How to Fit in With the Frenzied Fans of D.C. United

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008

In an unusual twist this year, the long-dormant Redskins, Wizards and Capitals each made the playoffs, while normally dominant D.C. United has struggled. But while the four-time Major League Soccer champions have been ragged on the field, their hard-core fans have maintained their status as some of Washington's best. Some advice for fitting in with the die-hards at RFK Stadium:

Choose your side carefully. The stadium is divided into two halves: the Quiet Side on RFK's south end, directly across from the more telegenic Loud Side. The former is perfectly friendly to families and children; the latter is home to the largest supporters' group and the legendary flying cups of beer after particularly momentous plays.

"I swear, I got a buzz once just from keeping my mouth open," says Marissa Valeri, 31, of Wheaton.

Be prepared for a workout. Most fans on the Loud Side remain standing (or jumping) and singing for all 90 minutes of game action. It's a feat of spectatorship more commonly seen at college football or basketball games, and it can be jarring for fans more accustomed to using the seats they've paid for.

"Honestly, preseason for the players is like preseason for us," says Pedro Aida, 28, of Richmond. "For the first game, the next day your calves will hurt and your voice will be scratchy. Your body hurts. But after you get a few games under your belt, you're back in shape, back in midseason form."

True United fandom also requires near-constant cheering; one longtime screamer recommends drinking hot tea with honey before a game.

Brush up on your Spanish. The team has had a strong following in the Latino community since its inception; it now has a Spanish-language Web site, in addition to extensive Spanish-language media coverage. A recent game brought out Las Senadoras, three not-unattractive models from Univision's "Republica Deportiva" ("Sports Republic") show who signed autographs for an appreciative, if mostly male, crowd in the parking lot.

This support is also reflected in La Barra Brava, the rowdy supporters' group that was formed by a core of Latino fans in 1996, the team's first season. That group has since attracted a younger, whiter crowd, and the "Gringos," as they're known, now are a majority, which makes for some interesting Spanish chants.

"We've got guys who have been here for years and they still don't know all the words," says Rob Gillespie, one of the group's leaders. "But they sound good, and we have people to help out with the lyrics."

"We're trying to introduce some new stuff, and it's an uphill battle," adds Vlad Karamyshev, a native Russian. "First of all, there's the language barrier. Second of all, there's the alcohol barrier."

Stay in rhythm. The number of musical instruments per capita at United games is easily the highest of any local franchise. Most home games feature fans with bass drums, tom-toms, snare drums, congas, whistles, cowbells, rattles, bagpipes and, occasionally, an English hunting horn.

"This is my expression of self," says Tom Faulkner, one of the most prominent drummers. "Smoking a cigar, with my buddies, banging drums: There's nothing like it."

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