A few minutes before 7 last night, Bruce Murray trotted down the dusty cement staircase on the east side of W.T. Woodson High School's Cunningham Stadium.
He was flanked by his Washington Stars teammates and a few youngsters who pleaded for an autograph and a moment of attention. Being the closest thing to an American soccer hero, Murray obliged.
Last night the opponent was the Orlando Lions -- not to be confused with the Lions of Cameroon, of course -- who defeated the Stars, 2-0, in an American Soccer League match in Fairfax.
Sixteen days ago, Murray was preparing for the biggest game of his life. Escorted by members of the Caribinieri, Italy's special police force, the U.S. national team walked down the tunnel toward the playing surface at Rome's Olympic Stadium, where the young Americans put up an admirable fight against the powerful Italians in the first round of the World Cup.
"That's something I'm never going to forget," he said. "The tunnel, the noise, the atmosphere -- it was incredible."
When he stepped onto the perfectly manicured turf in Rome, Murray peered around the stadium and saw 73,423 passionate fans chanting and singing. He saw green, white and red Italian flags whipping in the night.
Last night, 1,687 spectators welcomed back Murray to the ASL club he has played for between U.S. team exhibitions and qualifying matches for the last three summers. But even the presence of the U.S. player who was involved in both American goals in Italy couldn't help the fifth-place Stars.
The Stars, who had the ASL's best regular-season record a year ago, slipped to 5-10. Orlando (4-9) won its third straight game after starting the season 0-7.
Midfielder Paul Dougherty, who joined the Lions after playing indoors for the Baltimore Blast, scored both goals from close range -- late in the first half and early in the second half.
Murray, a Germantown, Md., resident and Churchill High School graduate, was presented a plaque by Stars Coach John Kerr in a brief pregame ceremony. After all, it was Bruce Murray Night.
Murray said he is awaiting a call from a European club team. He played in Switzerland last summer.