Offseason MLS withdrawal hit me harder than I expected. Maybe it was the sudden and inglorious end to D.C. United’s 2016 campaign or maybe it was just the unbearable miasma of uninformed political opinionating that enveloped the D.C. area (and most of the Internet) over the winter but I’ve found my mood improving with the promise of spring and the new beginnings of the 2017 MLS season.
In between watching preseason games, planning my MLS fantasy game, and tracking roster moves--welcome to D.C. infamous United Killer Sébastien Le Toux!--I’d spent some time looking over the 2017 D.C. United squad, trying to figure out where to devote my considerable talents for enthusiasm, something I take very seriously. Last year I had fun boosting Steve Birnbaum, Taylor “Shooter” Kemp, and Patrick Mullins. This year I decided to take on a new challenge, raising the profile of newly promoted to first team, not on any social media, incredibly awkward every time I’ve met him: Jared “JJ” Jeffrey. The man has improved every season he’s been with DC and leaves everything on the field, which makes it very easy to cheer for him. I’ll never forget his crushed expression at the end of the Open Cup loss last year. He took that entire loss on his own shoulders.
To that end, at the “Day to Unite” meet-the-team event when season ticket holders got a chance to buy our new muscle-bound away jersey, I got mine with Jeffrey’s number on the back and when I got home I hung it up on my wall. Go, JJ!
And despite feeling like the offseason would never end Saturday, March 4th finally dawned, bright and cold, colder than it had been all winter. The unseasonable spring warmth had come to a crashing halt. We’d have to bundle up real good for the final season opener at RFK Stadium.
Driving into Lot 8 was the same as it always was. A sense of finality--of the Last Season--has yet to permeate the tailgate mood. We’re all out to have a good time, same as we’ve been for the last 21 years. Making my way to the tailgate, I picked up a ticket for my sister, newly returned to the area and making her first but hopefully not last appearance with the District Ultras, and joined the festivities down by the Anacostia.
Some guys had fished a grill out of the water, cleaned it out, and built a small fire out of fallen branches. The small heat radiating out from the impromptu fire felt nice against the chill of the late afternoon. And it was good to be back, catching up with everyone. I missed this.
My sister arrived and, being a good hostess, after introducing her around I wanted to take her and my new buddy Ben, attending his very first D.C. United game, into the stadium early to get settled. (Okay, fine, I also wanted the dang giveaway limited to the first 5,000 people!)
My sister is the kind of casual fan I was, before. We’ve been coming to games together for years with my brother. Sometimes drifting the edges of the Barra tailgate but usually just drinking parking lot beers and chugging plastic bottle mix drinks before entering the stadium. My sister is a black belt level people watcher and I’d been talking up the crowd watching. We walked up from the river through the Barra tailgate for old time’s sake and then down the well-organized ranks of the Screaming Eagles. “It’s like crossing into Eagleton,” she said with a laugh.
Ben was quiet and I wondered what it must be like to be experiencing all of this for the first time. The tailgate, the approach to RFK, faintly glowing in the twilight, the air of mid-20th century optimism lingering on even with the peeling paint and broken concrete.
Inside the stadium we got the FG-special--cheese pupusas doused in El Yucateco and a tall plastic cup of Tecate--and went down to the section to watch the team warmups. Whatever else may change about the concessions in the new stadium, it would be a god damn shame to lose the pupusas. They aren’t just delicious (although they are) but also a physical tie to the large Salvadoran community in the D.C. area and who are a big part of D.C. United’s early history. What would those first years have been like without all the local Salvadoran support for Raul Diaz Arce? Women making and selling pupusas at pickup soccer games is local tradition and that tradition should absolutely continue at Audi Field.
Playmaker Luciano Acosta was not out warming up, which should have been a warning sign that we were in for a long night. The field looked patchy and threadbare. The air was frigid.
The Ultras began filing into the section as the clock ticked down. My front row buddy from last year was back. He pointed out the big sign on the upper deck above the goal: 17 games left at RFK. No, I said. It’s not real yet. I don’t want to leave!
And then the game began.
And it was scrappy. A lot of mistimed passes and bad giveaways. Players losing footing. Was it the sudden burst of cold weather making the ball behave differently? The swapping out of Acosta--who they’d been training with--for Julian Büscher, a very different type of player? The patchiness of the field?
Kansas City, loathsome in their powder blue kits, the collars making them all look like they’re on the wrong side of an Ivan Reitman snobs-v-slobs movie, controlled the game for most of the 90 minutes but our defense held solid. Sean Franklin and Nick De Leon held firm in their new positions. Steve Birnbaum made some wonderful headed clearances. And Bill Hamid is back, baby. We’d been discussing Bill at the groundbreaking ceremony. One of the group said she preferred Travis Worra in goal because Bill sometimes tunes out and when he does, he makes really dumb mistakes. And I know what she means. But tonight was not one of those nights. Bill was dialed in. He was on fire. The graceful diving save on the early Benny Feilhaber (or FAIL-haber, as I yelled at him every time he was within shouting distance) freekick from a bullshit foul called on Birnbaum. Hamid extends his arm, his hand and with perfect timing just sends the ball up and over the goal. Beautiful.
There was the early excitement of Jeffrey picking Matt Besler’s pocket and crossing to Marcelo who sends it back to a wide open Büscher only to have the shot blocked.
The roar of the crowd grows every time Patrick Nyarko races down the left, we know what he’s capable of. Boxed in at the goal line, one on one with a defender, maybe two, it’s quick work for Nyarko. And his speed leads to one of D.C.’s only chances. Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia takes out Büscher in a nasty tackle. Penalty kick. Taken weakly by Marcelo, which is promptly stopped by Melia. 15 or so minutes in and the bubbling of optimism just evaporates. The rest of the game is going to be a grind.
The last bit of excitement was a scramble in the Kansas City box in the second half that almost led to one of D.C.’s scrappy garbage goals I’m so fond of. And I think if Bobby Boswell had been on the field, able to really get in the mix on those crosses, rather than Sean Franklin, who was a step back, we would have seen a goal there.
A corner kick from Sam is poorly cleared by Kansas City. Birnbaum gets a head on it and knocks it down for Nicky, who gets a shot off, unluckily blocked by Dom Dwyer standing in goal. Dwyer sends it back out where it’s trapped by Marcelo who is just outside the scrum waiting. The action is already starting to move back up the field but Marcelo sends the ball back in and Jared Jeffrey, my guy, sees what’s happening, tracks back, leaps up and does this wonderful Birnbaum-esque leap, twisting and directing the ball down and into the net… where it’s blocked at last second by Melia, who was having himself a game.
D.C. United fought hard for the zero-zero draw but a point is a point and a clean sheet is a clean sheet. Sure, we’d all have loved for the Marcelo penalty to have gone in. For Melia to have been a second too late to react to Jeffrey’s header but it’s the first game of the season, in an unseasonable cold snap, missing our playmaker, against a Kansas City squad whose defensive was on point. More important to me was seeing Nick De Leon really jump into the defensive role in his first game as the first choice at Right Back. And to develop some confidence in the Steve Birnbaum-Sean Franklin partnership. Less confidence inducing was Marcelo’s performance but time will tell if it was the rust of preseason or if that is something we really need to worry about.
It’s a long season ahead and the goals will come. In that have I no doubt.
16 games left at RFK.
Let’s send the old girl off right.
[Sisters, about ten years ago, drifting the edges of the Barra tailgate]
[Sisters, now, heckling opposition goalkeepers]