With United They Stand, Even in Loss
By Justin Blum and Jennifer Lenhart
D.C. United fans began yesterday afternoon totally pumped they wore red and black face paint, soccer jerseys and giant smiles as they beat on drums, chanted players' names and waved their fists in the air, anticipating another glorious victory.
But by the second half of Major League Soccer's championship game, the nearly 200 fans gathered at an Arlington restaurant were frowning. The raucous cheering tapered off. Some looked as if they were on the verge of tears.
When the final score was announced Chicago Fire 2, D.C. United 0 some of the soccer fanatics at Summers restaurant were in disbelief. They had so badly longed for what everyone called a "three-peat" three championships in a row.
"We're all really frustrated," said Yanigni Gonzalez, 23, of Springfield, who had smudged the team's colors beneath her eyes. "Just look at everyone's faces."
From Summers, with its standing-room-only crowd, to the living rooms of Loudoun County, Washington's soccer team has resonated with a broad range of people. A diverse group gathered in front of television sets yesterday Latino immigrants, many of whom were brought up on soccer, children who play in youth leagues, their parents, and, of course, some disgruntled Redskins fans.
For Major League Soccer's three years in existence, local fans have had something to cheer about, with D.C. United reigning victorious the first two years. The team earned the trip to its third championship at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., with a victory here over the Columbus Crew last week.
But the elation quickly turned to disappointment yesterday when Chicago, which United had beaten twice during the regular season, scored its first goal. Ermias Berhane, 30, of Alexandria, stomped his foot on the ground, yelling "No! No!" as he held his hand atop his United hat.
"They always play good," he said. "They're great. They're the best [sports] team in the D.C. area."
Many of those gathered in front of 25 television sets at Summers including members of United's Screaming Eagles fan club said they were no less enamored with the team. Yet, they said they felt a deep sense of loss because of the investment they've made in the team over the past three years.
"It's a lot more fun; it's a lot more emotion," than other sports, said Rolando Ray, 34, of Falls Church, who said he grew up with soccer in his native Uruguay. "But it's a lot more devastating when you lose because you put so much emotion into it."
It works the other way, too. After previous United victories, fans who were gathered at Summers got so excited they accidentally punched holes through several ceiling panels.
Elsewhere in the area, devoted soccer families with games of their own to attend had to carefully orchestrate their schedules yesterday so they could return home for the United's 3:30 start time.
After finishing a soccer game, a dozen youths raced to a teammate's Loudoun County home to cheer for United. Six minivans filled the driveway. A dozen pairs of cleats were piled at the door. Their black and white uniforms dirtied from the game, the group huddled close to the 30-inch television screen, screaming "Don't blow it!"
"It's my favorite sport," said Scooter Radcliffe, 8. "If I ever got to do that, I'd just play my hardest and hopefully win."
A gathering of suburban soccer moms and dads stood behind the members of the under-9 Sterling Xtreme team, members of the Sterling Youth Soccer Association, which has 1,500 players.
Boys bobbed up and down on the living room floor, psyched for the chance to see teammate Ronnie Shaban, 8, play in the halftime skills competition for young soccer players from around the country.
These suburbanites said they felt a strong bond with D.C. United, in part because the team's players have been so willing to spend time with fans and sign autographs for them.
"They're a team that our kids actually look up to, being a local team and a winning team," said Rick Horton, 36, one of the Xtreme coaches. "As far as being a fan, I mean, you can't not like being a D.C. United fan. They're winning. And they're good people."
Although unhappy with yesterday's loss, many area fans were forgiving.
"They didn't play very well in their game and Chicago really dominated, but I've always really liked their team," said Jordan Osher, 13, an eighth-grader at Stone Ridge Country Day School of the Sacred Heart who plays for the girls under-14 Bethesda Liverpool. "It's really nice to go watch them and see good soccer really close."
Some attributed the loss in part, anyway to bad calls by referees.
"I think it's a shame," said Tom Faulkner, 47, of Mount Vernon, one of the drum beaters gathered at Summers restaurant. "But I'm proud of the boys no matter what happened."
And several members of area youth soccer organizations said they could settle for having a hometown team that made it to the championship three times and won the MLS title twice.
"They're still a good team," said Patrick Hayes, 15, of Washington, who plays for the Stoddert Strikers. "It's not like they're bad because they didn't win the championship."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company