Tuesday, March 22, 2016

[D.C. Untied 4] D.C. United vs Colorado Rapids, March 20, 2016

After I got home from the game, I sat on my living room floor eating toast and cheese and scrolling through what I’d missing on twitter while I’d been at RFK. My toes finally began to warm up but the chill in the pit of my stomach remained. What exactly had I signed myself up for this season? Why had I begun this insane project documenting my first full year as a fan? Did I really want to relive the frustrating 1-1 draw against Colorado?

To put my frustration at the 1-1 draw in a fan context, my D.C. United week began last Saturday with another draw (0-0) against New England at Foxborough Stadium. My sister was in town for the weekend and instead of watching the game, we went out for a nice dinner (pizza!) and saw Deadpool (hilarious!). With an incredible showing of social media willpower, I managed to stay unspoiled for the result and watched the game early Sunday morning with a large pot of coffee and two sleepy, grey cats.

I was more worried for our goalkeeper, the third string, second-year professional Travis Worra than I was about the result. With superstar Bill Hamid out with a bum knee and longtime backup Andrew Dykstra out with a bad back, Travis was thrust into the spotlight. Ready or not, he was going to have to step up and prove that he deserved to be on the team, that he wasn’t just a nice guy with a killer Michael Jackson falsetto, there to ride the bench.

Thankfully, Travis did just fine, fist-bumping team captain Bobby Boswell after they shut down another attempt from New England to score. And, maybe because the game was already over and I was watching on a tiny screen, a 0-0 draw seemed like an okay result. We didn’t win but we didn’t lose and Travis got to kind of win by not letting in any goals. Besides, I rationalized, the team is still finding its rhythm after a massive offseason retooling of the midfield. A draw felt like a victory of sorts, from my recliner, on that bright Sunday morning. The real test would come against Colorado on the following Sunday, the first game at home this season.

Then, on Tuesday, I attended a D.C. United “town hall,” organized for the “supporter” or “nerd” group of season ticket members. The event was held at the Crystal City Sports Pub in Crystal City, a part of town I rarely visit because I walk everywhere and Crystal City resembles nothing as much as a giant convention center. Everywhere you turn is another blank chain hotel exterior. The handful of times I had visited previously, I’d gotten very, very lost. Adding to my unease was the fact that Metro had just announced it was suspending service all day Wednesday for safety reasons. Was Metro going to explode and catch fire as I traveled the handful of stops to Crystal City and back? As I exited the Metro station in Crystal City and faced the blank, office park exteriors around me, I had to remind myself that doing new things and getting out from behind my computer was part of what this season was all about. It’s only March; I can’t give up now! I have to fight on.

Walking into the Crystal City Sports Bar wasn’t quite like Cheers but it did warm my heart a bit to immediately be recognized and accepted as a member of the nerd tribe. “You’re Filmi Girl, aren’t you?” Said the man standing to my left as I ordered a beer. Yes. Yes, I am.

Much of the discussion that evening revolved around the new stadium. Fans have understandably been anxious about the long-promised stadium. As much as we love complaining about the poor condition of RFK, many of us have grown to love it. Swapping the proud neoclassical lines--almost Roman colosseum-like--of RFK stadium for a modest, boxy, office-park type structure was always going to take an adjustment. And fans have had 20 years to grow attached to RFK’s quirks. The infamous stands that bounce as we move in unison, the division of fans into the “loud” or “quiet” sides, the relaxed DIY feel to the tailgate in parking lot 8 before the game, the pupusa stand, the racoons, the friendships built up with the beer sellers and other event staff… these things are a part of the game day experience. What will a new stadium offer in return? Will there be a place for the relationships developed over the previous 20 years? When fans ask, “Will the stands bounce in the new stadium?” what we mean is “Will I still feel like I’m making a contribution to the team?” When we ask, “Will we still be able to tailgate in the parking lot?” what we mean is “Will we still be treated as fans, part of a community, or will we only be customers?”

The other line of questioning on Tuesday evening spoke to the other source of anxiety among the DC faithful: the specter of 2013, the season of gloom, doom, and a measly 3 wins in regular season play. What did the dreary second half of the season opener against the LA Galaxy mean? (Don’t say the return of 2013.) What did the goalless draw in New England mean? (Don’t say the return of 2013.) What were we doing to make sure we won some games (and not have a repeat of 2013)? As a new fan, I don’t have the memories of sitting through loss after loss but, even as a new fan, I can see that the scar left on the fanbase is still very fresh.

On Wednesday, the Metro shut down but that didn’t stop me from attending D.C. United’s open practice across town. Through a combination of walking, buses, and a taxi, I got myself to RFK stadium. The sky was blue. The air felt invigorating. I wasn’t even wearing a coat. I browsed around the team store for a few minutes, mostly just looking for the new Ben Olsen doll, which I then purchased. (The first one sold, according to the sales guy!) Watching the team run drills and play practice games was fascinating. I’m not sure how much the team enjoyed an audience while at work--I don’t like people looking over my shoulder while I research--but it was interesting to see all the personalities on display. And, beyond everything else, it was nice just to be outside on a beautiful Wednesday morning watching talented men on the soccer field. Listening to the satisfying thwack of the ball when it connects with a player’s foot, chatting with other fans, admiring a particularly graceful run, enjoying the antics of the determined pack of young teen boys hounding all the players for autographs… and getting massively sunburnt in the process. Soccer without the pressure that comes from needing to win is still very enjoyable to watch.

