My black-and-red face paint melted into streaks as we jumped and bumped in the stands, thick with our swamp summer, refusing to take refuge in the shade under the tiers behind us. Beer flew when we scored. In fact, I always knew we were about to score when some poor guy, clearly at his first game, still asking his friend about the rules and all, had just bought a beer, because that’s how the soccer gods like to play. He’d throw his ten dollars’ worth of alcohol in the air and have a good time despite himself. I might see him back next week. At halftime we’d get pupusas. It never got old that we could get pupusas in a stadium. I still marvel at it. After the sun goes down the smoke bombs go up and I’d smell like the color red for days. I saw about half the game from behind the flags that whipped around me but somehow always saw the goals. And the fouls. And any time the referee did something stupid. When the opponents score, we’d chant “DC United” louder than before. We would never leave early. In fact, if we lost, we’d make a point to stay after and keep cheering.
Back then it didn’t matter what seat your ticket was for. If you jumped and shouted fiercely enough, you’d get waved over by la Barra Brava, the hardcore fans down at the front, and you’d join them right up next to the sidelines. No security-enforced, dues-paying passes. Just fans. I don’t feel old enough to use the phrase back then, but here we are. This is what it was like growing up with Major League Soccer, a league that started when I was two years old, in the suburbs of Washington, DC. This is what it was like to grow up with DC United, a team I don’t remember not loving.
Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, or RFK, is the team’s shoddy but beloved home, shared for much of the club’s history with the baseball team that left its mark in the carved-out goal-ends. The Nationals have since moved to their own stadium, and DC United is poised to do the same, leaving behind the shell of RFK for a brand new stadium just south of Nationals Park at a transit-accessible but more remote site called Buzzard Point. I’ll be sad to see the team leave RFK—not just because I think the new stadium is a dubious use of public money in a quiet, abandoned corner of the District, but because I’ve got a lot of memories on East Capitol Street, all a little whitewashed the way a kid’s memories are. The way the stands shake when we jump is exciting and gorgeous to me, rather than dangerous. When I saw the fan-painted murals in the weight room, that maintenance struck me as affectionate, not pathetic. Even the repurposed dugout makes me smile, just like the generally empty tiers left over from the stadium’s first decades as the home for the local football team. I like that it’s got history and we get it all to ourselves.
It’s audacious to talk about history when it comes to a team that was founded in 1996. But not only do I have no memories before this team—this is the kind of team that had the nerve to use “Tradition” as their motto from day one. There’s always been a sense that we were incubating what loving a club would look like in American soccer. In a lot of ways, DC United gave birth to a model of U.S. soccer fandom. Or rather, two, best summed up in its two main blocs of supporters’ groups.
Let’s start with the Screaming Eagles, who are old as the club itself, as Abbie Mood chronicled right here on Unusual Efforts. Their name refers to the team’s eagle mascot—with a bit of a nod to the 101st Airborne, an Army division of the same name—and they are major “club and country” supporters, organizing events for USMNT games as well as DC ones. Though they do join other supporters on the “Loud Side” of RFK Stadium (while one-time visitors and more casual fans populate the “Quiet Side”), they are known more for their external gatherings than their gameday spirit. They are particularly proud of their pre-game “full-service tailgate,” featuring infamously hipster beer offerings (“mostly local microbrews ranging from light pilsners to full stouts”). Their community-outreach initiatives, which include sponsoring local recreational teams, are helped along by the group’s status as a registered nonprofit. Screaming Eagles members tend to be white professionals who prioritize a “family-friendly” atmosphere, maintaining a good relationship with the club’s Front Office, and giving back to the local community.
