For two hours on a chilly November night on the banks of the Anacostia River, a dilapidated arrangement of water-stained concrete and rusted rebar was the coolest place in Washington, D.C.
Seventeen and half thousand people filled the stands of RFK Stadium. They cheered. They sang. Together, they divined the resonant frequency of the 51-year old stands, becoming a spring-loaded mob bouncing to the rhythm the beautiful game.
Their very presence in the building represented a victory for their team, for soccer in their city, and for a club given little notice that they’d be hosting a party quite so soon.
On one chilly night in a place never built with them or their beloved team in mind, D.C. United fans did their part to remind the rest of the soccer world that just because they haven’t been in awhile didn’t mean they’d forgotten how to do playoffs.
In his remarks after a scrappy, ugly, sloppy, but entertaining 1-1 draw, United head coach Ben Olsen, with a sparkle in his eye, said “It was just like the old days.” He would know. He was there, anchoring the D.C. United midfield from the late nineties through to the club’s last playoff season in 2007. The “old days” aren’t really so old, but they surely feel that way for Major League Soccer’s original dynasty.
In an era of American soccer marked by a proliferation of passionate support, RFK doesn’t seem so special anymore. The groups of fans that make up United’s core support set a standard of atmosphere that was the model for years, beyond anything the rest of the league could produce. Then expansion and new purpose-built stadiums came, and United’s fans were drowned out by massive crowds in Seattle, Portland’s European-style singing, and Kansas City’s newfound enthusiasm.
Saturday night in D.C. reminded us all what United’s presence can be. Several years of flagging attendance, likely exacerbated by the club’s lack of success and the dreary reality of RFK (especially in comparison to stadiums built elsewhere while United holds on for a well-deserved home of their own), took the sting out of the atmosphere. Olsen’s remark about it feeling like the old days was not just a reference to the club being in playoffs, but to the revival of the support for which the club was once so rightfully known.
It’s one thing to see United’s fans do their thing on television, where a good crowd sounds impressive despite the broadcast flattening the noise they create. It’s something else to be in the building, watching a sea of people bob as one like a cork on the river, hearing them sing their hearts out in an immersive blanket of sound. RFK may lack for amenities. Its stark, utilitarian appearance and too-large size doesn’t fit soccer. But the old arena from an uninspired era of stadium building is nonetheless adept at holding in the sound of the crowd. “Vamos United” reverberates inside the circular housing of RFK, the depth of the sound as notable as its volume. Being in the building when United fans perform isn’t that unlike seeing a good band live; the songs are the same as you hear on the radio, but the the experience is entirely different.
The crowd is a cross-section of the myriad groups that make up American soccer support. A large Hispanic contingent–with their culturally embedded love of the game–is augmented by families, young urban dwellers, and others less easily categorized. Young professionals hit the stadium on Saturday night in jerseys and team gear, but also in weekend nightlife attire, ready to continue the revelry started at a playoff soccer match at bars and clubs all over the city. Young women sported shoes better suited for the dance floor than for the drabby stands of RFK. The present of United’s fan base is also it’s future; it’s not difficult to imagine that a glitzy stadium further upstream would draw even more of the young professional crowd United is already tapping into at RFK.
It’s counterintuitive to think that that particular place, a building with the unique circumstance of being both where everyone wants to be and where no one involved would prefer to be, could be so cool. Not in the way of the nightclubs and bars in Adams Morgan and Georgetown, but as an inexpensive means of expressing youthful weekend exuberance. Soccer undoubtedly feels like their sport in ways the NBA and NFL never can. Those sports exist on a separate plain of affluence and, for lack of a better word, civility, that squeezes much of the fun out of the experience. No big time American sport brings people together in the same particular way that soccer does. No American soccer team currently going has as much history of that phenomenon as D.C. United.
RFK on Saturday night was jumping again. Literally, figuratively, and in all the ways that make it such a special place in the vast and complicated landscape of American soccer.
It was a wonderful sight to see, and a truly special thing to hear.