Thursday, March 3, 2016

[D.C. Untied 3] D.C. United vs Querétaro FC, March 1, 2016

Just a note, this blog is purely a fan's point of view. I am not remotely qualified to talk about soccer tactics or MLS inside baseball. There are a lot of great people who already write about those things and if that is what you are looking for, then I won't be offended if you don't read further. The first post in the series has the explanation for the name, etc. Please enjoy!

It was already after six by the time I finally left the office.
There was a chill in the air and the sky was clear, fading into pink and grey twilight. The white marble buildings that litter downtown D.C. had a rosy glow and I’m sure I did, too, as I finally gave into the buzzing anticipation that had been pushing at my mind all day. After four long months, I was going back to RFK stadium to cheer on D.C. United!

Up the Metro escalator, past the bus stop and the sticker covered poles, around the corner past the Armory, and there it is: RFK stadium, flags proudly fluttering above the main entrance. The graceful curve of the upper deck rises gently above orderly rows of exposed pillars, a combination of grace and strenth. Not even the rust and peeling paint from more than 20 years of neglected upkeep can mask the underlying beauty of the old stadium, a living monument to a time when public works projects were a source of civic pride, celebrating important community milestones, like (American) football teams finally desegregating years after the rest of the NFL had.

My brother and his friend were already waiting in Lot 8. I joined the steady stream of people heading across 22nd St and fell in behind two young bros in Barra Brava scarves. As we started down the staircase that leads to the parking area, I had to hide my grin as the bros each pulled out a can of beer, popped the tabs, and then clinked them together in celebration. We were back.

Our opponents this evening for the CONCACAF Champions League match were the Mexican team Querétaro FC, the Gallos Blancos or White Roosters. And, as I’d had it thoroughly explained to me by my new favorite Internet message board nerds, this was essentially the second half of a 180 minute game, the first half of which had been played down in Mexico the previous week. The score was 0-2 against us and with “road goals” used as tie breakers, if we let them score once, we’d have to score four to make up for it and even I know that we haven’t been a high-scoring team the last couple of years. Two goals was tough but possible; four would take a miracle.

There was a fairly good crowd hanging out in Lot 8 for a late-starting, midweek game but tailgating options were limited and I hadn’t had dinner so our squad went into the stadium a bit early, hoping that the pupusa stand was open. It was. And with a delicious cheese-filled tortilla in one hand and a giant plastic cup of Tecate in the other, I was ready to cheer my fucking heart out.

We were early enough that we snagged spots right up against the barrier. Although some people prefer sitting up higher to see the whole field, I love sitting as close as I can to the pitch for the same reason that I love sitting orchestra level at the theater and cramming my way to the front of the stage at concerts: I want to be as close as I can to the performers. I’ve paraphrased Penn Jillette’s philosophy on this many times but only because it’s true. All we want is a human connection. The performance, the sport, in this case, is the medium for the connection. There is an undeniable, visceral pleasure to having an up close view, as I did that night, of Chris Rolfe weaving effortlessly through a cluster of defenders like magic, of Fabian Espindola skillfully stripping the ball from a witless opponent with a subtle flick of his ankle, of Steve Birnbaum leaping high in the air to connect perfectly with a fast moving ball. It’s easy to forget while playing the FIFA video game or watching crazy EPL highlights on youtube but these aren’t soccer playing robots on the field but real people who sweat and bleed and have worked for years to be able to do the things you do in FIFA with the push of a button.

As the rest of the supporters section started to fill in, the mood built to a pleasant buzz, greeting old friends, making new ones. Flags were handed out. The drummers got their mallets ready. Many jokes were made about the odd cell phone incident that had played out over the past week in which some D.C. United players had phones stolen from the locker room in Mexico but Querétaro FC claims they didn’t. (Coach Ben Olsen says he wishes his phone had been stolen, one assumes because then he wouldn’t have to talk to anybody trying to call him, a sentiment that I identify with fully.) Across the pitch a surprisingly large group of Querétaro fans had also hung banners and signs. We were ready. The national anthem played and then we were off! The game had begun!

