arms in indignation in unison with Taylor "Shooter" Kemp as a throw in is incorrectly called for City. "Come on, Taylor!" We yell encouragingly at the Left Back, who is having to fight off challenge after challenge funneled down his side of the field.

City are shaken. They try to rush forward but Bill Hamid is sharp. They are denied. We start chanting his name. Whatever worries had been plaguing him, weighing him down through August and into early September were long forgotten. Our Billy was back with us and he wanted to win.

A Jared Jeffrey volley is just barely saved by Saunders, who has to stretch big to tip it over the crossbar. Everybody runs up for the corner. Captain Bobby takes his time jogging back as poor footwork from City sees the ball to the feet of Acosta who sends the ball back down the field to Bill who collects, sees Bobby still up top and sends the ball all the way back up the field like the boss he is. Cool as can be, Bobby makes the run and sends in a perfect cross. Birnbaum, also still up top, is there to try and send it in. He misses but the crowd is utterly delighted with the sequence. The pure joy of the men playing, their trust in each other and their own abilities… it’s infectious.

We get one more shot in before halftime, Saunders, never deviating from the City game plan, plays the ball short to Iraola. Lucho Acosta, no fool, has him isolated and is right there to pressure him. Iraola sends it back to Saunders who spots Mullins racing towards him to join the play and sends it back to Iraola but Acosta hasn’t gone anywhere and he sends it back to Saunders who promptly gets pickpocketed. Mullins spots Rob Vincent completely unmarked at the top of the 18 yard line and Robby does what he does best and nails that ball in the back of the net.

3-0 as we go into halftime.

The crowd is giddy. I’m giddy. Hugging strangers and friends alike as I make my way out to the concourse for some water, since all the Beer Men have sold out.

City tries to get back in it in the second half, swapping on the more aggressive Diego Martinez for Matarrita but United stays in control. Bill Hamid and the defense shut down attempt after attempt. David Villa may be good for 2 goals but 3? Can he do it? The clock keeps ticking.

Suddenly the stadium begins to vibrate with jeers. Villa has been brought down by Kemp in the box, rather Villa brought himself down in the box near Kemp. But it will be a penalty kick. “Booooooooooooooo…..” The noise is incredible. “Boooooooo….” As Villa steps up and sends a shot in cleanly past Hamid. “Booooo….” 3-1.

Up behind our section a handful of lame Green Street Hooligans aping City fans start taunting the Ultras. About half the section turns to chant back at them. The rest of us are still suggesting the referee purchase a pair of glasses. I may have offered him mine. After all the non-calls, the non-card on Pirlo’s dangerous tackle on Sam, the favoring of City all night, it’s not surprising but that doesn’t mean I can’t yell at the ref about it.

The rest of the match is tense. Another couple of chances go by. Mullins sends in a beauty only to be denied by an offsides flag.

But City doesn’t have it in them. They can’t break down our defense. WE’VE WON! And it’s no fluke. The mishaps of the September 1st game are forgotten. The drudging defeat of May was a lifetime ago. In the here and now, D.C. United took on the darling of MLS, Eastern conference leaders, and won, decisively. We were now officially a playoff team.

Cheers rung out all around the stadium, enveloping us, as a handful of the United guys walked over to wave their thanks. As Bill Hamid walked over we started chanting: “Bill. Hamid. Bill, Bill Hamid.” He broke out into a huge grin, dancing to the sound of his own name.

A couple months ago when D.C. were locked in a battle with Orlando and New England for 6th place and a playoff slot, it seemed like there was a very good chance that this game against N.Y.C.F.C. on the 16th would be the final home game of the season. That seems much, much less certain now but my plane ticket is already purchased for Orlando and I’ll be traveling down for the final regular season game on Sunday the 23rd.

If United win in Orlando it guarantees a home game for the playoffs and will also be their first 5-game winning streak since 2007. I believe they can do it. I believe in this team. I believe in Captain Bobby. As it turns out my daydream of seeing him hoist the MLS cup over his head is not quite as far-fetched as it seemed back in June.

Let’s go to work.

Come on, boys.

Vamos United.

--------------------------

As a side note of ultimate nerdiness, I’ve been wading deep into playoff scenarios and other statistics for weeks now. I read a fascinating article from American Soccer Analysis looking at chance creation and the diversity in scoring among MLS teams. The takeaway was that under MLS’s salary cap you’re better off spending resources on buying a playmaker rather than on a dedicated scorer and that tracking assists, rather than goals, tells a better story of the quality of a team.

With that in mind, I made an extremely nerdy map of all the assists (as logged on MLSsoccer.com) for United pre- and post- Lloyd Sam and Patrick Mullins joining the team. The results are striking.




And as a side, side-note, can somebody photoshop this image into a black and white outline so I can make it into a banner??? I have a feeling I'll need it.
O captain, my captain.

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