Sunday, February 7, 2016

[D.C. Untied 1] A Day to Unite, February 6, 2015

Welcome to the inaugural post of "D.C. Untied", a mini-series of posts talking about my experiences as a D.C. United Season Ticket Holder and fan. The title comes from one of my favorite typos, because #librarian #gonna #librarian.

As I wrote before, I've been going to D.C. United games with my brother for close to 20 years. But I was always just a casual fan. I enjoyed the camaraderie, the game atmosphere, and having a socially sanctioned opportunity to yell at the top of my lungs for 90 minutes. Something changed last year; I changed last year. In the middle of illness, death, and general life shittiness, D.C. United was there for me, giving me something to cheer for. Seeing them work so hard out on the field, coming back from one goal down in game-after-game, really inspired me.

And it is still all about that game day experience. Now that I no longer perform on stage and even attending concerts has become rare and (in the United States) mostly unpleasant thanks to late start times and audiences more interested in recording grainy footage on their phones than being in the moment, the 90 minutes spent with my attention focused only on what's right in front of me at RFK, were incredible, electric. Standing with the District Ultras, waving flags, singing, chanting... no time to look at a phone until halftime for fear that I'll miss something. I was hooked. I even took the trip to Red Bull Arena on November 8 for the second leg of the playoff series. My first away game and one of the most intense fan experiences I've had. All of us who went felt that mix of excitement, anticipation, the hope that maybe we'd win. The endorphins kicked in and I felt no hunger, no thirst, just the all-natural high of being a fan. We marched to Red Bull Arena, chanting and singing, waving flags and banging drums. Red Bull fans yelled profanity at us, told us to go fuck ourselves, but their hostility only heightened the high I was riding. One of the men I was walking with stopped to give a small child a high five. D.C. fans are nice like that.

When the switch flipped and I started getting to know the players as more than just numbers, my appreciation for the team deepened even further. I had an absolute blast working my way through the dregs of the D.C. United youtube channel. Add to that my soccer reading list ("The Ball is Round", "Inverting the Pyramid") and podcast binge (Filibuster, United Mania) and I really started to understand more of what was happening. I loved it all. D.C. United was now my team, too.

Unwilling to let the feeling disappear, I jumped at the chance to become a season ticket holder and I wanted to write about the experience because writing is how I make sense of things and since I don't know anything about soccer (yet!!), writing about being a fan is something I can contribute to the online D.C. United fandom, who have been so welcoming of me. I've honestly been blown away at how friendly everyone has been to this 30-something lady. Sure, there are the dickbags and shit stirrers but to date I haven't been hassled just for being a lady or told to shut up or even had it implied that I only like soccer because of cute guys. So, if any fellow fans are reading this, thank you for being so awesome to me.

So, all that said, you have to believe I was buzzing with anticipation yesterday morning for the "A Day to Unite" event being held at Pinstripes in Georgetown. I had no idea what to expect--would it be formal? What should I wear? Did I need to buy a new dress? Would anybody talk to me? I scoured some pictures and saw that the dress code was essentially "head-to-toe D.C. United swag." No problem. I threw on my very favorite #18 Chris Rolfe jersey over a comfy dress, paired it with a scarf, put on a snazzy anchor-themed cardigan just because, and stuck my hat in my bag in case it got cold later.

I'm a long time (sci-fi) convention attendee and the feeling in the air was remarkably similar. Making line friends while waiting to buy goods, the tingle of excitement when the players finally arrived, overhearing snippets of delightfully nerdy discussions... For the couple of hours I was in Pinstripes, nothing existed except for D.C. United and I loved it. The biggest difference with a typical fan convention was that everything at A Day to Unite was paid for by the team. Free beer, free wine, free interactions with the players. I may have overindulged. (And by "may have" I mean "absolutely did".)

Luckily for me, I was adopted by a writer from Last Word on Sports, who took me under his wing and we made the rounds, talking to all the players and getting photos.

First up was Andrew Dykstra, our backup goalkeeper and resident brew master. I caught him by the small media area. Dykstra is tall. And blond. Very tall. Very blond. I'm not used to having to look so far up to talk to people and it was unnerving at first. I told him I enjoyed his Jeff Goldblum impression from the preseason video and that I was looking forward to seeing him play. Both things are true. Dykstra generally only plays when superstar Bill Hamid is injured, which he currently is, so it's good we have a reliable backup. Playing professional second fiddle can't be easy on the ego, so cheers to you, Dykstra!

Next I found Davy Arnaud, who hasn't been able to play because of a concussion he received in August last year. As soon as Arnaud left, our midfield fell apart and we lost six games in a row. We never fully recovered from the hole he left on the field. Arnaud is a fun player to watch, he's constantly in motion. I told him I hoped we'd see him back on the field soon but only time will tell... I can't even imagine having retirement forced on me by health problems, having to give up not just a profession but an entire way of life, being a part of a team. Who will help Bobby deliver devastating putdowns to the rookies? Who will have the balls to send in a goal like this from 40 yards out? Get well soon, Davy!! We're all cheering for you!

Then I met D.C. United's newest player, rookie Julian Buescher from Germany! I know nothing about him other than he's thrilled to be here and has a great accent, which is more than good enough for me right now. I welcomed him to DC and said I was looking forward to seeing him play.

