Sunday, February 28, 2016

[D.C. Untied 2.5] Interlude: Calm before the storm and Nando's Peri-Peri Takeover, February 27, 2016

For previous entries in my D.C. United fan experience, feel free to click the tag in the bottom. As always, this blog is about the fan experience. I am not remotely qualified to talk about soccer tactics or MLS inside baseball. Please enjoy!

The calm before the season really begins. I'm not sure I'm ready for this, as impatient as I was to get started with the season. It's a long road to October. My season tickets came in an ominous black box last week. Do I dare open it? Am I really ready to give myself fully over to this experience?

Inside the black box was a white scarf reading "District United". It had a faint chemical smell and will need to be washed. I'm not sure I like the "District United" slogan, nor the white color. Our colors are the black and red, after all, and white holds stains--not ideal for the muck that gets spilled on you during a soccer game. I once had to throw out a grey shirt after getting caught in a "gatorade/beer shower" from Barra Brava after a goal scored. Last year there was some minor fan wank when new D.C. United merchandise was released with "Football Club" appended to the team's name. Can we be a "football club" in a country that plays "soccer"? In my brief experience, there's a significant portion of Major League Soccer fans who dislike the aping of European soccer culture. They want to build something uniquely American. "District United" sounds clunky. Too many harsh consonant sounds. "Dee Cee" rolls right off the tongue.

The game tickets themselves are all here in a nice flip book. I wasn't sure how it was going to work but I'm glad they are in a tangible form rather than needing to be printed from online or scanned from a smart phone (which I don't own). I saved a few individual tickets saved from last year when I started buying supporters group tickets and it's nice to have something tangible to hold onto, to hold the memories. I also got a nice shiny membership card that I can flash around like a big shot.

Last Tuesday D.C. United played down in Mexico for the first half of a two-leg series against the Mexican team Querétaro F.C. for the knockout round of CONCACAF Champions League. As a brand-new soccer fan, it's been fun to learn about how all this Champions League stuff works. Last year I didn't quite understand how it all fell together but now I have a better picture and it's interesting to see how our Major League Soccer teams fare against teams from other leagues in other countries.

My brother and I had gone to watch that first game at Summers, a notoriously shitty local Arlington sports bar, scene of many regrettable nights out involving jaegerbombs. (It's such an Arlington institution that we got into a bit of a disagreement over whether fellow Arlington-ite Steve Birnbaum had ever visited. Bro was convinced he must have but I thought B-Baum was too classy, more of a Bracket Room kind of guy. We agreed to disagree.) Fan lore has it that Summers used to be where everybody went to watch D.C. United away games but there was some conflict with the management, D.C. United games were preempted for American football and our fans felt disrespected. But considering our other option was Four Courts and their schedule listed the three words any musician dreads ("open. mic. night.") Team FG decided to pick the lesser of two evils: Summers.

Summers had the Querétaro - D.C. game on a handful of TVs in the back half of the bar, albeit with the sound turned down very low. So my brother and I sat across from each other in a sticky booth, drinking watery beer and watching our guys in black & red struggle against the high altitude to a soundtrack of faint cheers and classic 80s rock.

D.C. played incredibly well for about 70 minutes, when the altitude tiredness started to kick in. My main man B-Baum had a couple really good chances, both blocked by the goalkeeper... one blocked twice:

And Taylor Kemp booted in a ball that hit the crossbar.

A couple of inches separated us from victory. We lost 0-2 but despite the loss, from this fan's point of view, it had been an exciting game to watch. The team felt invigorated, renewed, ready to win. If anything, it made me more excited for the March 1st game, the second leg of the series. Because of a rule about goals scored away from home, the "road goals" rule, if we score two goals then it's tied. If we score three, we win the series. If they score one against us, we need to score four to tie... it's going to be a tense night for Andrew Dykstra. (And maybe it's just me but I can't stand the use of the #Beastra hashtag. Because Dykstra is far from a "beast" in goal it has an almost mocking quality to it. I like the affectionate, easy-going #Brewkeeper tag; it's more fitting with his level-headed image.)


None of this, however, explains why I felt compelled to head down to the new Nando's Peri-Peri on H-Street for the "D.C. United Takeover" on the 27th. Not only do I not eat chicken, but I loathe the tourists and lookie-loos that populate the Capital Hill area on weekends. On top of that, I actually did have other things I needed to do. But was I really going to resist the lure of cheesy promo pictures of Steve Birnbaum schmoozing with Nando's staff?!

Obviously not. Look at that grin!

Saturday wasn't just the opening of Nando's Peri-Peri but it was the opening of the H-Street streetcar, a project years in the making. Although the area is quickly gentrifying, the scars of the 1968 riots following the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination are still very present. The fact that Metro didn't build any stations out this way in the 1970s, speaks volumes enough about how little notice was paid to the residents. Whether or not the new, gentrifying residents understand what happened on H Street, their presence has brought new businesses and new businesses brought the streetcar.

(Note the "luxury apartments" sign.)

