Eleven buses carried supporters to New Jersey for the second leg of the conference semifinals. While locals still recovering from Hurricane Sandy the previous week stayed away, United supporters turned the 25,000-seat Red Bull Arena into its private opera hall.
Given the grand effort they had made to attend the match, MLS’s decision to postpone did not go over well. United President Kevin Payne had gone to the upper deck to explain the situation when the players appeared on the field to show appreciation for the frigid followers.
“We don’t force guys to do stuff, but we certainly create an environment where they want to do it,” said Payne, who has overseen the club since its inception in 1996. “We don’t want our players to be isolated and living in bubbles.”
When the supporters realized the players were going to thank them personally, “All the negativity [about the game being postponed] was gone,” Butler said. “Fans were saying, ‘Thanks for respecting us.’ That was one of the classiest moves I’ve ever seen in sports.”
The buses returned to Washington, but the next day, about 300 fans traveled back to New Jersey. When Nick DeLeon scored the winning goal, he and his teammates pointed to the fans perched high above the targeted net.
Three days later, about 50 supporters attended the first game of the Houston series. Most were from Washington, but the group also included defender Daniel Woolard’s family, midfielder Perry Kitchen’s father and DeLeon’s relatives. They could have accepted complimentary seats and watched in a reserved area elsewhere but chose to join D.C.’s supporters.
The player-fan attachment in soccer can be traced to a dynamic that has existed around the world for decades. Fans have helped create clubs and served in influential roles in decision-making.
FC Barcelona, for example, has “socios,” who are eligible to vote on club matters, and “penyes,” fan groups recognized by the team. MLS’s Seattle Sounders allow season ticket holders and members of a fan alliance to vote every four years on whether to retain the team’s general manager.
United makes its own front-office decisions, but is in regular contact with the supporters’ groups to coordinate events and travel. Players have become friends with fans and work with them on charitable projects beyond the team’s community outreach requirements.
The bond between United’s players and fans can be explained through shared identity.
In a league that has emphasized slow growth through modest spending, some young players earn salaries comparable to the supporters’ and, like many in the groups, they need roommates to make ends meet in an expensive city.
The roster and fan base also share diversity along racial and ethnic lines. Former United stars Marco Etchverry and Jaime Moreno drew comfort from United supporters who shared their Bolivian roots.
A few years ago, in an effort to energize the Verizon Center crowd, United and the Washington Capitals arranged for D.C. fans to attend an NHL game en masse. The continuous standing and singing, however, didn’t translate to the hockey crowd.
“It’s been so ingrained in me, I don’t think the interaction between our players and fans is out of the ordinary,” said Olsen, a United player from 1998 to 2009. “When you compare it to the NBA, they don’t clap for their fans at the end of the game. But the NBA fans aren’t performing either. Soccer fans are performing.”
Win or lose, when United’s players applaud the supporters, “It’s almost as if we are saying, ‘Not only do we appreciate you coming and spending your hard-earned money, but we also enjoyed the show,’ ” Olsen added. “They are absolutely part of the show and it makes our sport and RFK unique.”