Wednesday, June 21, 2017

[D.C. Untied 2.11-12] D.C. United vs Christos FC, June 13, 2017 and Toronto FC vs. D.C. United, June 17, 2017

Last year my brother and I attended the fourth round midweek Open Cup game at the Soccerplex and watched the D.C. United reserves fall to NASL’s troubled Fort Lauderdale Strikers in penalty kicks. Jared Jeffrey walking to the furthest, darkest corner of the field and collapsing after missing the final attempt utterly broke my heart. But that weekend they--and I--picked up and flew to Houston where we drew the Dynamo 0-0 in a hot, humid, rain delayed nail biter of a match. United’s season would veer downwards through July before making a U-turn and going on a tear through late summer into fall.




This year my brother and I again attended the midweek fourth round Open Cup game at the Soccerplex but joining us were my sister, our soccer loving buddy Thomas (who does video for Washington Spirit games), my little niece (at her very first D.C. United game), and about 5000 other people. Because this year instead of playing a troubled NASL side, we were playing the heavy to the Open Cup’s cinderella story, Baltimore’s own Christos FC, an amateur team made up of former college stars who didn’t go pro for one reason or another.



The Soccerplex was overflowing with the Christos supporters electric green T-shirts on that hot and humid Tuesday night. It certainly didn’t feel like a home game for United as the cheers rang out for Mamadou Kansaye as he scored the opening goal for Christos with a phenomenal free kick.



It was hard not to get swept away in the excitement but for United supporters, the magical moment was tinged with frustration at our toothless, scoreless season. Our little group had settled on a picnic blanket on the little slope behind the goal. “I need a beer,” I said, as the Christos supporters cheered their lead all around us. Thomas and I were still in the beer line 15 minutes later when United’s own Julian Büscher scored the equalizer.

The second half was tense as Cody Albrecht and the rest of the Christos’s defenders kept the score even. Tempers flared when Travis Worra went down after colliding with a Christos player resulting in a scuffle and a couple yellow cards doled out on both sides. But the clock finally rang midnight for Christos FC around the 80th minute when Lloyd Sam came on. Cody Albrecht is a good player and is still close enough to his college form that he was an even match with his contemporaries--Robinson--who went pro for a time but a seasoned professional like Lloyd Sam is on another level. Sam subbed in and quickly changed the game from a stalemate to a rout, scoring one and assisting Büscher to get the score to 3-1. Ian Harkes put the cherry on top with his first professional goal in stoppage time.

Final score, 4-1.

But Christos FC wasn’t bitter about it. It had been a good game. The team made a slow lap around the stands, soaking up the well earned cheers and applause. Even though United had won the game, Christos FC were the real stars of the evening.

And my little niece had seen her first D.C. United victory before even turning one. She’d been delighted with the flags and drums and songs. We were going to have to get her a pair of baby headphones so she could join in next time.



Next stop Toronto!

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The one and only time I’d been to Toronto was in 2011 for the IIFA Awards and, honestly, my head wasn’t really in Toronto for that trip. Mentally I was half a world away in Bombay. I did eat some delicious corn on a stick in little Pakistan and bought a ridiculously poofy dress on Queen Street West but mostly that trip I’d just hung out with my friends and talked Bollywood.


(IIFA 2011!)

This trip would be a bit different. Instead of dancing until 4 am with Shahrukh Khan, I’d be hanging with a handful of my favorite Barra Brava and drowning this season’s sorrows in a big old bucket of Canadian beer.

My trip began bright and early Friday morning at Dulles with Critchlow and one Mr. Dave Johnson, sports broadcaster for D.C. United and all around nice guy. He’d spotted us sitting in the waiting area by the departure gate and came over for a chat and a picture.


Our flight was on Porter, a small regional airline that flew directly into Billy Bishop Airport--a quick 20 minute walk from downtown Toronto. I enjoyed a glass of Steam Whistle, some shortbread cookies, and a quick nap on the flight and landed ready to tourist my ass off.

I remember experiencing a bit of unfamiliar culture shock on my 2011 visit. Toronto is both familiar and not. On the surface the language and culture seem identical but then you spot a sign for the “washrooms” instead of “bathrooms” or are greeted in French at a restaurant before the server registers baffled tourist look and switches to lightly accented English.

Critchlow and I had arrived before the rest of the gang so after dropping our bags off at the hotel and getting lunch, we wandered down through the tourist district towards the CN Tower, the distinctive feature of the Toronto skyline, its rounded tip like a giant Tim Horton’s donut hovering above the city.

