Sunday, October 9, 2016

[D.C. Untied 22-23] D.C. United vs Orlando City SC, September 24, 2016, and D.C. United vs Columbus Crew SC, September 28, 2016

When I last left you, gentle readers, D.C. United had valiantly fought back from a two goal hole, scoring twice in six minutes to tie the New York Red Bulls in stoppage time and for Viernes de Futbol the following week in Chicago they drew the same scoreline: 2-2. We made a party of it. After work, I took the Metro out to Maryland where I met my brother and sister-in-law and the new baby over at my parents house. Beers in hand (except for the baby) we tuned into the game on the big screen TV, laughing in gleeful disbelief as Rob Vincent took an indirect freekick from inside the penalty box, scoring the opening goal. And then we’d groaned in disappointment as it was answered minutes later by Chicago and then answered again. United seemed tired, slow of both foot and thought, as if the pitch had been spread with molasses. A second half stoppage time equalizer from captain Bobby Boswell salvaged a point but unlike the previous week’s effort, it didn’t feel quite like a win. Chicago is the worst team in the East and we just barely scraped out a draw? Was my optimism all for nothing?

Oh me of little faith.

Two weeks later and we’re sitting on our first winning streak of the season: 3 wins in a row, including a massive win on the road against Toronto FC. D.C. United has gone from clinging onto 6th place with our collective fingernails and a series of hard-fought draws to racing past Philadelphia and hot on Montreal’s heels in a fight 4th which would guarantee us a home game in the playoffs.

And I’m late writing about it for a few reasons.
The first being that I got very busy and then I had a bit of the bug going around and was too tired to string together a narrative. The second, of course, is that the narrative was up in the air all through that week, an endless number of possibilities stretching out. Beyond just winning and losing, it came down to heart. Would we get a decisive win or scrape something out? Was it all down to luck or did the team believe it? Did we, the fans, believe in them?

Even after that first big win on Saturday against Orlando things were still up in the air. Columbus might be hitting the bottom of the Eastern conference but they were still dangerous. Defenders, turn your backs on Justin Meram at your own risk. But our defense, helmed by the unflappable Captain Bobby Boswell stayed firm. After 70 minutes of grinding, letting Columbus run themselves out, United pounced. 3-0, all scored in the final 20 minutes.

And still, we were unsure. Two home games won. Three points each. Won by 3 goals each. And yet we were still on tenterhooks. The real test would be the next match away at Toronto against a team that was in the running for top of the East. We’d be digging deep on the bench, both of our dependable starting fullbacks were out. The heart of our midfield, Marcelo Sarvas, out with an injury. Tired legs from most of our attack, Patrick Mullins, Lloyd Sam, Luciano Acosta were all on their third start in seven days. Lamar Neagle, who’d been phenomenal off the bench for us the past few weeks, was pulled in to start for the first time since a grinding 1-1 draw against Montreal in August, in which our single goal had been a PK and Kofi Opare had been sent off with his second red card of the season. Not exactly a shining moment of the season.

Across the DC area, bathed in the soft glow of our TV screens, we fans were on the edge of our seats as United stood firm against wave after wave of Toronto’s attack, absorbing the pressure without breaking. When top Toronto hunk Jozy Altidore burned Steve Birnbaum on a breakaway run, sending in a ball past Bill Hamid into an empty net towards the end of the first half, my stomach dropped. No, no, no, no… we couldn’t let this happen.

But minutes later, Neagle equalized. One of those chaos in the box goals we’d been popping off with all through the late summer into autumn. A United corner kick poorly cleared by Toronto directly to the feet of Julian Buscher. Jules spots Sam who’d run into the fray unmarked by Toronto after taking the corner. Sam sends it back in. Birnbaum, still up top, is there to receive it. He shoots. Parried away by Toronto goalkeeper Clint Irwin but it’s not enough because Neagle is there there to head it back in. GOAL!!!!!! Almost an exact replay of Neagle’s equalizer against the Red Bulls.

We go into halftime 1-1.

Second half. United comes out of the locker room with confidence. A long ball from Clint Irwin headed back up the field by Birnbaum. Mullins is there but he’s being double-teamed by two Toronto defenders and Zavaleta wins the header. Unfortunately for Toronto, Lloyd Sam has cut in and is there to receive the ball. He swerves the ball past Michael Bradley sending it forward. Lamar Neagle had already begun his run and scoops it up and over Irwin. GOAL! 1-2, United!

The rest of the game see Toronto frantically trying to claw back a point but Bill Hamid is a wall. He lets nothing through. Living rooms across the DC area echo with shouts of, “COME ON, BILL!”

Toronto is defeated.

3 games. 9 points. 9 goals scored. Only 2 goals allowed from three teams with some of the scoringest and trickiest players in the league. Kaka, Cyle Larin, Ola Kamara. We shut all of them down.

D.C. United went into the international break full of confidence and momentum.

