For D.C. United players and staff members who drive to RFK Stadium, the morning commute is an aggravating exercise: backups on the 14th Street bridge, accidents on the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, detours on Capitol Hill.
While most of his teammates are fighting the morning rush, veteran midfielder Clyde Simms hops onto his gray Trek hybrid bike, makes two turns, crosses two streets, passes through one traffic signal, whizzes past the D.C. Armory and dips into Lot 5.
“Door to door,” he said, “I’ve done it in about two minutes.”
Simms sometimes walks the route — the length of six soccer fields — and when the weather is dodgy, his Acura takes barely a sip of fuel to carry him.
By choosing to live in Hill East, a neighborhood south of East Capitol Street nestled between Lincoln Park, the stadium campus and the Anacostia River, Simms is like the lucky kid who lives next to school and wakes a half-hour before first period.
In the United locker room, where teammates gather after driving from Alexandria, Germantown and Reston, Simms listens to the traffic horror stories and smiles.
“It’s nice to hear about them,” he said, “and not experience them.”
Several players, as well as Coach Ben Olsen, live in the city, but perhaps no one has embraced the “D.C.” in D.C. United as fully as Simms. Instead of renting in trendy Penn Quarter or buying in the suburbs, Simms and girlfriend Katri Hunter purchased an 86-year-old brick row house in an emerging residential quarter.
Few, if any, athletes employed by teams based at RFK over the past several decades (Redskins, Nationals, United) have settled so close to headquarters. “It’s like working from home,” Simms’s mother, Brenda, joked this week while visiting from North Carolina.
Simms and Hunter, who have been together for five years, have become familiar faces since moving into the neighborhood in November 2009. With Calvin, their 3-year-old Boston terrier, helping to break the ice, they’ve made friends on their narrow street lined with flower-covered stoops. It’s a middle-class stretch with professionals living alongside retirees and a panorama of backgrounds.
Simms, 28, didn’t attract any attention when he settled: He’s of average build (5 feet 10 and 168 pounds) and is a black man in a predominantly black part of the city where soccer isn’t as popular as in other sections of the metro area. To his new neighbors, he gave no hint of his semi-celebrity.
Dee Smith, a lifelong resident of Washington who lives nearby, said she met the couple a week or so after they arrived.
“We were just neighborly. I didn’t know what he did,” she said. “Then one day, I was driving past the stadium and looked up at the banners [of individual players] and said to myself, ‘Hey, that looks like my neighbor!’ So I got it out of him. To us, he was Clyde the neighbor, not Clyde the soccer player.”
Clyde the soccer player also fits into his surroundings without fanfare. Despite boasting the longest continuous service on United’s roster (seven seasons), he has always operated in the shadows — a quiet, industrious defensive midfielder with three goals and seven assists in 165 regular season appearances. He is likely to start again Saturday night against the visiting Philadelphia Union, MLS’s Eastern Conference leader.
“Being with United for so long, the team and the city are dear to me,” Simms said. “When you talk to people in D.C., they don’t understand why people live in Virginia or Maryland. I didn’t really understand that until moving into the city. I got a sense of pride and it’s something about being in the city that is special.”
Simms grew up in Jamestown, N.C., a town of 3,000 outside of Greensboro, and played at East Carolina University. He spent one summer with the Richmond Kickers, a lower-tier pro club, before signing with United in 2005. His one U.S. national team appearance came that year against England in Chicago.
Upon joining United, he lived in Reston and then Alexandria. “I was a little anti-city, being from North Carolina and the suburbs, with parking and everything,” he said. “It was intimidating for me.”
But after Simms began dating Hunter — they were introduced by former United defender John Wilson — the couple looked into city living. For work reasons, Hunter needed to be near a Metro station. They explored several areas before discovering “we could get the most for our money and be close to the Metro” by buying in Hill East, Hunter said, referencing the nearby Stadium-Armory station.
For the first year, Simms didn’t feel comfortable in his new surroundings and drove to Virginia to run errands. Over time, he discovered the city’s charms.
Some United players live near Verizon Center. Midfielder Chris Pontius and defender Dejan Jakovic are roommates. Defender Devon McTavish is in the same building. Forward Charlie Davies is in an adjacent complex.
Last week, Pontius began biking to RFK, a three-mile ride. Who would win a bike race between him and Simms?
“I’ll smoke him,” Pontius said.
“He’s got a one-speed bike,” Simms replied.
Olsen lives with his wife and two children in the Shaw section of Northwest. “I believe in it, but it’s not for everyone,” he said. “Some guys like being surrounded by the energy of the city. I like having people walking by my house. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it can be a little tough on Saturday night at 4 in the morning.”
Simms and Hunter took precautions, installing bars on the windows and becoming aware of their surroundings when walking the dog. “Neighbors on the stoop is sort of its own security system,” he said.
They’re members of the dog-walking program at Congressional Cemetery. They bike to Eastern Market and the H Street corridor in Northeast, and attend concerts at 9:30 club.
They’re so close to the stadium they host pregame gatherings on their back deck before Simms reports to work two hours before kickoff. Hunter often walks to and from the match with head trainer Brian Goodstein’s wife, Judy, who pushes year-old son Ryan in a stroller.
The couple has also become politically engaged, joining neighbors in May for a rally opposing a proposed redistricting of Hill East to Ward 7 from Ward 6.
Simms’s bond with the city is also articulated in a tattoo on the right side of his mid-section: It’s an image of the District flag, except instead of three stars above the two thick horizontal stripes, there is a soccer ball, a star and a heart.
The heart, he said, “is for all the friends I’ve made here.”