At its peak, the Barra Brava supporters’ group filled seven flag-waving, Spanish-anthem-singing sections for D.C. United matches at RFK Stadium. “They’ve been with us all the way,” former United star Jaime Moreno said. So, as the club planned its relocation to Audi Field, Barra Brava founder Oscar Zambrana planned, too.
“This is beautiful,” the graying Bolivian immigrant said recently as he looked out on the stadium still under construction in Southwest Washington. He pointed out where a Barra Brava sports bar could have gone, and where promos to hype up the crowd could have run across the video board.
Those and other plans have changed. Saturday night, a new era for D.C. United begins with the opening of Audi Field for a match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. But the Barra and the District Ultras, die-hard fan groups of the previous era, will have no official presence. Some members will attend, not wanting to miss club history, but the Barra has instructed its members not to chant, wave flags or sit in the supporters’ section — an attempt at leverage in a conflict that, a few hours before kickoff, will lurch into its fifth tempestuous month.
“I don’t know why,” Zambrana said of the policy change, unveiled on Valentine’s Day, that ignited it all. After 22 seasons with an amalgam of independent supporters’ groups, United announced an official partnership with one original supporters’ group, the nonprofit Screaming Eagles, that assigned them “the lead role to manage all aspects of the supporter culture.” The agreement prominently entailed charitable work with DC SCORES, but the Barra and Ultras were outraged at two other aspects: primary responsibility for game-day atmosphere and control over single-game ticket resales.
Regarding atmosphere, each United supporters’ group has long had some of its own chants, banners and flavor — the Barra inspired partly by soccer-fan culture in South America, the Ultras by the Balkans, the Eagles a more consciously family-friendly blend.
Regarding tickets, each group had long funded its activities largely through markups on seats it purchased from the club and redistributed to fans. Though United President Tom Hunt called supporters’ groups “the lifeblood of the team,” he said he sought to streamline the process once he joined the club in 2014, accounting for increased “scarcity” of seats at Audi Field, which has a capacity of 20,000 compared to up to 46,000 for United games at RFK Stadium (though upper sections were typically tarped over). Hunt also said he wanted to prevent “lining the pockets” of some supporters’ group leaders.
The Ultras, like the Eagles, are a nonprofit group.
“When I got here, we wanted to revise the model,” Hunt said. “We did not want them to be ticket brokers for the club. We wanted them to be the supporters’ group that would come and bang the drum and lead the chants and not necessarily make a profit off the club.”
Zambrana called allegations of profiting off ticket resales “bull----.”
For Saturday’s opener, the Eagles sold out its ticket allotment at $60 apiece, $40 more than the pre-markup price, which the Eagles say will help with travel and supplies but Barra and Ultras members have complained is too steep. The cheapest seat elsewhere in the stadium was $75 through the D.C. United website, where tickets were still available as of Thursday afternoon. For the rest of the season, supporters’ section tickets purchased through the Eagles will be $25 or $30, depending on the matchup.
Screaming Eagles President James Lamber, 38, said the Barra felt like “second-class citizens” without the right to sell its own tickets and without a neutral supporters’ council to oversee everything. And so, Lambert said of the dispute, “All hell broke loose.”
Mud is being slung all over social media. Meetings are being held (most often by the Eagles) and skipped (in protest, by the Barra). The dialogue between the Barra and D.C. United deteriorated before resuming Tuesday with an email from Hunt to Zambrana “to encourage you again to have your members fill the north end zone supporter section in a big way!” No new offer was made.
Though there is no indication that the policy change has any connection to the proudly raucous in-game behavior of members of the Barra and Ultras, a few MLS clubs have cracked down this year on supporters’ groups. In January, the New York Red Bulls revoked recognition of the Garden State Ultras, citing violations of MLS’s fan conduct policy. In June, the Chicago Fire canceled and refunded the season tickets for its Barra Brava equivalent, Sector Latino, over accusations of violent and unruly conduct.
Barra Brava is known in part because of its rowdiness, though it’s tame compared to the groups’ South American counterparts. One District Ultras member was banned from games for one year over the use of a smoke bomb in 2016, but there have been no other known infractions or punishments at D.C. United.
For his part, Santino Quaranta, a longtime attacker over two spells at United, sees the intensity as a central part of global soccer culture — and said his 9-year-old son loves it, Barra beer-throwing and all.
“Obviously being in a stadium downtown, you open up a whole new type of fan, a whole new type of experience, which is great,” Quaranta said. “But those new fans who will be showing up at that stadium because it’s a shiny new coin, [the supporters’ groups] were at the stadium when it was 110 degrees and it wasn’t a shiny new coin. You can’t forget about that, you know?”
The opener, at least, will be hard to forget. A stadium discussed for decades and announced in 2013 will finally open. Wayne Rooney will likely make his debut.
And the Eagles are the supporters’ group in charge, with big plans of their own for Audi Field’s premiere. Before Hunt’s email, Barra leaders had said they were still hoping for, but pessimistic about, a resolution with D.C. United before Saturday’s game. So Barra and Ultras members plan to march to the stadium Saturday from nearby Canal Park. Some will stay for the match; some will leave to watch on TV.
“We’re expecting it to be a graveyard, pretty much,” said Carrick Baugh, 36, a longtime Ultras member.
“I’m expecting it to be a lot of fun. I’m expecting us to win,” said Katie Schwartz, 36, a longtime Eagles member.
If nothing else, Zambrana said, “It’s not gonna be the same.”