Thinking about the upcoming debut of the new United in RFK this coming weekend has made me a bit nostalgic about home openers in general. There's that first tailgate of the year when you get to see your extended family of soccer friends. It's just such a beautiful thing to not be the only person wearing a United jersey in public. There's the thrill of releasing all the excitement and hope for the Black and Red's upcoming campaign that's been held in check all winter long.
You finally get to see the new team kicking a ball in anger live in front of your eyes. You get to see the new players, second guess the new coach, witness the odd ring ceremony common in the glory years, even the hopeful prayer for the RFK staff to perform their duties adequately is just like settling into your favorite chair.
Then there's the atmosphere inside RFK. To begin with home openers nearly always have the highest attendance of the year. Other than dubious crowds for doubleheaders, or the odd Hispanic Heritage Horror, RFK crowds on Opening Day are always the highest of that particular season. As a matter of fact, home openers average 25,500 overall and only the '98 and '02 openers had less than 22,000 in attendance. The '98 game was severely hampered in the crowd department by being a windy, rainy 36 degree shiver of a day, and the '02 game followed two solid years of mediocrity and was Easter weekend to boot.
Now anytime you get 20 plus thousands of United fanatics together while they're still positive and hopeful, when even the endless nitpicking about players, coaches, or MLS conspiracies are put aside to present a unified roar of support for the newest version of United, the atmosphere created in RFK is just breathtaking. No doubt the team feeds off that energy as RFK home openers are always memorable, if not always in good way.
So, here's a brief look at some memories of past home openers:
In '96, DC was coming off two brutal away losses and had not even scored a goal yet, but still 35,000 showed up for a showdown with the Galaxy. The thundering roar when Raul Diaz Arce scored that lovely looping shot over Campos after only 7 minutes was so powerful that the stadium literally began to shake, you could feel it in your bones. Sadly, Tamberino had to prove he wasn't a homer by calling a dubious PK for the Galaxy that subdued the crowd and LA won the game with a late goal. Afterwards, Harkes remarked that the RFK fans were incredible and as good as any he'd ever played in front of. He felt bad that the team didn't give their supporters the win they deserved.
In '97, DC was coming off their first championship and playing their fierce new rival from NJ. The memories of the bitter playoff series with the 'Tards was still very keen, so when Pope scored a cheeky little back-heel to embarrass Meola, the feeling of joy was palpable. Of course, De Avila, that sneaky little smurf, had to ruin things with one of his many opportunistic goals against United. But Moreno saved the day with an 89th minute goal that nearly brought down the house.
In '98, the frigid temperatures kept down the total attendance, but clearly the loudest element was present in full force to shout down the Wiz. Incredibly, we had only beaten KC one time in the previous two seasons. They had some kind of spell over United that was just merciless back then. Sure enough, after an incredible opening 15 minutes, KC was ahead 2-1 on two goals by Johnston sandwiched around a Wegerle PK. Doom seemed imminent, but Wegerle scored again just before the half and Harkes won the game with a 20 yard bullet in the 75th minute to energize the crowd to near capacity decibel levels.
In '99, DC was coming off the dastardly loss to Chicago in the '98 Cup and probably was looking beyond the lowly Clash, plus there was a new coach to kick around. But the largest regular season crowd ever (non-doubleheader) was to be disappointed by DC's performance. After Aunger became the most improbable scorer on Opening Day ever by blasting in a shot before most people had even taken their seats, Cerritos tied the game in the 11th minute. 79 more minutes of MF struggling left the dreaded shootout to decide the affair. SJ won the vicious tiebreaker with Diaz Arce of all people scoring the deciding goal. He'd done nothing all game, but his people gleefully enjoyed his shootout contribution and the love/hate relationship with Salvadorans began that day.
In '00, New commissioner Garber joined the SE's during the pre-game tailgate, but that's about the best thing that happened that dark day when DC faced the Galaxy in a rematch of the previous MLS Cup. In what I refer to as The Debacle, DC lost horribly 4-0 and Marco epitomized the day by being ejected after only being on the field for 7 minutes. Memorable as the beginning of a karmic backlash into mediocrity, but best not dwelt on much longer.
In '01, DC was reborn for the first time as veterans were traded for draft picks, so it was with a bit of apprehension that the faithful came to watch United battle KC, but the youth carried the day. After an early Lassiter goal, Convey scored his first MLS goal to tie it up. Then McKeon and Arce traded goals to keep it level at two. Finally, Lisi scored the game-winner in the 88th minute assisted by Denton and Albright. Interestingly, none of them are still on the team. And even more interesting, all three season openers with KC have resulted in a 3-2 score-line, with the home team getting the win.
In '02, DC was again faced with a new coach quoting promises of changes to come, so hope sprang anew that indeed the Fire would be the first victims of the new regime. Sure enough, Marco curled a highlight film FK into the upper 90, and Reyes got his first MLS point by pouncing on a lose ball and feeding Conteh for the last goal in a 2-0 victory. Sadly, it was memorable for Marco's brilliant shot and for probably being DC's best performance of that entire year. All the hope for that season was dashed by another cold hard cellar dwelling season.
But magically, hope springs eternal. After another off-season makeover, DC faces Chicago again on Saturday to open their home campaign. Its once again time to re-discover old friends, see Earnie Stewart, Dema Kovalenko, and Mike Petke perform their magic live in front of our eyes. Of course we all expect the best, but for me win or lose, I can't wait for that first feeling of awe as RFK begins to rock once again.