The Sons of Ben have been rightly hailed for creating one of the most electric atmospheres in Major League Soccer. But the River End represents only the most recent chapter in the story of Major League Soccer's supporters' clubs.
Before Philadelphia, there was Seattle, with its sea of green filling Qwest Field's Royal Brougham End. Before Seattle's arrival a year ago, the Red Patch Boys put Toronto on the North American soccer map in 2006. A year before Toronto's debut, Houston’s Texian Army painted the Earthquakes orange when they moved from San Jose. Before the Dynamo landed, Chicago’s faithful made Soldier Field a new kind of Section 8 housing.
And before them all, going back to the very formation of MLS, there was D.C. United. From the day that the league first kicked off, the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava set the standard by which all other supporters clubs have been measured since.
It is fair to say that many of those groups have reached that standard, and indeed surpassed it. The Sons of Ben are certainly among them. Now, as the Union and hundreds of their fans prepare to travel to Washington on Sunday, it is worth taking a moment to open the (relative) history books.
The biography under my photo states that I became a soccer fan while in France during the 1998 World Cup. But the place where I truly learned to understand and appreciate the sport was a seat in the bouncing bleachers at RFK Stadium. Growing up in Washington, I spent many summer Saturdays at D.C. United games, watching Jaime Moreno and Ben Olsen in the prime of their careers.
I was there when a 16-year-old Bobby Convey became the youngest player in MLS history, on the opening day of the 2000 season; and I was there four years later, when 14-year-old Freddy Adu broke Convey's record for all time.
At the end of that 2004 season, the last year United won MLS Cup, Olsen and Moreno steamrolled the MetroStars out of the playoffs in the first round. "THE METRO STOPS AT RFK," read a banner hanging in the upper deck. That one sentence summed up so much of the club's essence: accessibility to fans, electricity off the field and dominance on it.
I was also there to see another historical marker get laid down, one that said just as much about the club and its significance. On the same day as Convey's debut, thousands of members of D.C.'s Salvadoran community filled the end zone seats wearing t-shirts of the visiting Los Angeles Galaxy.
They came not just to cheer for L.A.'s Salvadoran star Mauricio Cienfuegos, then captain for club and country. They came to protest the controversial departure from United of Salvadoran forward Raul Diaz Arce. Along with Moreno and midfield star Marco Etcheverry, Diaz Arce had galvanized the region's Hispanic community behind the team.
The previous fall, D.C. beat the Galaxy for the 1999 championship. But to start the new season, Los Angeles won in a 4-0 rout. The Salvadoran community roared its way through every minute, and the social overtones were impossible to ignore. It took United years to recover, and some will argue that the process continues to this day.
After four tumultuous seasons under Thomas Rongen and Ray Hudson, United gave Peter Nowak the reins. The result was a return to United’s glory days: creative, attractive soccer that won fans and got results.
Christian Gomez was the playmaker the club had lacked since Etcheverry. Olsen was at his dynamic best, and Moreno and Alecko Eskandarian scored the goals. On the sidelines, Nowak brought it all together – just as he is trying to do now with the Union. D.C. fans responded in kind, turning the lower bowl of RFK into a sea of black shirts and red scarves.
Nowak left in 2006 to coach the U.S. Olympic team, and was replaced by Tom Soehn. Despite being well-versed in the club's history, Soehn preferred pragmatism to poetry, and his teams played that way. The club's marquee signings also failed to deliver, most notably designated player Marcelo Gallardo.
The results were profound. Although United won the East in 2007, they crashed out of the playoffs in the first round. Then things really fell apart: they finished sixth in the East in 2008 and fourth last season. Now D.C. sits at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, behind even the Union in the table.
One can easily argue that in a league based on parity, every club will get a turn in the basement. The truly discouraging thing for United, though, was its sharp decline in attendance. Washington has been one of America's great soccer cities not just in the MLS era, but going back to the NASL's Washington Diplomats.
It helped that the city didn't have baseball from 1971 to 2004, of course. It also helped that the city has a large international population because of its many embassies. But there is also a genuine interest in soccer in Washington, from its youth leagues on up to its adult population.
Throughout its existence, United has drawn crowds that other clubs in the league could only dream of. Even in years when the team struggled, such as 2001, they still averaged 21,518 fans per game. In 2008, they averaged 19,835 fans per game. The lowest average attendance in club history was 15,262 in its inaugural season. At the same time, clubs from New York to San Jose were regularly stuck with announced crowds in four figures.
Now, though, the club is on pace for a record low. The average so far this year is 14,949 - still better than seven clubs in the league, but a far cry from what the crowds could be if the team was even mediocre. This past Saturday, when Ben Olsen made his home debut as United's coach, the attendance was quoted as 12,474.
The Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava were still there, despite having been subject to some really awful soccer of late So was La Norte, with its drum the size of a pickup truck's cargo box. They all saluted Olsen with a gigantic banner portraying the United legend as Rambo, and two more banners reading "OLSEN'S ARMY." But the rest of the scene told a story too. Behind the supporters clubs sat rows upon rows of empty seats.
There isn't even much cause for optimism. Jaime Moreno has been effectively forced to quit the club, despite the front office's best efforts to claim otherwise. On Tuesday, midfielder Santino Quaranta and assistant coach Mark Simpson came to blows during a practice session.
Look at the team’s roster: where is the spark? Where is the creativity? The club’s most dynamic player right now might be 17-year-old Andy Najar, and he is far from a finished product.
Chris Pontius and Danny Allsopp can score, and at times they have. But neither is at the level of Eskandarian or Diaz Arce. D.C. has one designated player, midfielder Branko Boskovic, but in five games so far he has taken as many shots as he has committed fouls: four.
Worst of all, United’s eternal quest to build a soccer-specific stadium remains paralyzed by political intransigence in the District and many of its suburbs. Recent reports have claimed that United might move to Baltimore in 2011, and if that doesn't happen some fear the club may cease to exist altogether.
In a city built on a swamp, United truly finds itself stuck in the mud. On Sunday, Ben Olsen will look across the field and see his club's polar opposite: an expansion Philadelphia Union club with a sparkling new stadium, a strong fan base, and a style of soccer that has drawn raves from across the country.
Olsen will also see some familiar faces. He will shake hands with the man he once played for, Peter Nowak, and two players he once played with, Andrew Jacobson and Fred. If Olsen looks around the stands, he might spot a few Philadelphia fans who once came to Washington for lack a team of their own to support.
I haven't been to a United game in a few years, but as with every team in the league I watch them on TV and online. I still have many friends in Washington, and many of them read this blog, though I doubt I'll see them on Sunday. I'll have plenty to do covering the Union.
If there is one thing for fans in Washington to cling on to, it is this: for all the troubles that have befallen United since I left my home town, RFK Stadium can still produce an atmosphere unlike any other in American soccer. The bleachers still bounce, the echoes still roar off the concrete overhangs, and the halftime drum circle still dances along the concourse behind Section 134.
I hope Sunday's game will produce a classic RFK crowd. Over 1,000 D.C. fans came to Philadelphia for the Union’s home opener, and the Sons of Ben are ready to return the favor.
I fear, though, that in the end, the supporters clubs on both sides will be singing to ghosts more than anyone else. If that happens, it will be a shame no matter what team you root for.