Sunday would be my 23rd D.C. United game of the 2016 season: one preseason game, one Champions League game, one Open Cup game, and 20 regular season games (14 home, 6 away). I’d been there for the lowest point of the season, the demoralizing July 3-0 loss in Chester against the just before Lloyd Sam and Patrick Mullins had come on board, and for the glorious comeback to draw 2-2 at Red Bull Arena to secure the Atlantic Cup. And then there’d been the dreary 1-1 draw played in the mud and rain at Toyota Field, standing in puddled water, fingers rigid with cold, and a hot, sticky 0-0 draw at BBVA Compass Stadium, stomach churning from dehydration and too rich food. My personal away record this year was (0-2-3) and I was hoping to add one last, final win to complete the experience.
Orlando had seemed like the perfect choice for an away game. Not only were airfare and hotels relatively inexpensive but there were plenty of things to do to amuse myself before the match and I also had family in the area. I’d booked this trip at the beginning of September when there had been a pretty good chance it might be the last game of the season. Now, with United guaranteed a playoff spot--and having decisively proved ourselves the better team against non-playoff bound Orlando City last month--there was far less importance riding on this game and the trip felt more like a vacation than a call to battle.
On Saturday night, my aunt and uncle took me out for dinner at a local sports bar. A handful of the cars in the parking lot had Orlando City SC stickers. We ate, drank, and watched the Cubbies beat the Dodgers, to my uncle’s delight. “There’s not my team,” he said, “But you can’t help but root for them.”
Some of us will always love an underdog.
I hadn’t seen my aunt and uncle since my Aunt Mary’s funeral last year and had fun filled them in on all my exploits, the traveling, the healing from all of the death and the illness of 2015. “And going to these away games is a really good excuse to visit places and friends in America that I’d never otherwise see,” I explained. “Just this year I went to Chicago and Houston and now I’m here seeing you.” I left them with a hug and a promise to stay in touch and to return next year.
The day at Universal had more than satisfied my appetite for kitsch and over-the-top #brand #engagement so I’d planned on spending the morning before the game out at a nature preserve on the outskirts of the city. But first was an experience I will forever associate with Orlando: breakfast at Denny’s. Sitting up at the counter, I enjoyed a stack of pancakes and some conversation with an old timer, a regular at this particular Denny’s. “It must be my luck day,” he said as I sat down. “A pretty young lady just left and now I’ve got another one joining me.” I smiled, more than happy to spend breakfast discussing which were the best routes to take to various locations in central Florida and what I could see when I got there. He was about to drive down towards Fort Myers pick up a trailer and had his map open, plotting out the best route. “Down this way you’ll see all the fruit pickers,” he said, indicating a stretch of land down route 27. “That’s a rough life those poor fellows have.” The next bite of blackberries on my pancakes had a bitter tinge.
Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve is a little slice of the original Orange County, Florida landscape. Getting there involved driving past Mickey Mouse labeled loading docks and some truly soul crushing “luxury” developments, the type thrown up as cheaply as possible and meant to last only as long as their owners can flip them for profit. The last person holding the mortgage gets foreclosed. But pulling into the preserve, all that ugliness recedes into the background. Instead of rows of transplanted palm trees, I was surrounded by the rough trunks of longleaf pines, their crowns of sparse needles brushing the bright blue sky and little saw palmettos, bright green leaves fanned wide. Instead of aggressively cheerful music, I heard bird song and the rustling of the wind through the leaves.
The signs at the visitors center promised aligators and snakes so I kept my eyes trained on the underbrush besides the muddy walking path. I passed a few locals in track suits out for their Sunday walks, the echoes of their conversations announcing their presence before popping into view with a cheery, “good morning” for me. The trail led through a swamp, up and around through a patch of gnarly, moss-covered scrub oak, and back through the sun-dappled longleaf pines. I spotted some tiny lizards rustling through fallen pine needles. Aligators remained elusive.
Returning to my car, I checked my messages and saw that the D.C. United away fans were already starting to gather at Camping World Stadium. I needed to hustle to the grocery store for some tailgating supplies.