What I love about the Screaming Eagles is that it takes the Washington element of DC and channels the absolute best of it. Washington is used as metonymy for conniving, wasteful politicking and it hurts my heart every time, because I know that for all their faults and misguidedness, Washington people are mostly well-meaning public servants with better intentions than their structures let them live up to. The thing people loved about Major League Soccer when it started here is that it didn’t have that instinct yet, to suppress the innovative and inconvenient. It’s not a coincidence, in my eyes, that the Screaming Eagles is full of government employees. That’s what makes them so good at community outreach. These are idealistic volunteer types, the Leslie Knopes of the world, but with actual resources to put at the service of the neighborhood. People who struggle all day to create meaningful change in this country get to come here at night and use soccer to create meaningful community, not only among themselves but among the kids they work with.
In short, they’re great fans, and everyone in the DC United community is proud to have them. But they’re rule followers. They aren’t the fans the club is known for, or the fans whose image the club uses for its own profit.
Those would be la Barra Brava, whom I cheered with as a kid, and, to a lesser extent, the District Ultras. These are the constantly-singing, beer-throwing, drum-beating people you see in every Washington Post feature or MLS commercial about the team. La Barra Brava was also part of the club’s identity from the beginning, started up by Bolivian immigrants in particular support of club legends Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno back in the late nineties and early aughts. La Barra’s leaders, including founder Oscar Zambrano and the late but much beloved Chico Solares, are known as the “elders” or “capos,” and their reputation matches that title: even when the group’s way of doing things is resented by other fans, their place in the community is honored without question.
The District Ultras, who split off from la Barra in 2010 to focus on revitalizing tifos in the stands, have more or less subsumed another faction, La Norte, in an effort to create a sort of hybrid with the organization and charity of the Screaming Eagles alongside the passion and style of la Barra. A casual fan might be hard-pressed to tell that the “Loud Side” has different factions at all, though. The Barra’s chants and drums, the Ultras’ tifos and flags, and the all-around 90-minute chaos have given DC United a long-lasting reputation for “frenzied” fandom with a strong South American influence. That image has been profitable for DC, and MLS more widely, over the years, but lately rifts have begun to emerge between these dedicated fans and the club’s front office.
The most prominent incident came to pass this spring, when District Ultras member Matt Parsons was banned for a year for using a smoke-bomb device in the parking lot. Fireworks are illegal in the District, and the harmless smoke bombs that lit up RFK in my childhood have since been banned from the stadium. But the application of either ban to a smoke bomb in the parking lot was news to most supporters, and symptomatic of poor communication between the club’s new ownership and the team’s longtime fans. The ban on Parsons came off as a company making an example of one consumer to discourage others from acting out.
The DC United I love made fans feel like family, not consumers. When I was growing up in those stands, players often would come and cheer on the team with la Barra. Christian Gómez famously started this tradition back in 2005, after he was suspended against the Red Bulls. He traveled to New York anyway, joined la Barra in the stands at Giants Stadium, and beat a drum through the whole game. Jaime Moreno did the same against Real Salt Lake in 2010, inspiring a lovely tribute from Kyle Sheldon. One time, after 700 DC fans traveled all the way to New Jersey through the snow on a weeknight only to see the game get delayed, the whole squad went into the stands to sing with the fans and thank them. Of course, my favorite instance was when Charlie Davies joined the fans in the stands during DC United’s friendly against Ajax in 2011, because I was there to enjoy it!
It’s hard to imagine that happening nowadays. In fact, that sense of the community dissipating, the team struggling, and new club leadership growing distant is exactly what gave longtime supporter Steve Shaw the idea to organize a “Unity March” of supporters’ groups. That march is where Parsons set off that smoke bomb. Ironically, the aftermath helped band together the supporters together perhaps more than the march itself. Paul Kent, a member of the District Ultras, wrote a letter to his ticket representative that echoes a lot of the sentiment in the DC United community this year:
The days where this was treated not just as a moneymaking enterprise, but as a proper family, have been lost. And at the same time, those very people that you punish are part of the moneymaking. We’ve seen it all over the league – flares in Salt Lake being used to promote the playoffs on television, smoke on street corners and stadium ends, artwork created by hand at no cost for your own people. The images are put on cups and flyers and programs, even as it’s treated as a nuisance.
