It was a bit of a confusing time to be a DC Sports fan. The Washington Redskins are confusing everyone again by going 5-2 in spite of banking so much on a 33-year old running back to deliver their hopes and dreams every week. The Capitals are doing fine, for now, but just have the stench of a team that has lost its mojo from their Stanley Cup run and may struggle mightily to regain it. The Wizards…well…call me when Ernie Grunfeld ever gets fired. Oh, and did I mention baseball is finally over so the Nats can start a new. But that might mean losing their supposed once-in-a-generation talent in the process?
Which leaves us with a little known soccer team that is now playing their games just a further walk down the Navy Yard from where the ball park is. It was just after the Atlanta Olympics that D.C. United started to get blurted out on local televisions. They just so happened to win the first ever championship of Major League Soccer under Americans Jeff Agoos, Eddie Pope and John Harkes, but also powered by South American sensations Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno.
The corps would go on to win another three more titles along the way before 2004 and it felt like, regardless of how much the league did and wanted to grow, that this would be THE dynasty that everyone would look up to. Sure, the Los Angeles Galaxy would have something to say about that, but that was the rivalry that should have been created for all of eternity for American Soccer. After all, a new crop of quasi-household names in Ben Olsen, Ryan Nelson, Nick Rimando, Christian Gomez, Luciano Emilio and Freddy Adu were going to carry United to many more titles to come.
That didn’t turn out to be completely the case as that final corps or players began to move on or age out, and United just seemed to get more stale throughout the past decade. No longer was the team being advertised on the sides of buses or given major columns of the Washington Post. No longer was RFK feeling like a stadium looking like it found its sunset and instead was begging for mercy to be euthanized. MLS Commisioner Don Garber was even threatening to move this proud franchise if they didn’t build a swanky new stadium fast, in spite of how much these cash cows find a way to mess with the local taxpayer while forgetting about the real community priorities every time. Regardless of where you stand on the issues of supporting any sports team as much as it demands, even if it’s a team in a league that only pays some of its players less than $50,000 per season, it was beyond evident that until D.C. United found a new home, their future was always going to look dire.
Out went United in the MLS’s conciousness and in went brand new teams with international stars invading a local pitch near you. In came the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, New York FC, and even Toronto FC, Orlando City, Vancouver FC and the Montreal Impact. In came David Beckham that was eventually followed by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thierry Henry, David Villa, Frank Lampard, Robbie Keane and many more. All of these teams just felt more cool with bolder colors and instilled a fresh new attitude that would carry Garber’s project onward. D.C. United, on the other hand, were playing in a 50+ year old stadium east of the Anacostia River that struggled to ever get a new buzz.
But then finally, Audi Field was born in July. And it took plenty of growing pains for the fans to love it. The soccer team needed to play almost all their games on the road to start the 2018 season while the new building was still under construction, and it almost made them the laughing stock of the league again as a result. That was, until a short, stubby, and ginger Englishman that has been there and done that since he was 16 decided to call it a day in the Premier League and try his luck in the nations capital.
As a bit of trivia, Wayne Rooney was my first ever soccer idol that I followed from the beginning. There was so much expected of him and, like Lebron James and now Kylian Mbappe before him, seemed like he will accomplish anything before he ever achieved anything. He had pace, a low center of gravity that Leonel Messi found to master, a cannon of a shot from either foot, and a temper that, when well-trained, could push himself to heights that few would ever dream.
While many club trophies at Manchester United and becoming England’s greatest goal scorer came of his stellar career, there was always a sense he could have done more. After all, he was always the side kick to Christiano Ronaldo at United and he basically stopped scoring for England in European Championships and World Cups after that brilliant run in 2004. And just as he was riding into the sunset with his boyhood club, Everton, if felt like the end was near by 2018. That was, until he surprised many to put on the black and red of D.C. United.
Even when coming to MLS, many International stars would tell you how harder the league was compared to when they first expected. You can’t quite tell if they state that to realize that this wasn’t a retirement home for them and many don’t deliver the same impact for their teams and for the league as others. But for Wayne Rooney, he was able to put his imprint and more as soon as he set foot on the Navy Yard. In 21 appearances for United, he would score 12 times and deliver this beauty of a defensive play and cross that was heard around the world for almost a week.
For one night, it felt like D.C. United were back in terms of being relevant in the public consciousness. And since that incredible night, United would finish the season 9-2-3 and go from being the scrapheap of the league to one of the final spots for the MLS playoffs.
Last night was the winner take all play-off against Columbus, and even with a defeat on penalties, the club brought a sense of pride back into the fanbase that hasn’t been seen in years. Everything started as soon as you walked up to the stadium. On a pitch black November night, the arena camouflaged with the scenery but the lighting pierced through the sky that dared you to take a look at what lied there. Once you got in, whether you were at your seat, trying to stuff your face with cerveza, tacos, club merchandise or any non-traditional meal the concession stands offered everywhere, the field was always there. Once you found a way to your seat by
climbing walking up the flights of stairs, you sat down and cried “hallelujah” to yourself before picking up your jaw in realizing what a wonderful view you had.
Back to the food, please make sure to get your food OUTSIDE of halftime if you want to avoid missing the game? These fans were smart enough to not miss any action and all wanted to invade any personal space you had walking down the concourse to get what they needed. The reason why these fans were smart is that in 22 years, D.C. has prided itself in being the preeminent soccer town in America. A large Latin community, followed by a strong participation of youth, recreational and college soccer leagues just always made this area a breeding ground for en masse soccer fandom. Last night, every pass that lead to a scoring chance led to everyone, I MEAN EVERY ONE OF THOSE 20,600 rising to their feet, yelping for a demand of one final good pass or the killer shot, or gasping for the dramatic to arrive.
In between, the D.C. United supporters groups that have been a part of this franchise, from the Screaming Eagles to the Barra Brava, had their songs and chants echo around the building. Even many Average Joe’s were memorizing the lyrics and joining in. It was downright beautiful and a joy to see this city come together. Even in defeat.
Now head coach, there was a sense of Bruce Boudreau and pre-2018 Barry Trotz in the way Ben Olsen, now the team’s head coach, handled the pressure cooker of the MLS playoffs. Meanwhile, fellow ex-player Gregg Berhalter, marshaled the Columbus Crew into a defensive block that limited the chances of Rooney and speedy wide forward Luciano Acosta all night. It took until super sub Nick De Leon to bring hope back into the fan base for a victory as he tied the game at two in extra time with a dramatic volley as the clock was moments of expiration.
And then, penalties. Folks, penalty kicks are why sports are stupid.
Surely enough, Wayne Rooney missed his penalty because that’s what the English stereotype entails and our hero De Leon skied his chance that gave the Crew victory. Did I mention that some Crew players were a bit too close to De Leon during his penalty attempt that could have led to his miss. Even with the head referee needing to shove them back, it was enough to stall his whistle to allow De Leon to take his chance. Speaking of referees, boy did I not miss how terrible MLS referees are. But then again, when’s the last time we complimented any referee in sports either.
Anywho, last night was down right glorious. A city came together for a team that was unbeknownst to many coming into the 2018 season and left with a sense of momentum on their side. We can keep going on and on about whether the MLS is genuinely a good league to invest in and whether D.C. United are doing the right things to make this team a winner, but for one night, Audi Field was the true hero and brought back pride into the city that it hasn’t done in a generation. Now that it’s over, everyone from that past generation and onward will be hoping to have their D.C. United back on the field real soon.