Traveling for away games takes the normal game day experience and doubles the intensity. It’s just you and a small group of fellow travelers banded together against the hordes of home fans. Normal supporter group dividing lines are erased as we all condense into one unit--or in this case, the Barra Brava took in the two Ultras who’d made the trip: me and Stefan, who had apparently met up with the Barra the night before and had somehow ended up with a giant Stewie doll.
Camping World Stadium née Florida Citrus Bowl is located just a few blocks down the street from the county prison, a fact a discovered when I made a wrong turn getting off the highway. The working class neighborhood surrounding the stadium doesn’t offer much in the way of pregame entertainment, although it does offer plenty of people ready to let you park on their lawns for $10.
Orlando City SC sponsors its own “official” tailgate directly beside the stadium but as away fans, we had to make do with a patch of unpaved parking lot behind an anonymous-looking concrete-walled outbuilding. I recognized a handful of faces from previous away games--my pigtail doppleganger, a “Hooligan” jersey, the guys from Barra leadership--and went over to add my beer to the communal cooler and catch up on the latest United gossip. (“Did you hear about security not letting Jaime Moreno into the stadium last weekend because the front office didn’t know who he was?? Jimi had to call up like, ‘He’s Jaime Fucking Moreno! He can go wherever he wants!’”) A couple of old timers had brought a tiny charcoal grill and the smell added a small touch of Lot 8 homeyness. The 6-person security detail assigned to us added a small touch of the police state.
What exactly did the Orlando City front office think was going to happen? An 80-year old grandpa and a couple pigtailed ladies were going to start a ruckus? All I wanted to do was have a nice cold beer under the warm October sun.
Entering Camping World Stadium required all of us receiving full body pat downs but no bag check or metal detector.
Our security detail herded us up into the away fans section, high above the field, not quite behind goal but very close. We hung our flags and got drinks--Camping World Stadium offers amazing frozen mixed drinks--and went over the starting line up. Travis Worra, Luke Mishu, Jalen Robinson… “Benny’s running the Open Cup team today,” said someone, wearily. There was a brief flash of anger at Olsen punting this game. A win could secure us home advantage in the play-in round! But a sense of resignation soon washed over the group. Well, it was going to be a long couple hours watching our second-string defense get beaten up by Kaka so we may as well settle in and enjoy ourselves.
We were standing by the D.C. United goal for the first half and Travis Worra gave us a friendly wave as he settled in. He’s a good kid.
The first few minutes of the game were chaos. It was clear this United backline was not familiar with each other at all and Sean Franklin, only just back from injury, looked incredibly rusty. Worra was called into action with a big save just minutes into the game but his heroics weren’t going to be enough. Kevin Molino just strolls right through the defensive line and taps in an easy cross. Camping World explodes in cheers. I’m half waiting for somebody to start the peppy “D.C. United” clap chant that generally follows goals against when I hear, “Revs scored!” from behind me. “Rev-o-lution!” clap, clap, clap! I join in. “Rev-o-lution!”
Ben Olsen’s punting this game might just work. If the New England Revolution beat the Montreal Impact, we don’t have to win this game. We’ll keep 4th place and the home field advantage going into the playoffs. Thanks to Coach Benny gamble, all of our starters would be well rested.
From the sections below, a couple mouthy Green Street Hooligan wannabes stand up to start heckling us. This would continue, from them and others walking by, through the entire game. Maybe the security wasn’t to prevent us from causing a ruckus as to protect us from dumbass Orlando fans…
Kaka scores the second of the game. 2-0. But United seems to have settled into a rhythm and are able to hold the line and try to counter. Julian Buescher, in particular, seems to have taken his starting role to heart and has stepped up to try and do what he can to push United forward. Kofi Opare, also just returning from injury, is also playing his heart out, almost getting in a nice header on a corner kick.
Up in the stands, pleased with Benny’s playing of the odds, and wanting to give a little back to the gloating Orlando fans, we’d started singing, “We’re all part of Olsen’s army, we’re all out to win the league. And we’ll really fuck ‘em up when we win another cup ‘cause United is the greatest football team!”