I’ve had multiple conversations with longtimers, oldtimers, even recent people talking about how It Isn’t How It Used To Be. I mean, even the word Tradition has been stripped from the shirt, from the hallways, from the mission. That doesn’t mean all change is bad. That means we went from members of a family to cells in a spreadsheet. That’s how it feels, and that’s how measures like this week’s come off.
As the club prepares to move to a new stadium in 2018, there’s a sense that Buzzard Point will represent a fresh start. Many fans are wondering how exactly we’ll be a part of that. Are more repressive fan policies a sign of bourgeoisification to come? Will we even be able to afford a seat in the new stadium? Who exactly do they think is going to fill it?
Gentrifying DC United’s community out of existence is a lurking worry for good reason. DC fans see themselves as the guardians of a fan culture we hold up as the future of American soccer. That’s big talk for a little team, I know. But hear us out.
In the aftermath of Jay Caspian Kang’s NYT article on racism in MLS, which many readers dismissed as an outsider’s simplification, Maxi Rodriguez remarked that the entire episode became a self-serving distraction for American soccer fans. It’s not hard to agree with Rodriguez that “Americans have adopted European tendencies because they want to cosplay like Euro trash, and this development has made MLS unsafe for Latino fans.” All too often, though, fans hear this, get defensive of their clubs, and refuse to have the real conversations, like about “how the league exploits its few minority fans with targeted marketing but no real purchase toward community building.”
I will be the first to admit that DC United supporters are prone to considering ourselves an exception to this rule. Our bilingual, multicultural community is easy to take for granted. We often think it makes us kind of magically inclusive and immune to the problems Kang and Rodriguez highlight, particularly the charge of importing European hooliganism’s racism along with its aesthetics. After all, our supporters sing the whole time, in two languages, with drums. It’s unmistakably South American in style as well as history.
But here’s the thing: preserving that environment and making it safe for everyone requires a lot of work. A recent episode of the DCU fan podcast Filibuster gave some insight into the efforts that DC’s diverse supporters’ groups make—and don’t make—when it comes to self-policing. Podcast host Donald Wine II and Barra song leader Rick, both DCU fans of color themselves, discussed their experiences with racism in the stands. They noted that the diversity of supporters’ groups has increased over the years, and observed that the bilingualism of the stands has been preserved. At the same time, Rick recalled incidents, when DCU played against Mexican teams in the CONCACAF Champions League or SuperLiga, in which fans made anti-Mexican remarks. Abuse would spike on such occasions especially since these games are the rare time when the away team’s fans matches or outnumbers the DCU supporters. According to Rick, the “self-policing” needed to intervene in these situations “is not always happening,” and Mexican and other Latino fans are made to feel “unsettled” as a result.
Fans have successfully stepped in on other occasions, in a way that can be instructive as a model for the future. Donald spoke about an incident in 2011, during Charlie Davies’ debut for DC United, in which he scored two goals. This was his first game in the United States since he was nearly killed in a car crash two years earlier—a crash that actually took place nearby in DC, where he was on national team duty at the time. Suffice it to say it was an emotional game, which made it all the more horrifying when Donald heard a fan in the Screaming Eagles section shout a racial slur at Davies mid-game:
My instinct was to, to be blunt, was to dive five rows in front of me and rip this dude’s head off. But I appreciated the fact that I didn’t have to do that…the fact that there were people that were willing to step in between me and this kid and tell him one, that was not cool, and two, that is not what we do, and three, you are no longer welcome in this section, to have security identify that and…diffuse the situation before it got too ugly, it was a learning situation for everybody but at the same time, I kind of felt that inclusion, I felt that people had my back and they had understood my perspective in that situation.
