Late Saturday night, about an hour after another excruciating defeat, D.C. United piled back onto the team bus inside Invesco Field. Gear had been loaded into the belly of the bus, players had attached headphones and the coaches had cracked open a deck of cards -- a routine that will be repeated at least 15 times this season.
But on this evening, the bus's destination was not another lonely chain hotel or gray airport terminal. United embarked on a 90-minute ride into the darkness of Colorado's high plains, from city streets to arrow-straight interstate, to two-lane state highway and finally a gravel county road.
Awaiting the traveling party, nestled in a leafy oasis of cottonwoods and aspens near the meandering South Platte River, was the 45,000-acre Eagles Nest Ranch, owned by the league's primary investor, billionaire Phil Anschutz.
Over the next 36 hours, players and staff shot clay pigeons at the skeet range, rode horses, played a nine-hole golf course, went fly-fishing and wheeled around on mountain bikes. They stayed in a western-style lodge named after a pretty fair writer named Hemingway who, legend has it, hunted on this land for 20 years.
They ate together at a dining room table that accommodates 34, devouring steaks from cattle raised on the ranch and drinking wine from the Anschutz vineyard in Texas. They had the run of a clubhouse with pool, foosball and television. They had the option of holding practice on a clearing behind the lodge that is part driving range, part soccer pitch.
It is the ultimate perk of being associated with one of five MLS teams operated by Anschutz in a nine-year-old league he keeps afloat.
"It's amazing," rookie goalkeeper Troy Perkins said, looking out over a putting green and a shallow stream fed by cascading water from gentle, man-made waterfalls. "I don't want to leave."
While an invitation gets you here, it doesn't guarantee a meeting with American soccer's most important benefactor, who shuns the spotlight and hasn't done an interview in 26 years. Associates are mindful of Anschutz's privacy and are careful what they say publicly about him. The media rarely is able to photograph him, and a company logo is used in place of the traditional owner's pose in his teams' media guides.
Anschutz, 65, attended United's match Saturday -- a 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rapids, dropping D.C.'s record to 2-4-3 -- and had planned to greet the team later that night or early Sunday at the ranch. But business took him away, and one of America's wealthiest -- and elusive -- figures slipped out of sight again.
"I actually met him at the all-star game a couple years ago," defender Mike Petke said. "I introduced myself, and he knew who I was. I mean, really, who am I? Here's this guy who is so powerful, has so much going on, and he knows about a player on one of his teams. I couldn't believe it."
Anschutz's passion for soccer is believed to have been stoked at the U.S.-hosted 1994 World Cup. Two years later, Anschutz Entertainment Group became an investor in the upstart MLS and was given the operating rights to the Rapids. In 1998, AEG took on the expansion Chicago Fire and later purchased the rights to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Three years later, as MLS struggled to attract new investors and lost a few original ones, Anschutz grabbed United, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and the San Jose Earthquakes. Last fall he yielded control of the Rapids when Stan Kroenke, owner of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche, became an MLS investor.
"He told me once that he was involved in the sport because he thought it deserved a chance to succeed in America," said Kevin Payne, United's president and CEO who oversaw AEG's soccer operations from 2001 until early this year. "Certainly if it does succeed at the level we hope it will, a lot of credit will go to Phil. . . .
"He believes that it's going to be a viable business opportunity and that ultimately to be in on the ground floor will be a wise business decision."
Every MLS team controlled by Anschutz is welcome at the Colorado ranch, which is roughly the size of the District of Columbia. United's last visit was in 2001. The NHL's Los Angeles Kings, co-owned by Anschutz, stopped by last fall. Chris Henderson, a midfielder for the MLS's Rapids, was married on the property. MLS executives have held league meetings here, including one a few weeks ago.
Normally, an MLS team will take only 16 players (about two-thirds of the roster) on a road trip, but for this journey by United, everyone was invited. Even the injured players and strength and conditioning coach were here.
"It's a long season and this gives everyone an opportunity to come together as a group," Payne said. "This has been a rough stretch physically and I think we needed a little break. When you're here, you forget about everything else. You can decompress and clear your mind. We needed that."
United Coach Peter Nowak, who has been at the ranch several times after playing for the Chicago Fire, found a favorite quiet spot, in the shade next to a little bridge over a stream, where he cools his feet.
Trout and bass were caught and released in streams and ponds, but most of the time, the only thing biting were the re-emerging mosquitoes.
Several players, including Petke, defender Bryan Namoff and goalkeeper Nick Rimando, quickly got the hang of skeet shooting.
Most took a ride on the horses, with the assistance of a ranch hand who competes for Colorado State's rodeo team. Petke, however, didn't last long. "I don't like not having any control," he said. "Four minutes, that was it."
The golf course was the most popular destination -- and some in the delegation mastered the short but narrow layout. Assistant coach Mark Simpson, who's about a 3 handicap, was the best. Others had trouble clearing the tee box, drawing giggles from teammates.
A few players and coaches were up before sunrise Sunday to get started, but they weren't the first ones on the course. After a long night of frivolity, some had gone straight to the first tee instead of to bed. Nine holes, a hearty breakfast and then finally sleep.
Forward Freddy Adu and midfielder Dema Kovalenko got into spirited putting contests, with howls from observers on the fringe after each near-miss.
"First time with club!" Kovalenko, a lefty, shouted after draining a long putt. "You see that, Freddy Adu, you see that?"
Kovalenko, a Ukrainian midfielder and United's fiercest player on the field, often tried to spook his various putting opponents by shouting in Russian as they prepared for a tap-in; it usually worked.
Adu, 14, had a tough time convincing his teammates that he shot 37 on one particular nine-hole outing. Payne, part of Adu's foursome, vouched for him. Adu, who has played Congressional and other challenging Montgomery County courses, displayed a smooth stroke.
Midfielder Nana Kuffour, a shy teenager from Ghana who arrived in this country just last month, gave golf a try for the first time. Mostly, though, he enjoyed driving the carts, spinning along the paths with a giddy grin.
"Sometimes it's good to not think about soccer," Nowak said. "This trip, it's about the people, the team, our family. It helps build better relationships and lets us trust each other more. We can relax and have fun, and then after a couple of days, everyone knows it's back to business."
On the final morning of their retreat, players and staff awoke early to fit in one final round of golf or try to snag another fish. They then gathered for the only soccer-related activity of the visit: an hour of training on the cart paths around the golf course and sprints on one of the fairways.
After lunch, the players and their ton of gear were driven in a six-vehicle convoy to a dusty turn-off at the edge of the ranch, across the road from the site of a 19th-century military garrison, where the team bus was waiting to take them to the airport.
Namoff, one of the last to board, said to no one in particular, "Back to the real world."