And out of the corner of my eye I see security come over. “Hey,” shouts the front office factotum. “There Will Be No More Swearing Or You Will Be Removed!”
We are outraged.
Haven’t we been standing here in good humor for 30 minutes as Orlando fans waltzed by yelling “Dos-a-cero” at us and worse? Isn’t it a professional sporting event? No swearing at a professional sporting event?!
“We’re being censored!” Clap, clap, clap.
“First amendment!” Clap, clap, clap.
“Where’s my safe space?” Clap, clap, clap.
We start up another round of cheers and one of the Barra guys starts an exaggerated shushing sound every time we get close to a swear word. I’m laughing too hard to sing.
My frozen margarita is delicious. The sun is warm. A United reserve team is holding their own against Kaka. I rode some roller coasters yesterday. I’m having a pretty good time.
Alhaji Kamara is subbed off with what looks to be hamstring thing 40 minutes in. And on comes Sabo.
Sabo’s feet have barely touched the turf when he does what he does best and poaches an easy goal from Orlando’s shitty defense.
The momentum is building. United has this. Minutes later Lamar Neagle gets the stoppage time equalizer… only to have to flagged offsides.
I am furious as we go into halftime. What the fuck, ref? I mean… what the FUDGE?!
The second half is tense. Marcelo, also coming back from injury, has been subbed in for Sean Franklin with Rob Vincent now pushed to right back, an unfamiliar position for him.
Orlando gets a third almost immediately. 3-1. (ALTHOUGH IT SHOULD BE 3-2!)
Security has had enough of us making cracks about the first amendment and moves our entire away fan section further down towards some empty sections behind goal. Why they didn’t just isolate us from the beginning, who knows.
The Revs get a second then a third! 3-0 at Gillette Stadium!
Then Kennedy Igboananike opens his D.C. United account. 3-2. Can we get this equalizer?
In the dying minutes of the game, Orlando manages to get one more in. 4-2 is the final score.
All things considered it wasn’t a bad game. United’s reserve squad held their own and if not for a blown call just before halftime, we might have even pulled a point out of them. If 4-2 is the final score in which Kaka is squaring off against Travis Worra and an unfamiliar backline, I’m okay with that. We all are, I think. Julian Buescher comes over to wave at us. I wave back.
We’re held in the section while the stadium empties. It’s twilight now. The hooligan wannabes are long gone and the fans walking by us now smile and wave. “Thanks for coming! Good luck in the playoffs!”
(Not all the Orlando fans were douchey.)
Security escorts us down the stairs and back towards our cars. We walk past a guy getting thrown to the ground by the cops and handcuffed. One of ours? No, not one of ours. Stefan jogs over. The guy now face down on the ground had run over and tried to snatch Stefan’s District Ultras flag. Welcome to Orlando: where dumbass fan behavior triggers massive overreaction from the police.
A handful of us try to stop at a Trinidadian party, drawn by the music. We’re waved over by the partiers but the security detail pushes us away. “You can’t be out here in those shirts,” says one of the security guards, pointing to our D.C. United jerseys.
By the time we get back to our cars, fatigue has taken over. What the fuck was wrong with Orlando City that they couldn’t just let us have a good time? We’d lost but who cares?! Orlando fans were in a good mood. We were in a good mood. Why not let us hang out and make new friends? This was exactly what was infuriating about MLS’s stupidly over-cautious security procedures. With better crowd control--isolating the away fans section so there are no taunts flying back and forth, finding the drunks looking for trouble before they cause trouble--there’d have been no problems at all. Certainly none worth me receiving a full body pat down and a six person security detail when all I wanted to do was drink a beer and dance with some Trinidadian folks.
But despite the friction at the stadium and the loss, I had a really great time. And it was a fun way to close out regular season, with a frozen marg and a sunburn.
Thursday is the play-in playoff game. One and done. Will D.C. United do it? Can we make it to the semi-finals? To the finals? To MLS CUP? Only one way to find out.