There are three key elements here that DC United supporters—and fans of any team—should keep in mind. First, this worked because allies stepped in, rather than those at whom the abuse was directed and who could be in danger from the abuser. Second, the fans worked with security staff to have the offender removed—evidence of a working relationship that the latest round of staff firings at DC United has actually damaged, but dialogue that is essential nonetheless. Finally, there has to be zero tolerance. At DC United as in MLS more broadly, fans tend to be regulars, not visitors. If no one steps in, that will set a precedent.
Meanwhile, there is definitely an element of silly European imitation, of the kind Rodriguez rightly skewers. It’s in the details, from the Screaming Eagles’ beer selection (“they’re not drinking Bud Light in English pubs”) to the jarring use of English chants—at that friendly against Ajax, a round of “if I had the wings of an eagle” arose in which we would “fly over Ajax tomorrow,” rather than Amsterdam. But overall, the club seems to be importing the best of its “parent” cultures and working hard to keep out the uglier sides of them. Fans who love the Premier League may sound funny when they chant, but they are fairly innocent about it. Tifos meet Eastern European standards—that is to say, District Ultras leader and Croatian artist Srdan Bastaic has gotten everyone to step up their game—and, yes, the South American drums still keep the beat. Meanwhile, American suburban soccer teams flood the field to present the national flag and fair play and keep everyone comfortable. I know I’ve loved this team my whole life, but I can’t help but think this is worth preserving.
DC United fan culture works because everyone is in the room. (Except when they are banned for throwing smoke bombs in the parking lot, I guess.) That’s an easy asset to lose. If prices go up in the new stadium, or more fan practices are regulated out, or divisions between supporters’ groups grow, or—let’s face it—this team doesn’t looking alive in the standings pretty soon, it is going to be hard to motivate people to fill Buzzard Point, no matter how shiny it is. What makes us most proud to be a part of DC United could get gringified into just another halfhearted Euro-lite franchise. And MLS would be the poorer for it, let alone the District.
People not from here don’t often internalize that “Washington, DC” is a list, not a place name. “Washington” is the government. “The District” is where hundreds of thousands of people live their lives. I, for one, still think it’s meaningful that the club is called DC United. Not Washington, like all the other local teams, but DC. To me that’s a little sign of the values that started this club, that right from the beginning was about being from here, for the people who are actually from here, for the people who are going to stay here, for the people who don’t come in units of four to eight years. I love that the colors are red, black, and white—the colors of the District—rather than red, white, and blue, like the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals use. I love that we don’t have the dorky presidential imagery of the MLB’s Washington Nationals, which is a lot better suited to “America’s pastime” anyway. I love that it’s still in the District, unlike the NFL team. I love that it chose to be local. I want the team name to always feel natural.
I want that, but I’m not sure how to make it happen.
When I get the chance to go into the city and catch a game now, I buy a ticket right behind la Barra, close enough not to feel alone chanting, far enough I rarely come out smelling like beer. And it’s alright. It’s beautiful in its way. The 200 sections of RFK Stadium are a sort of no man’s land where it’s understood that we all want to be down with la Barra but aren’t gonna pay to do so, and so we shuffle around to the wrong seats on principle, stand all game, join in the cheers, but keep our beers, because we can. What I love about the 200 section—some people call it “the Perch”—is that it’s still organic and ungoverned, no need to abide by tifo approval processes or worry about getting fined for cursing at the ref. We don’t attract attention, yet.
But the ugly fact is that the 200 section is a lot like my hometown, a mostly white suburb looking out on and fetishizing the exotic city in front of me, not attracting attention, getting away with things. My relationship with DC United isn’t all that different from the relationship of white people more generally with DC, at least in economic terms. There I was gringifying la Barra just as my white friends and neighbors gentrified the District, and we all lamented the thing we were helping to dismantle.
I love the club we were, and the club we are. I love what we are the custodians of. I love what we challenge MLS to be. I love what we embrace in the people of the District of Columbia.
I want to believe love will be enough to keep this club going.