I had to steel myself for the next one, the player I most wanted to meet, the one and only Chris Rolfe!! He was incredibly kind to me. I apologized for tweeting at him that I was a really good cook that one time when I was riding high on post-game beer and endorphins (although it's true!!) Rolfe seemed a little startled at that but he laughed and said it was fine. And he let me ramble on like an idiot about how much I loved that goal in the play-in play-off game against New England and how much watching him play meant to me last year. How his dedication and focus on the field was so inspiring. I'm sure it's nothing he hasn't heard before but it was important to me to say and I'm grateful that he kept eye contact and let me say it. Just from snippets of interviews I've heard, I do think Rolfe understands us fans. Not all players do. Not all performers understand their audience. It's not a value judgement but I do appreciate it.

♥ ♥ ♥ I forgot to tell him that you can sponsor rescue chickens in in Maryland so if you're googling yourself, Rolfe, just FYI!! I'm definitely going to do it.

Lamar Neagle! Another new player. Welcome to DC, dude! Lamar seems like a really genuine guy.

Another player I was dying to meet... Bobby Boswell! Boswell is hilarious and as far as I'm concerned he is the king of the behind-the-scenes videos, although Steve Birnbaum is chasing the title. I've watched this gem, in which he nicknames himself Dragon, an embarrassing number of times. I got exactly what I wanted from Boswell, which was some nice banter. I told him I watched him on Nickelodean's "Guts" and he said it would have been better if I'd won it. (Fair point.) I told him how much I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes interviews and he replied, I can't tell if you're being factitious but thanks. I assured him I was 100% genuine in my appreciation of somebody who can deliver both a good zinger and a killer header.

Thanks for the banter, Bobby!!

Continuing with the very tall defenders, I found myself a Kofi Opare! I thanked him for occasionally answering my tweets. He was all like, Well I feel like I have to! He really doesn't though, which is why it's so nice to see that occasional reply from Kofi. Even just a "thanks" can brighten a fan's day. I told Opare that I'd been sitting behind the goal in that final game at Red Bull Arena and I could see for myself just how hard he worked on clearing balls. I got a nice big grin in return. I like this kid.

I forgot to ask which Ghanian restaurant he said was his favorite again. I forgot which one and wanted to try it. Bring it up again in an interview, Kofi!!

Then it was on to the delightful Travis Worra, rookie, third string goalkeeper, and enthusiastic participant in stupid videos made to amuse me. (Success! I was extremely amused!) I keep trying to get "TDubs" to stick as a fan nickname but no dice so far. Worra spends a lot of time playing in Richmond but I made sure to mention his big moment last year getting subbed into the game against the Vancouver Whitecaps when Dykstra was injured.

GET IT, TDUBS! I'm cheering for you!

The extremely patient Bill Hamid let me ramble at him for some time about nonsense. I was so nervous I honestly don't even remember what I said. Something about being glad he was out there being Muslim? Maybe? At a certain point he was like, thanks, hey let's get that picture now and took it himself.

As expected of the selfie master! I really like Hamid. Not only is he a longtime D.C. United fan but he's incredibly gifted and an absolute pleasure to watch on the field and he makes amazing videos of himself interacting with tiny children and takes pictures of himself feeding pigeons looking like a GQ model!! PLUS HIS DAD IS THE BEST! I'm #TeamSully all the way.

Seriously, what's not to like about Bill Hamid???? The man is perfect.

I snagged super-handsome Markus Halsti from Finnland on a walk-by so I said nothing to him. But, damn, he is handsome. I don't remember which game it was but there was one time his hair escaped his manbun and he shook it out and I think every female in the place (and some of the men) almost fainted.

Look at that hair game!! DAMN, HALSTI! I also really enjoy his instagram and twitter feeds for his enthusiastic embrace of both Washington, DC, and hashtags. You never know what gem he's going to turn up next. Did you know there was a Civil War fort hidden in Alexandria?? Did you know that I still crack up when I remember #pumpkinmania months later???

Last but definitely not least was Benny Olsen. I'm pretty sure I also rambled some nervous nonsense at him and thanked him for being here. I was so flustered. Seeing Ben Olsen in person, that up close, kind of blew my mind. He's such a great guy and has such love for the team.

He thanked me for coming out and being a supporter, which was nice. And then gracefully slid out of the encounter off to somewhere else, as he should, because interacting with fans must be tiring. One doesn't get the sense of Ben Olsen as the type of guy who loves meet-and-greets and hobnobbing but I suppose it comes with the territory. Gotta have fans to have a team.

I am incredibly grateful to have had the chance to meet all the players. Even if Big Time Birnbaum wasn't there. It really does build a sense of buy in from fans when we get to meet the players personally and interact on social media. They aren't just guys on the field or on TV but our guys on the field. Learning their human sides, getting to shake hands, to chat, it builds a more intimate relationship.

And it must be gratifying on their end, since they are mostly anonymous outside RFK stadium, to know that people are paying attention and that we care. We remember that sub in the Vancouver game. We cry at losses and celebrate wins. There is a tendency for commentary, especially online, to skew negative. Derisive mentions of "Bennyball", complaints that the team is too old, too slow, not winning enough, winning wrong, playing "ugly" soccer, hating on the new logo because it's new... I hope events like A Day To Unite help the players and staff remember that those voices don't represent all the fans, they're just the loudest voices. Some of us, like me, are just really excited to wait in line for the new jersey and then get that big ol' #15 for Steve Birnbaum put on the back. (I saw quite a few others, too. It is the YEAR OF THE BIRDBOMB!)

I don't know what next season holds but I have long been missing the high of gameday. Good luck, D.C. United!! Thanks for being there for me when I needed you. I'll try my best to return the favor this year.

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