(Waiting for the bus back to work with mini Ben!)

I may have ended up walking about ten miles on Wednesday but it was all worth it.

My brother and I started a new tradition on Friday: pizza, beer, and MLS. We watched the NYCFC vs. Orlando game on his giant TV while I lamented the performance of my fantasy MLS team. (COME ON, MIX AND TOMMY!)

Then, on Saturday, I attended my first event with the District Ultras supporter group since I’d joined: bowling! The decision to join a group wasn’t easy. When attending games with my brother, we’d generally floated behind the supporters groups, following the action and cheering loudly but from a distance. But with my new niece on the way, my brother was going have to cut back on attending games and he encouraged me to find new game-day friends. There was only one thing to do: join a supporters group.

I’d had my choice of Screaming Eagles, Barra Brava, or District Ultras but when I looked into it, there really was only one choice. The District Ultras had been the group that saw my brother and I at one of those mid-week, low attendance games last year and invited us down into their section. They gave us flags. The Screaming Eagles fans were nice but the group was a bit too tame. I can no longer drink as much as the Barra Brava do. The District Ultras seemed like the perfect fit for a former punk rocker with an excess of enthusiasm and a loud yelling voice. I may have a respectable job during the week now but I’ll always be more comfortable surrounded by bros (of both genders) in flag capes and heavy metal T-shirts than by nice guys in khakis.

Bowling was fun. Talking about the upcoming game was fun. Getting hyped for the season was fun. Meeting new friends was fun.

After a full week of soccer-related activities, by the time Sunday came around, I was buzzing with anticipation. I was going to a game! It was cold and damp outside but I was going to a game! Even better, I was going to be taking my friend A. and her husband to their first game!

Despite the fact that we’d be bundled up in coats, my friend and I had coordinated cat shirts, a bit of Birnbaum-Pontius cosplay.

Clouds hung low and menacing in the sky and the chill made our fingers ache but the District Ultras flag flew proudly. We made our way down to the river, across the parking lot, where the Ultras have their tailgate. A. and her husband had sausages. I ate cookies. A heron stood across the river bank watching us. Some kids played soccer in a grassy patch. The new drums were unveiled. We’d gotten Ultras flags with our memberships and people were tying them on like capes, so I did, too. One kid, with a tentative grasp on spoken English, had traveled more than two hours from his college to join the group. Others had worked late into the night finishing the tifo.

The game started at 5pm. Around 4:30 or so we made our way into the stadium. It was my first time at a D.C. United game at RFK without my brother. Usually he is in charge of finding seats, leading the way, but now I had to do it. Did I remember the way? Going in through the main gate, turning left, through the cavernous hallways, the bowels of RKF. It wasn’t very crowded, surprisingly. Did the cold weather keep people from coming out? The late Sunday start time? Turning down to the loud side, we found our section on the far right of the field and got a place up front, within yelling distance of the goal.

Banners were taped up on the railings. Drums were tested. Flags handed out. Beer purchased. Stands beginning to bounce just a little bit as people filed in. Tifo ready to be unfurled.

I took my jacket off. I was cold. The legendary DC Washington sang the national anthem.

Somebody handed me a pole--“Hold it straight! Don’t let it droop!”--and we were off! The 2016 season was really beginning.

The game was an exercise in frustration, not because we played badly but because we seemed to be playing well… we just couldn’t get a goal. From our vantage point by the corner, we cheered on Travis in goal in the first half and heckled McMath in goal in the second. Singing, singing, singing. Drumming the nervous energy away. The flags in red and black stood out sharply, proudly against the grey skies.

We could see Birnbaum’s hustle. Nyarko racing up and down, dusting Colorado defense as he went. Fabi stalking the field. We got a good view of Colorado’s Marco Pappa, who just been stabbed by a Miss Washington, take an excellent corner kick. The massive Colorado defender from Sweden--nicknamed “Lurch” by the people standing beside me--and filthy pirate Marc Burch. And Colorado played dirty, there was no mistake about that from where we were sitting. They went hard after Nyarko and Neagle but the ref was blind to it, despite all our yelling. (Odd.)

The game played out scoreless well into the second half when Birnbaum misses an excellent chance. Racing back, in the chaos, Colorado gets a goal off of a corner kick. The third set piece goal in three games given up by D.C. United. But Travis doesn’t let it shake him, good kid. But now we really needed to score… losing at home, in the home opener, after I’d brought friends to their first game, would be embarrassing. D.C. United felt it, too. (Well, not the part about me bringing friends to their first game but the rest, I’m sure.)

Finally, Nicky brings the ball up on the right, sends it over to Taylor “Shooter” Kemp, who shoots it up towards goal, swatted away by McMath, Nyarko gets the rebound, kicked away again directly to Fabi who scores! GOAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!

If I had the wings of an eagle…

In the heat of the moment I ripped off my cat shirt to reveal a bright red D.C. United long sleeved tee (a Christmas gift from my sister)!

But the momentum and the high soon faded. The game ended 1-1 and left me with a feeling of emptiness, somehow. All that energy expended on a draw. A week of build up going nowhere. We didn’t lose but neither did we win. The ghost of 2013 still lingers.

Putting on all my layers again, trying to catch some warmth. There’s always next week. I’ll be back. We'll all be back.

“Oh, D.C.U.!

We stand by you!

Your loyal crew!

Your tried and true!”

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