Thursday, April 10, 2008

DC United: The Pride of MLS

Marco Etcheverry was the symbol of United’s early dominance of MLS

No offense to our readers who support MLS’ other thirteen and soon to be fifteen teams. These franchises are developing the persona to be considered a “club” by international standards as we speak. In some cases like Houston the process is quicker than in other places like New York. However, DC United reached “club” status very early in MLS’ existence and have led the way for years in the league. Wearing the DC United badge and colors means something to most players: it’s not just another MLS team, when you suit up for the Black and Red you inherit all the pride and luster that has been developed in that uniform. You play for the shirt, not just for a paycheck and championship with an assorted group of players.

DC United is one of only two franchises that have been existence since MLS’ inception that have kept a reasonably similar looking crest and color scheme since the beginning. (DC had a very early flap with it’s original crest that was quickly replaced, although I still have a souvenir of the original that reminded some people of a Nazi WWII symbol) In addition, for years United was the only team that could count on a core audience for a midweek game, perhaps owning itself to RFK’s location on the Metro blue and orange lines. During this period DC United seemed to be the only club that had a really developed and sophisticated scouting operation. Kevin Payne unlike some others who run MLS clubs isn’t a publicity seeker. He simply knows how to put, year after year a winning product on the pitch. Agents in Latin America would often times laugh off any suggestion that their client go play in the backwater MLS, unless it was of course for the one recognizable club in the league: DC United.

CSRN’s Peter Brown and I recently had a conversation about RFK Stadium. Through the years I’ve been able to enjoy a number of matches at what is a hallowed ground, and believe as does Peter than any move by United to Poplar Point or worse even Maryland would strip the club and its supporters of much of their respective identities. Sure I understand revenue streams and needing to make money, but passion is football, and long term passion is found more at RFK than anywhere else in MLS. From the get go in MLS, RFK Stadium has provided the backdrop for United’s immense local fan base, a base that is able to use public transport at all times of the day to get to and from the stadium. RFK’s location has made DC United more accessible to the local populace and United’s success has long made the franchise the one truly mainstream MLS team in a local sporting culture. In Washington DC, United isn’t brandished to the back pages of the sports section or off the local broadcast news entirely as most MLS teams are in their respective markets. Playing in the city and winning have had its advantages but so has smart marketing and even smarter player personnel decisions by Kevin Payne and Dave Kasper. As an MLS fan in the early years, watching the league was sometime tough, but it was always easy to get up for a game, any game at RFK whether in person or on TV. The Washington Nationals Baseball franchise began play in 2005 and briefly ruined RFK for the beautiful game, but now the Nats are gone and RFK once again gleams a light that few soccer stadiums have in this country.

When internationals come to MLS to play for another club, they are simply coming to raise the profile of the league as a whole, or in many cases improve their respective clubs. When foreigners like Marcello Gallardo come to DC United they know why they are here: to continue a tradition of winning trophies, playing for the crest/shirt and to further the tradition created by “El Diablo” (picture above) and others who have made United unquestionably the league’s most recognizable club outside the borders of the United States in the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

DC United’s pride and recognition have taken MLS to its greatest heights outside the United States: The first league triumph in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, the Inter-American cup title, three absolute demolitions of top British clubs in friendlies at RFK, the only MLS side to play in the Copa Sudamericana and the only triumph ever for an MLS club on the ground of an English Premier League club against the home standing side. All the while, DC’s fan base and fan support is deeper than just about any other club around. The LA Galaxy claim they want to be a North American superclub but they have way to go to ever match DC United’s level of local interest and respect (not just name identification) abroad.

Against this backdrop I made an audacious prediction last week. I felt DC United could beat Pachuca and advance to the finals of the CONCACAF Champions Cup while Houston had no chance (or a 5% chance as I put it) against Saprissa. Both teams lost but obviously DC United’s fighting spirit was on full display Wednesday night, and the failure of the black and red to advance could be chalked up as much to bad luck as anything else. But I’ll admit, I have thirteen years of MLS watching to fall back on and that is tantamount to cheating in this instance. The other MLS teams as discussed above are simply professional sports franchises in a North American sense. They don’t really have an identity. As much as Houston fans love the Dynamo, that team was the Earthquakes and they have yet to develop the aura of a super club (although they are further along than most MLS teams including the aforementioned LA Galaxy who are on what seems like color scheme number thirteen to match the number of years they have been in existence) that DC has. You can put any respectable signing in a DC United shirt for an international competition and know what to expect. In all the years where MLS has failed to achieve international glory, the signature club of MLS has despite not winning silverware never disgraced the league in the same fashion as so many other sides, even more successful sides in an MLS sense have. You can never watch a DC United match against foreign opposition be it a competitive match or friendly and mock the standard of MLS. United is even in defeat still miles ahead of the rest of the league in ways that many fans and commentators don’t understand and some don’t care to understand. United is MLS’ leading light and continues to be consistent

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