What happened next on that frosty evening 11 days ago exemplified the deep bond between United and its followers and the unique, unwritten oath between soccer players worldwide and their most loyal fans.
United’s players marched toward the north end and, peering to the upper deck through a swirl of flurries, applauded 700 fans who had bused up the New Jersey Turnpike in treacherous conditions to witness the club’s first postseason road game in five years.
Many of the players, as well as general partner Will Chang, then took the custom one step further by climbing over a retaining wall and up slippery stairs – “cleats and all,” midfielder Chris Pontius said — to join the devotees for solidarity and song.
“People might think it’s strange, but for us, it’s normal,” defender Brandon McDonald said. “It was like going to hang out with friends. Supporting us in those conditions, it’s the least we could do.”
The relationship continued the next day for a 1-0 victory, albeit with a smaller number of fans, and again last weekend in Houston, where United lost to the Dynamo, 3-1, in the first leg of their Eastern Conference final. Facing elimination against Houston at 4 p.m. Sunday, United will embrace the support of its unwavering followers among the close to 20,000 expected at RFK Stadium.
Organizers of the fan groups – Screaming Eagles, Barra Brava, La Norte and District Ultras — are planning a display of flags and banners unseen before in a setting that is always colorful and festive.
“It’s a special relationship,” Olsen said. “The day you arrive as a player, you begin to understand. It’s like we’re in this together.”
The connection between athlete and fan in soccer is unlike any other sport. You wouldn’t see Stephen Strasburg watching from the bleachers at Nationals Park if he’s not starting that day or Alex Ovechkin in the 400 level at Verizon Center while recovering from injury.
But many times over the years, United players not in uniform have joined the supporters’ groups on the rowdy lower east end of RFK. As far as anyone can recall, the first time it occurred on the road was in 2005 when midfielder Christian Gomez, serving a yellow card suspension, arrived unannounced in the pack of D.C. supporters at Giants Stadium and began pounding on a fan’s drum.
“That is what endears us to them,” said Jimi Butler, 38, a middle school teacher in Prince George’s County who oversees road trips for the Screaming Eagles.
Until 2004 or so, “I hated soccer. I had 100 percent zero interest in it,” Butler said.
But after touring Old Trafford, Manchester United’s historic stadium, and watching England’s national team in a tense British pub, “I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, I see it. I get it.’ ”