The line outside of Nando's was about 15 people deep when I rolled up about 1:45pm. I ended up in line behind a family of four--mom, dad, young teen brother, elementary school-age brother--and had to stifle some giggles after the older brother expressed some annoyance at how the littler one was running around wildly and his mom retorted, "Oh, so you're not excited to meet the D.C. United players?" The teen had no response because, of course, he was! I ended up passing the time chatting with the guy in line behind me who had also come by himself. One makes line-friends very quickly at these events.

My new friend and I made it inside and were seated towards the back of the restaurant by the kitchen. Nando's Peri-Peri is fast casual, so we ordered our food at the register and then waited for it to be delivered to our table... by D.C. United players! Despite the promo pictures, the players were thankfully not behind the counter preparing food but were instead paired with actual restaurant employees who carefully talked them through all the steps of food service. "It's funny seeing these guys on my territory," said my new friend, who is actually a waiter. From our vantage point by the kitchen, we got front row seat to seeing Sean Franklin, Lamar Neagle, Patrick Nyarko, Chris Korb, Nick DeLeon, and Steve Birnbaum receiving their orders from the no-nonsense serving staff.

Sean Franklin delivered my mushroom-halloumi sandwich and fries and graciously posed for a photograph while doing so. (Thanks, Sean!) I asked him what it was like playing at such a high altitude in Mexico. He said that after ten minutes your throat starts to burn, that the ball moves differently--it bounces higher than they're used to.

While we were eating we were joined by the guy who runs the Screaming Eagles roadtrips and the three of us then sat around talking shop. Games attended in the past, games to be attended in the future, games we wish we were attending... the fan experience runs deep. I learned my new friend had only been coming to games for a couple of years. He's a general sports fan who decided to check out the local soccer team after watching the World Cup in 2014. "I wanted to see where those guys came from," he said. He'd ended up on the "quiet side" of RFK stadium but was drawn, as many of us are, to the waving flags and chanting of the supporters groups on the "loud side" of the stadium. Much like happened with me last year, one of the District Ultras invited him over and handed him a card and the rest is fan-history. I got to hear how his D.C. United scarf had been stolen at Red Bull Arena by a Red Bull fan and how he'd chased the guy down to get it back. The Screaming Eagles guy told us about being at the infamous 2012 game against Red Bull in the snow. The D.C. supporters had taken buses all the way up to New Jersey only to be told the game was canceled. Some of the players, lead by Chris Pontius, had jumped the barrier into the stands to join the supporters with the drumming and chanting. Everybody had gotten back in the buses and come back the very next day. "Nobody bitched, nobody complained," he said. "We just did it."

A couple other players stopped by to schmooze with us. I got Birnbaum to settle the disagreement with my brother--he has not been to Summers--and my new friend asked what it felt like to score that goal against Iceland. "I blacked out for a second," said Birnbaum, with a cheeky grin. Steve Birnbaum in person is exactly as charming as his promotional video appearances hinted at and I do not regret my purchase of Birnbaum jersey one bit.

Patrick Nyarko and Lamar Neagle seemed a bit overwhelmed by the event, which was understandable. They are both new to D.C. and to the team. It must be odd to try to mingle with fans when you haven't even really played a game for the team before.

Nick DeLeon stopped and chatted for a bit. We got to hear about how he's adjusting to midfield--"a lot more thinking involved"--and he had some really good things to say about another new D.C. United player, Luciano Acosta.

(Nicky, my new friend, and me!)

As the event drew to a close, we finished our drinks and said our good-byes and "See you Tuesday at RFK!" And we will be there, rain or shine. It was a really fun afternoon, not just for the delicious sandwich and a chance to schmooze with the players but to spend some time with fellow fans. I like hearing everybody's stories, getting the inside information on what different venues are like...

There is this strand of American fandom culture that insists on purity. The text is the text, anything else is invalid. For sports, those are the fans who only want to discuss what happens on the field, that is the only thing that matters. Personalities, people, context, these things are distractions to the purists. And I just don't agree. I have a music background and the purists have a chokehold on any discussion of the art. But my point of view has always been that if you want to make music with no engagement with the fans, then make music in your bedroom by yourself. To be in the "music business" is to engage in the show and professional sports is no different. Their main job is to play and play well but to be in professional sports is in part to engage in the show. Especially in a sport like soccer which is unknown to most Americans, there needs to be a draw to get people into. Whether it's getting a connection with the players through things like Steve Birnbaum's hilarious videos or with the fans through the raucous chanting and flag waving of the District Ultras, Barra Brava, and Screaming Eagles.

All in all, I'm glad I went. Part of the fun of being a fan is the experience of having a normal lunch be turned into an "event". It was just a sandwich and some chitchat with soccer bros but it had some magic somehow. Watching soccer players in and out of their element: handling plates of chicken, not knowing where to get ice, signing t-shirts for excited kids, flirting with the female staff... it was fun. And a good excuse to be out in the city instead of at home doing chores. Although I may regret the decision when I run out of clean laundry later this week, for now... thanks, D.C. United and Nando's Peri-Peri, for a fun afternoon!

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