But there was one more reason I hadn’t written anything. The day before the Columbus game I got an e-mail from D.C. United with a document to be signed, a season ticket member agreement which included language that would preclude me from writing this blog, from posting pictures of the game on twitter, or from even writing comments about a game I’d attended on Black & Red United. I did receive clarification that the language in the agreement was only to prevent unauthorized commercial activity, which this blog certainly is not--I don’t make one red cent from anything I do here--but I still found it unsettling. Was what I’ve been doing really that bad? Had I upset somebody with my writing? Did the team distrust us fans that much? Were we the enemy with our endless discussions of roster changes and gifs and banter? I don’t want to be the enemy. Don’t they need us? Not just for our money but for our support?

Earlier this week some comments from Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles were being spread around where he called out Red Bulls fans for not showing up and that it was disheartening to see thousands of empty seats when the team was doing so well. While I think the way he phrased the statement was disrespectful to the fans who did show up, his words did spur me to start writing this post. I may not fill thousands of seats and I’ll never win a pulitzer prize for writing but over my years of writing this blog I have discovered that I do have a genius for something: spreading enthusiasm. It’s not the type of genius that wins awards or gets the spotlight but I get a lot of pleasure from seeing the echoes of my fangirl joy and enthusiasm in the people around me. Whether it’s my parents, who’ve both started reading the sports section since I began attending games, my online friends, my real-life friends, and my new D.C. United friends.

I may not fill thousands of seats, but I’m probably good for at least 20-30 through sheer force of fangirl delight.

Maybe I’m a bit much sometimes or am overly friendly or I don’t behave like a lady and get caught on camera at RFK flipping the bird at “One sleeve” Steve Clark but I’m here and paying attention and making sure everybody else does too.

In the days following the Chicago road draw I attended a couple of season ticket holder events. First was early Sunday morning Joga mit Julian at one of the RFK practice fields. Lying under the clear blue sky, feeling the earth under my back, enjoying the company of the other fans, it was an extremely pleasant way to finish the weekend. “Danke,” I said in German to Julian with a smile, as he patiently took pictures and chatted about yoga with all of us bleary eyed fans. “Bitte,” he replied, smiling back.

That's me to the far right in the front row.

A few days later there was a team autograph signing event at RFK for those of us who had renewed our season tickets. After much discussion with my friend A., who understands exactly how serious this fangirl business is, I was talked out of bringing my giant binder full of game programs and to focus on one main item (a sheet of high quality paper) to collect signatures on. “Then you can put that in your binder as a coversheet,” she said. The paper (in a sheet protector, obviously) went into my tote bag, as did the Atlantic Cup poster I’d snagged at that glorious game at Red Bull Arena.

Twilight filled RFK. It was a beautiful late summer evening. We’d been herded down into the Beer Garden area behind the goal. A line for beer and hotdogs snaked its way around a row of tables neatly labeled with the names of the players who would soon be sitting there. The crowd was a nice cross section of the fanbase as a whole. There were groups of bros (of all genders), families with kids, couples who would soon turn into those families with kids, and plenty of solo attendees like myself. I waved to some familiar faces and got into the beer line.

The players began trickling in. Luciano Acosta was the first to arrive. He’d brought his adorable, chubby little son who toddled around groups of fans happy as could be, momma indulgently trailing behind.

There was a mild buzz in the atmosphere and I overheard multiple discussions of the best autograph getting strategies. I decided to start at the far left with Alhaji Kamara and work my way down. Alhaji was extremely friendly, giving me my first autograph of the evening--a large, loopy silver sharpie signature on my paper, which would become the source of much amusement as other, much more modestly sized signatures, in black ink, filled the page.

What is it about autographs that we fans find so compelling? A signature is a totem representing the person signing. It’s a small personal connection, even if it will always be one-sided. The signer will not remember giving the autograph although the one holding the signature will. “Stay sweet.” “KIT.” How many school yearbooks have I signed and forgotten? How many signatures do I treasure?

At one point I ended up in an autograph line behind a young girl, perhaps about 10 years old, who had brought her giant binder. She flipped through the pages as we waited, looking for the perfect spot for the next autograph. We were kindred spirits. I could tell. Maybe in 10 years she’d be the one writing a fan blog and I’ll be the one bringing my little 10 year old niece around to season ticket member events.

As the twilight faded, darkness began creeping over the field and into the Beer Pit. The only illumination coming from fans’ glowing smartphone screens as they held them over the players’ tables to give them some light as they signed soccer balls, jerseys, and all sorts of other odds and ends. It was oddly cozy.

I ended up getting almost all the players to sign my paper. I missed Taylor Kemp, Patrick Nyarko, Chris Korb, and Collin Martin due to time and I didn’t see Kennedy Igboananike. Chris Rolfe had table space set aside but it was quietly removed a few minutes after the event started.

Nick DeLeon had just cut off all his curly hair and was clearly regretting the decision to do so just before a fan event. “Has everybody been asking you about it?” I asked him. “Yes,” he answered grimly. “But it was just too much work.” I have curly hair, too, Nick. I understand.

