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United Force

(Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)

D.C. United star Jaime Moreno's wife stops by with T-shirts for the Barra Brava to sell for a charity Moreno supports. William Chang, one of the investors in D.C. United, visits, is presented with a Barra Brava shirt and promptly puts it on.

Players appreciate their wildest fans. Marco Etcheverry brought the group's first big banners back from Bolivia. Christian Gomez, sidelined for an away game at the Meadowlands, climbed into the stands and banged a drum with the Barra Brava the whole game. "We couldn't take it away from him," says Solares.

Farther down the dusty lot, Srdan Bastaic and Charlotte Harding heft armloads of flags. Bastaic, 32, a computer programmer from Rockville, orders the material from Italy and his native Croatia. Harding, who works for the U.S. Marshals, sews on the D.C. United and Barra Brava insignias.

She was a football and NASCAR fan until Bastaic brought her to her first D.C. United game a couple of years ago. Worried she might find the whole scene too rowdy, he put her in a back row. By the second half, she'd gone hard-core, dancing and singing right up in front.

On this evening, she's at it again. Seen from the sedate sections, the Barra Brava bleachers resemble a black, boiling sea. The Screaming Eagles section next to the Barra Brava is about as loud and bouncy. The energy visibly spreads and dissipates from that stormy nucleus.

Someone holds up two of artist Terry's big white cardboard cutouts. One is a beer, the other is a man: Beer Man. It's a signal to Pow, who's been selling beer in RFK since 1980, to come on down.

He's a connoisseur of fandemonium, and he's made a ruling: "Along comes D.C. United, and the Barra Brava blows Redskins fans out of the water."

But being a superfan has its penalties. Bastaic, Solares and others are taping the game. Right now, they are too busy jumping, dancing, drumming, flag-waving to pay close attention to the beloved home team. Later, they will watch at home, where the sky doesn't rain beer.

* * *

One of the heart's mysteries is how and why fans develop their styles of showing their love. The answer is a blend of national roots, cultural identity, notions of acceptable public behavior, tolerance for chaos.

Closer to the stadium, the Screaming Eagles are having their tailgate. The atmosphere is different. There are eight kegs, and unlike the Barra Brava's Carlsburg, they are all premium microbrews. There's satellite television and a central sound system playing hundreds of songs from an iPod playlist.

A sign warns that ID will be checked. To eat the buffet, you need a $6 ticket, and then you get a green wristband. For the game, everyone has an assigned seat. The Screaming Eagles are formally incorporated as a nonprofit, with a board of directors and meeting minutes.

"Some people say we're hyper-organized; I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing," says Kim Klyberg, communications and special projects coordinator for the Screaming Eagles.

It's a formula at least as successful as the Barra Brava's: The Eagles report slightly more paying members.

But in the imitation-as-flattery department, the Screaming Eagles just bought a big bass drum of their own.

Ask the gringo Barra Brava members for their conversion experiences, and they describe an evolution to the extreme front of full-body soccer adulation.

Conner started sitting on the more sedate, opposite side of the stadium, edging closer, until one game he was jumping and dancing in the aisle between the Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles.

"These guys always gave me grudging respect, 'Look at this crazy American guy,' " Conner says. "One game Oscar came up to me. . . . He throws me a jersey and says, 'You're Barra Brava.' I said, 'Yeah!' That's what I was waiting for. I found my soul mates.

"They were loud, they were passionate about it, they liked to party. I liked the confetti, I liked the drums. It was kind of the same appeal as when you're a teenager and you like the punk band or the rock band. You're like, these guys are a little bit dangerous, and that's what's cool about them, and I want to be a part of that. Then I found out they weren't really dangerous. They were really nice guys."

Andy Mack has a theory. He's 44, an international business consultant who grew up in Cincinnati and carries his Barra Brava flag with him around the world. He has pictures: the flag in an Angolan mangrove swamp, on safari in Uganda, in the marketplace of Marrakech, in downtown Guatemala City.

He used to watch games in the 200-level sections. He drummed all by himself; this felt right, if a little silly. He has concluded that the nature of soccer invites the drumming, dancing, singing. In other sports, the action starts and stops, punctuated by downs, pitches, innings, changes from offense to defense.

"That bleeds off all the excitement," Mack says. "Part of the thing that makes soccer so unique is the rhythm of it. It is its own dance."

The Barra Brava is a partner in that dance.

GrillMaster Faulkner started with the Eagles and still is a member. But he stopped cheering with that group when he kept getting yelled at to sit down. "I've always been spiritually a part of the Barra," Faulkner says.

"I'm a boisterous guy and like to make noise, and I have a short temper and everything, so I was in my perfect element."

He muses, "Do you choose what you love or who you love? No. It chooses you."

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