It started with one match.
Over the past few weeks Major League Soccer has rolled out events all across the country to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their club’s first matches. It is an exciting time for supporters, teams, and the league to remember where they have come from and where they are going.
On Saturday, yours truly will be attending the twentieth anniversary of the first MLS match at RFK Stadium. While any time DC United hosts the New England Revolution there is a chance to see something magical this match has special meaning as I was at their first home game.
Looking back on that first match there are a few things that stick out in my mind. First, this was my first-ever outdoor soccer match and the sheer size of RFK Stadium was a bit intimidating. Up until that point my family and I had only attended indoor soccer matches in the D.C. area and Baltimore.
Although they often had good-sized crowds (6,000-10,000) they were nothing like the crowd at RFK. For a kid who grew up off of Route 92 in rural West Virginia and eventually moved to Southern Maryland 35,000 people was a lot of people.
Second, it wasn’t just the size of the crowd that was of interest it was the intensity of the crowd. The D.C. soccer community is a an eclectic supporters community made up of fans from North America, Central and Latin America with sprinkles of European and South American influence as well.
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The crowd almost reached a boil early on when two heroes of the El Salvador national team, Raul Diaz Arce of DC United and Mauricio Cienfuegos of the Los Angeles Galaxy, scored in the seventh and twenty-first minutes respectively. Although I might not have caught all of the words being chanted ( much to my mother’s appreciation) the crowd had me hooked.
Third, there was a certain sense of pride not just for Washington D.C. but for U.S. Soccer. After the 1994 World Cup there was a lot of excitement for soccer here in the United States but no one really knew where to put it. For roughly twenty years soccer had been cast aside as an inferior sport here in the United States.
The World Cup changed that perspective some but in the two years between the World Cup and the kickoff of MLS there was some uncertainty as to whether the game would come back. Remember: this was a time where European club matches could only be found in snippets or on small cable channels for exorbitant fees. With a dearth of soccer to learn from, my brother and I often resorted to watched a taped copy of the 1994 World Cup Final and practicing specific moves from specific minutes of the match.
Although D.C. lost the match 2-1 to the Galaxy I was hooked. There were two things that I was certain of after that match: that the Los Angeles Galaxy were the villains of the league and that I was going to end up being a professional goalkeeper. Our family put up a goal in the front yard and my brother and I used the shed as target practice for working on our accuracy. We would watch DC United matches when we could and were extremely ecstatic when United would become the first-ever MLS Cup Champions (take that, Galaxy!)
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As time has worn on things have changed for both DC United and MLS. Much of the joy that the initial matches brought on has been replaced with cynicism and skepticism. Perhaps as kids my brother and I were a bit naive as to how easy it would be to become professional soccer players or that by 2020 MLS would be the top league in the world. Oh, to be young and naive.
That being said, twenty years on this little league has finally found itself a home in the American (and Canadian sporting landscape). Soccer is no longer sport associated with a derogatory slur; rather, it is at least moderately respected and celebrated among sports fans. Supporters like D.C.’s Barra Brava and District Ultras have cemented themselves within their communities and are quietly entering their second generation of fans.
As for yours truly, although I never ended up being a professional goalkeeper I do have the chance to work at RFK Stadium. Starting as a pet project about six years ago I started covering the beautiful game as just a lowly beat writer. After many years, many articles, and many interesting adventures I have ended up at a point in life where I get to cover DC United on an everyday basis.
While I have had the chance to go to many different stadiums over the years, RFK Stadium is still my favorite. Although it may be worn around the edges and a tad dilapidated it still has a certain level of charm to it. That Saturday’s anniversary match will be the only anniversary match to take place in an MLS-specific park is also something special. Perhaps it is the chance to work in a place where I did a lot of growing up but there is something oddly charming about the stadium in Southeast Washington DC.
In the end, Saturday’s match will just be a match. DC United head coach Ben Olsen, who perhaps may enjoy more of the festivities than he thought the week prior since he is suspended, would probably much rather have three points than balloons and old teammates running through the stadium. But for those in the stand and in the pressbox who have attended matches for twenty years the moment will matter.