(Querétaro sticker my friend A. found in the Metro yesterday!! Adding insult to injury, it's really cool looking!)

And then the game ended three minutes later when Querétaro scored.

But the game wasn’t over; we still had 86 minutes left to play. In the stands, we could feel the sour mood on the field. The Querétaro players kept flopping to the ground, looking for penalties. Our lanky new midfielder Marcelo “Celo” Sarvas won my heart by getting testy with the ref for allowing the flopping, although he also won himself a yellow card in the process. The Querétaro fans chanted, p*to”. We kept seeing the ball cycle around and around, endlessly funneled back to Taylor “Shooter” Kemp on the left, our side in the first half, who couldn’t get a shot off. “JUST SHOOT IT, SHOOTER!” I yelled more than once.

But we kept singing and the infamous bouncy stands of RFK kept bouncing. If we were going to let ourselves believe the game was over in the 3rd minute, that this game didn’t count, that we were going to hand a victory to those assholes who stole our guys’ phones and were flopping harder than Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor we might as well all just go home for good. We’d come from our jobs at restaurants, retail stores, from offices in the depths of the bureaucracy, from in front of our computers in cubicled wastelands and home offices. We’d thrown on our jerseys and scarves over uniforms, suit coats, sensible librarian cardigans. For 90 minutes, we would forget the fatigue in our legs from serving coffee to entitled lobbyists, the strain in our eyes from entering mountains of data into spreadsheets, the headaches from breathing canned office park air all day. For 90 minutes, we existed only as D.C. United fans and if there’s a chance our collective force could move the ball into the net, then by god we were going to try.

The team didn’t give up. They didn’t fold in and collapse, even as Chris Rolfe missed a penalty kick, even as Dykstra, our easygoing #Brewkeeper, was left out to dry by defense. This was no Columbus in 2015-style 0-5 implosion. But it was frustrating, the soccer equivalent of blue balls. One goal, I yelled over to my brother, I just want one goal. Give us one goal!

Then our earnest young rookie Julian Büscher came on and sent in a rocket!

It wasn’t enough to win the series but it was enough to lighten our hearts, just a bit. German rookie Julian Büscher, the guy who excitedly started tagging his every tweet #VamosUnited the day he was drafted, sealed his fan favorite status by sending in a beauty of a goal just when we, the fans, needed it most. I’m not even sure what my favorite part of the goal is--Querétaro goalkeeper Tiago Volpi’s angry, yet baffled expression, Büscher’s gleeful grin, the way the ball hits the post and bounces back into goal sending Volpi diving ineffectively in the wrong direction…

The game ended in a 1-1 draw but we lost the series 3-1 on aggregate.

That evening and into the next day, hot takes flew fast and furious on social media and soccer nerd sites with dual underlying themes: “DC suxxxx”, “MLS suxxxxxxx”. Obviously I disagree with the first, especially since the LA Galaxy flamed out with a far greater loss against a Mexican team that same evening. And I can’t speak to the validity of the second but I can say this: what I saw, with my untrained fan’s eye, wasn’t that Querétaro necessarily played “better” but “different”. We wanted to play more straightforward soccer, they were working the meta-tactics, with the theatrical flopping and playing the refs to a far greater extent than I’ve seen in my limited experience. Those things just don’t seem to be as big a part of the American game. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know, but that’s how it felt to me, in the moment. What do you do when the guy running in front of you just falls for no reason? I don’t know. Maybe success in CONCACAF has less to do with “better” and more to do with our MLS teams figuring out how to play that game.

Our next home game isn’t until March 20th, which seems far too long. I’m going to try to make a watch party for the March 6th MLS season opener in LA but it’s going to be a late night Sunday game and I get up really early. In case I don’t post in this series until after the 20th, I want to wish the best of luck to D.C. United for the upcoming MLS season opener and, especially, to all the new players who have joined the team. Welcome aboard! Now let’s win some trophies!

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