Wednesday, June 22, 2016

[D.C. Untied 14-15] Part 2: Houston Dynamo vs D.C. United, June 18, 2016

The next day, Thursday, I left for Houston, Texas, where D.C. United were going to be playing the Houston Dynamo on Saturday night at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Part of my quest this year, beyond just diving into MLS fandom, was to see a bit more of the United States. I’ve traveled in Europe and in Japan, to Canada, to India, and even Brazil, but there are large swathes of the United States that I’ve never seen. Going to away games gives me a great excuse to visit parts of the country I’d never otherwise see and meet people I’d never otherwise meet (Hey, Banter Buddies!!).

Adding to my sense of adventure for this trip was that I was going to be renting a car and driving, something I rarely do at home but was a necessity in a more typical American city like Houston where public transportation is non-existent. Did I even remember how to think like a driver? My first instinct is still to walk everywhere! But if I wanted to really see Houston, I needed a car.

My dear friend L. and her husband were going to drive out from San Antonio to meet me for the weekend. We’d planned on getting together at Lucky’s Pub in downtown Houston on Thursday night to watch the U.S. Men’s National Team take on Ecuador in the Copa America quarterfinals but my flight was delayed out of National Airport and then delayed again. And then again. My original 6 p.m. arrival time turned into 11:30 p.m. I read updates on twitter as I waited for my bag.

“Jermaine Jones slapped a guy!”

“Birnbaum came on!”


“Lucky’s Pub has hilarious people-watching! So many bros!”

Waiting in the humid Texas night for the shuttle to the rental car lot, almost too tired to be nervous about driving, the happy updates from my friend L. kept me focused. Despite the bumpy start, this trip was going to be fun. I could feel it.

I awoke early on Friday shivering in the hotel air conditioning. The TV said extreme heat advisory through Sunday but I found it hard to believe until I stepped out of the room and into the hallway and immediately back into my room to ditch the cardigan I’d stupidly put on.

Texas is hot.

Very hot.

Because I am a massive history nerd, my first stop on Friday was the Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park in downtown Houston. The main building, a small wooden structure situated on the edge of Sam Houston Park, was devoid of visitors but jam packed full of old photographs. An older woman in a neat grey bob came bustling from out of the back room. “Oh, I didn’t hear you come in!” She exclaimed. “Welcome!”

It would be the first of many delightful encounters I had with friendly Houstonians. Upon hearing that it was my first time in Houston and that I was a librarian, the Heritage Center woman began telling me all about the Houston Library and the first Houston librarian, Julia Ideson, after whom the historic Julia Ideson Library Building had been named. “You must go see it,” she said, excitedly. “On the second floor there is replica Venus di Milo that was a gift from the Public School Art League. The League was dedicated to buying replica works of art to put into schools to give the kids some culture but the school board thought the Venus was too racy so Julia took it and placed it right behind the circulation desk! Every time you checked out a book there she was!”

Sounds like my kind of librarian!

Houston was and is a city built on commerce. First came the port, exporting cotton and other agricultural products. Then oil was discovered (the Heritage Society had a wonderful exhibit of old family photos taken next to oil rigs). Then came NASA and the aerospace companies.

The Heritage Society exhibits had a little bit of something from every era, including some fantastic vintage Astrodome souvenirs that I wish had been available to buy. FG loves ambitious mid-20th century civic architecture. That is an FG fact.

I ducked out of the Heritage Center just as a pack of awkward looking bros from New Jersey bumbled in and went wandering through Sam Houston park, under a bright blue Texas sky.

The city seemed sleepy and content from inside a thicket of big knobby trees. The sweaty-backed bankers walking down Dallas Street on their coffee runs felt far, far away. Is there anything nicer than traveling?

Lunch was Tex-Mex at a nice little local restaurant called Habanera And The Gringo. The waitress pointed me towards the potato flautas as a vegetarian option. They are sort of a deep-fried tortilla filled with yummy potato stuffing. The outside was crunchy and the inside was nice and creamy. Absolutely delicious. I’d have loved to try one of their margaritas but the huge downside of driving everywhere is that I have to drive everywhere! So I stuck with iced tea.

After lunch I was meeting up south of the city with L. and her husband to take a tour of the NASA space center. L.’s sister’s boyfriend is a NASA engineer and had kindly offered to show us all around. Hopped up on caffeine and the sweet sounds of my new favorite radio station KTSU, 90.0 (seriously, you have to listen) I put pedal to the metal and zoomed down the creatively named NASA Road 1 to meet my friends. Clear Lake was glittering in the sun to my right. Next time I was in Houston maybe I’d have to stay out here.