Lloyd Sam is beyond charming and got a kick out of both the Atlantic Cup poster. “Where did you get this?!” “I pulled it down at Red Bull arena!” “I’m going to print my name under my signature so you know it’s me,” he grinned with that lady-killing smile.

As one of the Red Bull Arena goal scorers, I also had Steve Birnbaum sign. “We’ve had a lot of sad bus rides home,” I told him. “We have, too,” he replied. “That wasn’t one of them.” I nodded in agreement. Steve also signed a dumb Wells Fargo photo booth picture I’d taken with him and Luke Mishu. “Hey Luke,” he called out, “Check this out!” And sending me over to Luke Mishu’s table with a smile. Poor Luke Mishu had been on the fans’ collective shit list for a poorly thought out back pass to Bill Hamid that landed right at David Villa’s feet and had probably cost us the win over NYCFC back in the beginning of September. It must have been extremely intimidating to turn up at a fan event knowing the fans were out for your blood. I was glad he had Birnbaum, the most affable person on the team, looking out for him.

I had a nice chat with soft spoken Jared Jeffrey, still recovering from concussion at the time. He said that he could finally run without getting a headache and was hopeful to re-join the team in a week or two, which he did. Jeffrey has been a sneaky favorite of mine for his passion on the field and earnestness off it. For taking that missed penalty at the Open Cup match to heart and for wanting to have dinner with Jesus, Owen Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson. I was really happy to hear that he was making a recovery.

Bobby Boswell has a giant chip on his shoulder. Perhaps, like Luke Mishu, he’s aware that the fans hadn’t been too pleased with his performance this season but if that chip gets him playing like has these last few weeks, for the sake of our playoff run, I will personally heckle him about through every game remaining this season. Go ahead, Bobby. Prove us all wrong. I dare you.

I got a big hug from Kofi Opare, who is the sweetest guy ever, even with his rough 2016 season.

Patrick Mullins remembered who I was and promptly busted me for going to Joga mit Julian. As well he should. I can take banter as well as I dish it out. That is a banter fact.

Marcelo is unbelievably friendly and didn’t mind when I teased him about his number one in MLS yellow card status.

And if Acosta has learned any English since he’s been here, he is too shy or unsure of himself to use it with us fans. I got myself a Teach Yourself Spanish book so I will try some phrases next time. Luckily, I don’t mind making an ass out of myself in a foreign language. Or in English. Whatever.

While I had an absolute blast flitting around getting signatures and catching up with all my fan buddies, I really hope that team also got something out of the event too. At the very least, a sense that they did have some very strong support going into this playoff battle. The D.C. media may not care but plenty of people around town really, really do.

As a little postscript to this post, I took my dad with me to the Orlando game, his first in 15 or so years. In August, still in the depths of jet lag, riding the high of the game against the Portland Timbers, at halftime I’d giddily put my name in for a pair of tickets with a player meet-and-greet and won.

Our seats were on the quiet side and I spent much of the game showing my dad everything I’d learned. Here’s where you get the best meal--pupusas and a Tecate. There was where I usually stood. This is what you do when we score a goal! My dad took a shine to Lloyd Sam, who was speedily zipping up and down our side through the first half. As somebody who spent a lot of time studying Germany and the German language he got a real kick out of the way the announcer at RFK pronounced Julian B├╝scher’s name absolutely correctly.

But he was really impressed when the D.C. United staffer came to get us in the 85th minute and took us down to the field level where we stood and watched at point blank range as Julian sent in that little volley that gave United the 4-1 victory! Bathed in the flood lights. Surrounded on all sides by cheers from the sellout crowd. Watching as the happy United players walked past us into the locker room.

The staffer pulled Nick DeLeon aside to send him over to us but wasn’t quick enough to do it before he’d tossed his jersey into a sea of chattering kids with outstretched arms. Shirtless, sweaty, and extremely polite, Nicky shook hands with my dad, asked us our names, signed a couple of things and posed with us for picture. He didn’t know it but he’d made himself a fan, my dad, the guy who taught me everything I know about digging into things with enthusiasm. There’s a reason I’m one of a handful of 30-something women with a subconscious knowledge of Frank Zappa’s discography and that reason is my dad.

“Did you notice he does cupping,” laughed my dad, as Nick headed back into the locker room. I had. Nicky had had three of the telltale round suction marks on his back.

We stood and watched as Bill Hamid, patience of an angel, worked his way around the sea of waving hands, signing whatever was thrust at him. I flagged down a handful of acquaintances as they walked past, introduced them to my dad, amused that nobody questioned what I was doing there. In just one short year, I’d made myself at home at RFK, as a D.C. United fan.

Once all the players had gone in and crowds had moved away, we walked back up the stairs and out into the cool autumn evening.

I love this team. I love being a fan.

I haven't gotten any official pushback for writing and until I do, I'm going to assume that I'm in the clear. At least a couple of people in the Front Office are aware of this blog and I've yet to receive as much as a scolding. If that changes and I'm told to stop, I will let everybody know but until then... happy reading, I guess!

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