Tuesday, May 17, 2016

[D.C. Untied 11] D.C. United vs New York Red Bulls, May 13, 2016

Is there a sweeter victory for a D.C. United fan than a victory over the New York Red Bulls? No, there is not. Friday night was no exception. D.C. United scored two brilliant goals in the first half, flatfooting the Red Bull defense and making goalkeeper Luis Robles look like a fool. After a couple of legendary saves from United goalie Travis Worra, the Red Bulls collapsed in on themselves, finishing the game with a whimper. 2-0. In the stands we were still chanting: “D.C. United!”; “Travis Worra!”; and the chant we've been singing so long it's part of our repertoire even when we aren't playing them, “Fuck the Red Bulls!”

The rivalry between the two teams dates back to the very beginning of Major League Soccer. D.C. United fans have long felt that the Red Bulls--then named the MetroStars or MetroScum, if you prefer--much like the L.A. Galaxy, have always received special treatment because they are located in a major media market. While D.C. United began life as a combination of journeyman Latin American players and up and coming American talent, the MetroStars put their money behind flashy acquisitions, even bragging about acquiring Juninho in 1996. (It turned out not to be that Juninho.) Everybody thought the MetroStars would dominate the league like the Cosmos dominated back in the day. Turns out that wasn’t the case.

In 1996, D.C. United played the MetroStars four times, each team winning twice. And then came the playoffs. D.C. United vs the MetroStars for the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Back then the semi-finals were a three game series. The MetroStars won the first on a shootout, a novelty rule in early MLS to avoid ties. D.C. United won the second. Everything came down to the third game of the series. Who would advance to the first MLS Cup final? The flashy team from New York that everybody had pegged to win or the gritty, hard-working team from D.C.?

(About 5:45 in and note the REDSKINS logo on the field at RFK Stadium.)

The game was tied in the 89th minute and seemed like it was heading toward yet another shootout when Marco Etcheverry is brought down in the box, earning a penalty kick. Raul Diaz Arce steps up to take it and BOOM! It’s in the net! D.C. United will advance, eventually winning the first MLS Cup on October 20, 1996, beating the L.A. Galaxy 3-2 in the rain in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

The bitterness between the MetroStars and D.C. United was born in the heated three game series and has continued to this day.

Finally formalized as “The Atlantic Cup” by MLS in 2002, the games are probably as close as one gets to something like Scotland’s Old Firm. Other rivals come and go but the hate for MetroScum, the Pink Cows, whatever lame rebranding they give themselves next is forever. No matter the name, the era, the two teams are still the same: gritty, hard-working, cash-strapped D.C. and the over-indulged Red Bull with their fancy energy drink sugar daddies dropping cash on English Premiere League talent like Bradley Wright-Phillips (even letting him drag his less talented brother along) or cheating cheats like Thierry Henry whose handball kept Ireland out of the World Cup in 2010.

I’ll never forget the animosity I felt attending my very first away game last year at Red Bull Arena. The jeers from the Red Bull fans, the rocks thrown at our bus as we were pulling out of the parking lot. I’ve heard stories of bottle rockets, fist fights, stolen scarves… my brother vividly recalls seeing a MetroStars coffin burned in effigy in the RFK parking lot at a game in the late 1990s.

Games against the Red Bulls are not ordinary games. There’s a lot of emotion tied up in this rivalry. Getting knocked out of the playoffs by Red Bull two years in a row in 2014 and 2015 felt like a cruel joke. Ask almost any D.C. fan and they’ll tell you that the silver lining to our slow start to the season was the fact that Red Bull was doing even worse… until they weren’t. Adding to the fan nervousness for the Atlantic Cup opener on Friday was that Red Bull had recently found their stride and were on a three game winning streak. Meanwhile we had just had our asses handed to us 0-2 by NYCFC on Sunday.

But for all the shittiness and meanness in the world, sometimes good prevails. Sometimes truth and justice and teamwork win out over teams sponsored by shitty energy drinks.

(I was enjoying my beer too much and my brother was making fun of me for looking like a #SPON tweet for Heineken. Ha!)

I’d spent the day shivering with cold in my basement office. I have no windows. It’d been raining and grey when I entered the building. Emerging that evening into warmth and sunshine felt like an omen. I was wearing a Star Trek printed halter dress (in order to mock the tonedeaf Front Office decision to make this Atlantic Cup opener “Star Wars night” and thereby diluting the ultimate United fan seriousness with corporate sci-fi silliness) and quickly stripped off my sweater letting the sun beam down on my pale, pale office-dweller skin.

(Behind the SE tifo with the perennial mocking of Red Bulls lack of trophies compared with us.)

(With A.! Her second DCU game!)

With the Ultras still in silent protest for the first half of the games, I ended up standing on the loud side behind the Screaming Eagles. I was with my brother, my friend A., and a couple other buddies. And it looked like nobody else particularly cared about Star Wars either. The stands were packed and the energy was electric. Saborio scored the first goal and the place exploded with cheers. Two legendary Travis Worras saves just minutes later to save the lead had the stands chanting his name. “TRAVIS WORRA!” We were coming up to halftime with the score still 1-0. “Vamos… Vamos United. Esta Noche tenemos que ganar.” The drummers stop drumming and the fans are left singing acapella. The sound is incredible. We are one. “Vamos… Vamos United.” And then the unthinkable. Patrick Nyarko scores! 2-0! 2-0! My throat is already feeling hoarse from shouting.

United fights hard in the second half and preserves the score. 2-0. The first victory in the 2016 Atlantic Cup belongs to us.


And a note on the Star Wars theme:

For United fans already feeling like the world is against them--a rotting stadium, a clueless front office staff, owners who don't seem to care about the team, a single-entity league who more often than not ignores our very existence--this rivalry is something to hold onto. Fan created, fan curated, and a meaningful tie to years past. Even as MLS tries to manufacture the New York-New Jersey rivalry it always wanted with NYCFC and NYRB at the expense of DCU, for many longtime fans the Star Wars theme on Atlantic Cup night felt like one more example of how the current front office has not tried to understand existing fan culture. (Not to mention that the Columbus Crew's Star Wars night has been used as fodder to mock them by United fans for years. Now we were in the same boat.) In isolation there is nothing wrong with a Star Wars night to rope in sci-fi nerds and families but I am with those who feel like it wasn't a great choice to combine with a game against the Red Bulls. It added an unpalatable clownish element to a matchup that the fans take with extreme seriousness and that is why fans felt disrespected.

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