Visiting the NASA space center was an incredible experience. L.’s sister’s engineer boyfriend clearly loves his work and answered all my (and L.’s husband’s) nerdy questions about everything. Getting up close and personal with the vehicles and gear that are used to send human beings into the vacuum of space was a dream come true for a long time space nerd like me. The equipment from the 1960s and 70s was especially mind-blowing because it was so tactile, covered in tiny switches and knobs. These days people can’t find their way to the grocery store without a cell phone GPS but the men who went to the moon didn’t even have a computer as powerful as a handheld calculator let alone what’s contained in an ordinary smartphone. Seeing the future of manned space travel, the Orion capsule, was a definite highlight, even if we couldn’t see inside because they were doing testing.

Space cows!

A space toilet!

Captain FG reporting for duty.

Apollo, this is FG. Do you copy?

Space friends!

We finished up the day at Saloon Door Brewing, a brand new craft brewery, where I had the best, the creamiest peanut butter chocolate stout I’ve ever tasted.

The sun was setting and the air had cooled off. Maybe I’d never get to outer space but right now there was nowhere on Earth I’d rather be, sitting outside enjoying the nice breeze rolling in from the lake, drinking my creamy stout with a couple of good friends. L.’s husband is a massive soccer fan and the three of us had a loooong discussion on the U.S. Men’s national team, the state of MLS, and on Copa America and soccer in general.

L. told me that when they were at the watch party at Lucky’s Pub, there had been a room set aside for the USA supporter group the American Outlaws. Not realizing that the room was reserved her husband had walked in and over to the bar. When L. tried to follow him, a couple of guys stopped her and told her it was reserved. L. is Mexican-American; her husband is white. I told her about the articles going around about how the American Outlaws are a bunch of drunk, racist bros. I’d previously put down the claims that the American Outlaws were too bro-y as coming from uptight pearl-clutching types but based on L.’s experiences and my own experiences at the Copa America game, I now think there is a strong element of truth to some of the claims of those articles.

L.’s husband and I have almost completely opposite politics except where our libertarian streaks overlap but he said something I thought was really on point. Sports give us an outlet, an opportunity to care a lot about something that’s essentially meaningless. The problem I have with the nationalism coming from some of the USA fans, especially from white fans and aimed at American minority groups and/or aimed at people from countries where the USA is (allegedly) funding death squads and coups, is that it’s not meaningless. Jeering at England fans is one thing but jeering at Argentina fans when (in living memory) the US helped along a coup that installed a brutal dictatorship… well, there’s something really gross about it. (I have more to say on this in my Copa America blog).

Saturday was game day.

L. and her husband were hitting up the Houston comic book convention while I was going to do differently nerdy stuff and then we’d meet at Lucky’s Pub for a pre-game beer or two before the big event!

It was another hot, hot, hot sunny day.

As recommended to me by the friendly historian, my first stop was the Julia Ideson Library, a beautiful art deco building next to City Hall. And, again, I seemed to be the only visitor for some reason. The Library had a nice exhibit on Julia Ideson’s life and she seemed like a remarkable woman. (She even went to France in World War I to set up a library for the troops there!) The building is a monument to Ideson’s civic-minded determination to give Houston’s citizens access to books and knowledge and a reminder that once upon a time Americans took a lot of pride in erecting beautiful public buildings instead of the low-cost office park junk we put up today.

The famous Venus!

Next was the Art Car Museum. Because my aunt Gretchen is a long time art car artist, I had a little familiarity with art cars and the Houston art car parade. What I love about art cars is that they take something that’s because so ubiquitous and mundane in our culture--cars--and make us see it as something brand new. An art car isn’t just a symbol signaling wealth or social class or a tool to get from A to B, it’s a magical object, turning a mundane trip to the grocery store into an adventure.

Rounding up my day of sightseeing was the Orange Show, a massive piece of outsider art located in the middle of an ordinary Houston neighborhood. It really has to be seen to be believed. It makes me happy that the years of work that went into transforming a cookie-cutter suburban house into a wondrous, orange-celebrating theater haven’t gone to waste and that the house is being preserved. Outsider art is one of my favorite things to see because it’s art that comes directly from a person’s heart. There’s no posturing or pretention or playing to the “academy” or to critics.

At this point it was beyond hot and I was starting to feel brain fried. I went back to the hotel for a nap. Later I’d realize that, quite stupidly, I hadn’t been drinking nearly enough water. The heat advisory was no joke.

When I woke up an hour or so later the blue skies were starting to fill with ominous looking clouds. Hoping we weren’t in for a repeat of the FC Dallas game from earlier this month I got back in the car and headed downtown… where there was an Astros game going on. Directly next to BBVA stadium. So there was no parking. Anywhere.

BBVA is tucked into a compact, walkable neighborhood packed full of bars and clubs. It reminded me a bit of the area around Fenway Park in Boston. (Not a bad model to follow for a city-based stadium, if anybody from the D.C. United stadium planning committee is paying attention.)

With the official lots full of Astros fans, after cycling around the neighborhood 3 times I finally gave up and paid the owner of Chinese grocery store $20 to park in front of his store.

