Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Vamos United: The Day I Maybe Became a Soccer Fan


I recall my childhood experience with soccer as follows: When I was in elementary school - maybe 6 or 7 years old? - I was the only girl on my soccer team, perhaps because my father was, for some inexplicable reason, the coach. I wasn't very enthusiastic, & I definitely wasn't very good, & above all else, I was an easily embarrassed, shy kid. One day, after I scored a goal for the opposing team, I quit playing soccer - & my dad continued to coach the team without me.

For most of my life, that was as far as my relationship with the sport of soccer extended.

Until last weekend.

My friend Arielle, it turns out, loves soccer, & on Halloween, as we dined at a fancy restaurant while wearing fleece animal onesies (man, I should've blogged about that), she asked if I'd be interested in joining her at D.C. United's playoff game on Saturday. I wasn't particularly interested, honestly, because I don't know or care about soccer - but I like Arielle & I like adventures, so why not? I said yes.

On Saturday afternoon, she outfitted me in a D.C. United beanie & long-sleeved shirt so I would fit in, & we headed off to RFK Stadium, which looks like it should be the site of a scene from the Walking Dead. Seriously, the place looks apocalyptically abandoned, but for the fact that, come soccer time, it fills with screaming, chanting, stomping, drum-beating, flag-waving, beer-throwing fans. It was chaos in the best way.

We stopped by the tailgate party, a parking lot filled with a sea of black & red, where Arielle introduced me to fellow fans. Afraid of being seen as a poser, I was initially embarrassed when she announced that it was my first game, but everyone was warm & welcoming. "We have two rules," one guy told me. "The first is to have as much fun as possible. The second is that if we win, you've got to come back." Where other sports fans disdain fair-weather fans, soccer embraces them - they just want fans, period, & I was happy to try to become one.

The rest of the tailgating scene can best be described as a makeshift Midwestern state fair, but in much colder weather & with far fewer mullets. Though we arrived an hour & a half before the game started, the kegs had already run dry, & I have a feeling it wasn't for lack of initial volume. Food trucks served ravenous drunk fans willing to brave long lines (although we, sober & impatient of the cold, weren't among them). In a nearby tent, an MLS sponsor out very creatively emblazoned "THIS IS SOCCER" scarves to chilly fans looking for extra swag (& precisely because we were sober & impatient of the cold, this time we were among them). On our way into the stadium, we scored more swag - another scarf, this one in D.C United colors, & inflatable "bam bam sticks" that made loud, hollow noises when beaten together so we could cause maximum noise.

Soccer is a notoriously low-scoring game, but it sort of doesn't matter because it's still fascinating to watch the players try to score. Football is a lot of stop-&-go brute force, & baseball is a lot of standing around, & basketball is a lot of tall guys lumbering back & forth on squeaky floors, but soccer feels like... more, somehow. Soccer is skill & grace & athleticism & talent. Soccer is art. I was surprisingly rapt, paying very close attention as I tried to follow along, & impressed the whole time.

D.C. United did score twice, which was not enough for them to win the game despite the fact that the other team only scored once, because apparently playoff soccer has some ridiculously weighted scoring rules. BUT. When they did score? The whole stadium erupted into cheers & song & such enthusiastic stomping that the cement stadium floors quaked beneath us. Showers of beer soaked the crowd, & plums of smoke snaked into the air as smokebombs went off throughout the cheering sections. Man, I've never seen anything like it.

I thought I'd be bored out of my skull, but I found myself riveted. I found myself praying for overtime. And when it was over, I found myself kind of wanting to be a soccer fan, the kind with team allegiances & tailgating plans of my own.

So will I ever make it to another pro soccer game? Hey, maybe not. But then again, Ohio has a team of its own, & I'm thisclose to convincing Arielle to come visit me the next time the Columbus Crew plays D.C. United. The only question is, which team's colors will I wear? I guess I've got some time to decide.

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