Monday, June 20, 2016

[D.C. Untied 14-15] Part 1: D.C. United vs Fort Lauderdale Strikers, June 15, 2016

Each 0-0 draw is its own unique plot point existing somewhere in between a win and a loss. Watching D.C. United’s B-team take on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers for 120 minutes of scoreless soccer felt like a loss even before we went on to actually lose during penalty kicks. Watching a D.C. United A-team that was missing not only 2015’s top scorer but 3 other goal scorers of an already low-scoring 2016 grind out a 0-0 draw against the Houston Dynamo--earning a road point on a swampy June evening--felt much closer to victory.

After a couple weeks off for Copa America Centenario (which I have a half-finished blog post about, hopefully coming soon), the D.C. United season picked up again with an Open Cup game against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on Wednesday, June 15th. To be honest, I hadn’t initially planned on going. The game was at 7:30 p.m. at the Maryland Soccerplex out in the non-Metro accessible boonies. Getting to the Soccerplex by 7:30 on a weeknight and back home again was going to be massive pain in the ass. Some of the Ultras had offered rides to and from Metro, which was incredibly thoughtful, but even getting out to Shady Grove to get picked up would take 45 minutes from my office and getting home again would take twice as long with the delays. And with the depressing slog of a game against Seattle still echoing in my head the thought of an hour and half Metro ride after another game like that just made my head hurt. Besides, I was leaving for Houston for another D.C. United game the very next day! Did they really need me in the crowd for this one? Aren’t we just “customers” to them? Does the team even care?

That was my thought process when I left for work on Wednesday morning. I had absolutely no intention of wasting my time by going to the game. But life has a funny way of working out. I felt a tug on the tiny roots I’d put down in the fan community. By the time I got to work I had an offer of a ride from Shady Grove to the Soccerplex from an Ultra and another ride all the way home from my brother. “This is the last chance I’ll have to see a game in person for a while,” my brother had said. “Plus we’ll get to see the new kid make his debut.” Last year, as a casual fan, it wouldn't have been an issue but having made the commitment to be a supporter, I had to go support.

And that was how I ended up in suburban Maryland on the sidelines of the Soccerplex on a warm early summer evening, dressed in my office clothes, carrying my office bag, without even a scarf to wave around, watching little 16-year old Chris Durkin wipe up the field like a total boss in his debut appearance.

(The view from the beer containment zone. No beer allowed outside a smaller penned-in, increasingly crowded patch of lawn.)

I was quite content just to be there with my brother and my friends, drinking beer and cheering for the team. Watching the B-team is always fun. It was nice to see Aguilar and Worra and little Jalen Robinson and the other youngsters. Sean Franklin played the first half, looking every inch the babysitter, much to my amusement.

The Open Cup, as I understand it, is a competition that is open to any team. So the MLS teams get to compete against "lower" division NASL and USL teams. Generally the MLS teams do quite well so maybe there was an expectation that this game would be a cakewalk. But though our young guys played hard, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, like many a NASL team, is a team packed with well-seasoned veterans. They may not run as fast as they used to but they play smart and they play tough. And the Strikers played to win. Ben Olsen, on the other hand, put the Mancini kid, widely assumed to have been signed purely as a favor to the owners and who we’ve never glimpsed even once on the field since he was signed. To be fair to Olsen, he didn’t have much choice with the pile of injuries and absences and with a regular season MLS game coming up in just 3 days. But, also to be fair, sticking Mancini on the field was a pretty big signal that Olsen, at least, didn’t particularly care about the final result.

Still, there was one person on the field, at least, who did care.

(Me and my bro caught on camera behind the goal.)

After grinding through 90 scoreless minutes plus 30 more scoreless minutes of extra time, the game went into penalty kicks. Clustered behind the goal, we stood in the floodlights and watched as the shots went in. Julian Büscher nails it. Then Fort Lauderdale. 1-1. Taylor Kemp gets one in but Fort Lauderdale misses spectacularly. 2-1. Rob Vincent boom. But Fort Lauderdale gets another one past Worra. 3-2. Then Lucho is up. And it’s saved. Fort Lauderdale again past Worra. 3-3. Then Jared Jeffrey. Good ol’ Jared Jeffrey who had finally made his way not just to the 18 or to be a regular sub but to be actually starting with the A-team after years of warming the bench. This is his year. It’s his turn. But his shot goes off the crossbar. Fort Lauderdale makes converts their final penalty and they win the game 3-4.

But the mood of the crowd is surprisingly upbeat despite the loss. We’d all had a pretty good time, taking the game about as seriously as Ben Olsen had. Even the young kids standing next to us who'd been jeering the Strikers' goalie by chanting his name hadn't seemed too put out. It had been a nice evening. But as the crowd buzzes happily under the floodlights behind the goal, I watch Jeffrey walk away from us to the farthest, darkest corner of the field and sink down into a puddle of gloom. I’m tempted to run over and tell him the loss isn’t his fault, which it kind of was but kind of wasn’t. There were a bunch of other guys on the field that helped get that 0-0 draw that led to penalties but to be the one whose penalty kick the win is riding on…

Seeing Jeffrey take the loss so hard gave the game a poignancy it had been missing and made me see Jeffrey in a new light. This guy isn’t just here to pick up a paycheck. He cares.

[To be continued in Part 2: Houston Dynamo vs D.C. United]

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