I ventured out into the mass of orange-be-shirted Houstonians to find my friends.

The skies were grey but no sign of rain yet. We stood around on the back deck of Lucky’s where I chatted a bit with a father who was there with his young son. The kid was a huge Bobby Boswell fan and was hoping to meet him later that evening. I hope he did! It must be nice for the players to be remembered fondly by fans of their previous clubs, even more so when that club let you go for being over-the-hill and you return triumphantly a couple years later hitting a record 30,000 minutes of MLS game play and helping deliver a shut-out against your former team.

A round of delicious local brews from 8th Wonder later and the skies opened up. Everybody piled back inside. L.’s husband found us some space on the covered porch up front but the humidity, the smoke, and the heat started to get to me. My head felt sticky and my stomach churned. What if the game was canceled? What if I came all this way for nothing? What if I got some weird virus and faint and can’t watch it? What if? What if?

Attempting to push negative thoughts away, I nervously followed the updates on twitter. Rain delay. But the game wasn’t canceled.

We sat in silence for a bit, watching the choppy feed of the Copa America game, Argentina vs. Venezuela.

A staff member came around handing out Bud Light branded ponchos to those of us attending the game.

The rain started to ease up.

“Are you okay?” asked L.

“I don’t feel that great,” I admitted.

“Have you been drinking water?”

“... no?”

“FG!” L. scolded me as her big sister instincts took over. “Why don’t you head inside BBVA first and get some water. We’ll finish up here and come meet you.”

BBVA looked bright and welcoming in the rainy gloom. With the seating areas still closed off for rain, fans were milling around in the concourse, occasionally having to make way for staff clearing up puddles. I drank a giant liter of water. And then another one. There was an announcement that the weather event had passed and we could go out into the seating area. I started feeling much better.

The away fans section was tucked away in a far, dark corner of the bowl opposite the home supporters. There was only a handful of us. Some of regular Barra Brava bros, some former DC-ers who now lived in Texas, and me.

Papparazzi pic courtesy of L.

And another that had my brother LOLing. ("Why did I see you chugging water like Napoleon Dynamite?")

With my head feeling much more clear in post-rain evening breeze, I was able to fully appreciate the festivities. It was Star Wars night at BBVA and the Houston Dynamo went all out. They’d tied the night to Houston’s comic convention and comic convention attendees had received Star Wars-themed Houston Dynamo scarves. (L. kindly gave me hers at the end of the evening.) There were quite a few people dressed up in costumes and the Dynamo graphics team had put together a hilarious package introducing the starting lineups for both teams. D.C. United’s players were all Sith lords and the Dynamo were the “good” guys. A handful of storm troopers carrying flags marched onto the field.

And then it was time. Kickoff!

D.C. United’s biggest problem this season has been an inability to put the ball in the net. And after 120 minutes of scoreless soccer on Wednesday on top of missing proven scorers Nyarko, Rolfe, Fabi, and Saborio, the entire D.C. supporters section had low expectations that we’d do much of anything in this game. And the first half more or less met our low expectations.

But after halftime I inexplicably started to get a good feeling. I don’t know if it was the fresh air or the water finally reaching my brain or just the Force at work but I started to have a good feeling about the game.

Despite having played 120 minutes of soccer a few days before, Jared Jeffrey was out there hustling. Rob Vincent and Nick DeLeon were making good runs. Bill Hamid was a fucking wall, shutting down any hint of an attack. Kofi Opare was getting on those clearances like a boss. We weren’t putting balls on frame but once my man Alhaji Kamara (get ready for a run on #45 jerseys next year) subbed on it definitely felt like it was only a matter of time before we would. My heart was racing as we went into stoppage time still tied at 0-0. This was a dangerous time for this United. Late goals in San Jose and Philadelphia had cost us valuable points. But in the dying seconds of the game, as the Dynamo make one last push, Big Billy proves himself a difference maker yet again and makes an incredible double save just as the final whistle blows. Way in the back row of section 231, we few, we band of traveling D.C. United supporters burst into spontaneous cheers. “D.C. UNITED!” *clap clap clap clap* “D.C. UNITED!”

It was a draw but somehow it felt more like a win. Despite the 0-0 score there was an energy to the team. They never gave up. They kept hustling to the very last whistle. Maybe Acosta and Kamara weren’t quite in sync yet but the spark was there. Between their youth and creativity, the Great Wall of Hamid in goal, Opare and Birnbaum, and the experience and zeal of veteran players like Marcelo and Nyarko… this 2016 team could become something special. We’re not out of the running yet. Never count D.C. out.

Driving back to the hotel, listening to 90.0 KTSU, I was really happy I’d made the trip. Seeing my friend L. and her husband, getting to sit in a space capsule, seeing the art cars and the Orange Show, drinking delicious Houston beer, and then getting to cheer for my team as we reboot this season on a rainy June evening in Texas.

I was happy.

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