I’d been wandering somewhat in the direction of the Steam Whistle Brewery, which had been recommended to me by cousin John, when I spotted the Toronto Train Museum housed next door to the brewery. “Oh, duh,” I said, “steam whistle, as in trains!” Critchlow gamely agreed to go in with me, perhaps mollified by the promise of beer directly afterwards.




Small and un-air-conditioned, the train museum was housed in the Roundhouse, formerly used as servicing station for trains making the long trek from Toronto to Montreal and back. They’d depart Toronto at 11 p.m. and arrive in Montreal at 8 a.m. and then return the next night. Some items, like porcelain dishes from the dining car and uniform badges, were housed in glass cases, other items, large tools and so on, were simply spread over long tables, a small sign asking visitors not to touch. There was a video display on a loop of the most heroic day in Toronto Train history, the Halifax Harbour Explosion of 1917, when a steamship collided with an gunship in the harbor. The gunship caught fire and would set off a blast that killed 2000 people and shattered windows for 16 miles. A heroic train dispatcher, knowing the danger, stayed at his post sending out messages to stop trains coming into the city. He saved untold lives at the cost of his own.

The museum also had a train simulator set up in an old engine car. After muscling some small boys out of the way, I hopped in and started driving down the rails to Montreal, ringing the bell and tooting the horn way more than strictly necessary.

What struck me more than anything in the museum is how everything dated from the early 1920s. I wondered if the destruction of the explosion had been that complete… I supposed it must have been.

Steam Whistle Brewery is located on the other end of the roundhouse and was full to bursting with Blue Jays fans, including one gentleman dressed head to toe in a Blue Jays patterned suit. Even in Toronto, MLS really is like a distant third most popular sporting choice, at best. Critchlow and I grabbed a spot at the bar and enjoyed a refreshing, light pilsner.

Toronto was hot, humid, and sunny. I could feel my nose and shoulders already starting to pinken from a day in the sun. There’s nothing better than a pilsner on a day like that.

By the time we’d finished our beer, the rest of the Barra had landed and Critchlow went to check into the condo they were renting for the weekend. We’d all meet up later at the Football Factory, the Barra Brava’s home-away-from-home in Toronto, a soccer bar located at the corner of Bathurst Street and Queen Street West, just a few blocks from my hotel.

The whole Queen Street West area has a pleasant, far less douchey Brooklyny feel to it. A lot of little storefronts selling anything from chic shoes to delicious banh mi sandwiches. The Football Factory is set off the main strip and has a nice little outdoor patio. By the time I wandered over, the Barra were a few Molson tall boys deep and were telling stories about the previous week’s trip to Mexico to see the U.S. Men’s National Team play. (And I have to admit I was gratified to hear my sense of the type of group American Outlaws was confirmed.)

Saturday was another Canadian scorcher. After coffee and an ill-advised blackberry scone (so many seeds!) I took the subway up to Casa Loma, an early 20th century “castle” built by wealthy financier Sir Henry Mill Pellatt on the bluffs overlooking the city. The ostentatious residence bankrupted him and was taken over by the state, first becoming a hotel, then a staging area for World War II military operations, and finally a museum. The castle is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Toronto and Saturday morning was no exception. The halls were jam packed with tourists from all over the globe, as well as wedding guests decked out to the nines in spangly dresses, saris, and kurtas for the wedding that would be held later in the day. (I’m not only a fanatic fan but also a master eavesdropper.)



Casa Loma itself was fascinating. I love touring historic houses and I love it even more when the signage throws polite Canadian shade at the rich guy who built the massive house and then bankrupted himself with the upkeep. In the tunnels underneath Casa Loma--a cool respite from the muggy interiors upstairs--there were massive photos illustrating the history of working class Toronto around the time Sir Henry was living in his British royalty cosplay castle. The men marching for work during the Depression were a pointed contrast to the tiger skin rugs and replica thrones decorating the castle.

I decided that I quite liked Canada.

Leaving the castle, I wandered down Spadina Avenue back towards downtown. I stopped for lunch at a little creperie run by a tiny French-speaking woman, Chef Véronique. Sitting at the counter eating a brie, spinach, and strawberry crepe (magnifique!) I watched Chef Véronique entertain a handful of kids as she made their crepes one by one to order and was extremely glad that not only had I stopped in but that I had made the journey to Toronto in the first place. “Au revoir!” she called out from behind the stove when I left.


 (Note the Tim Horton's across the street. LOL!)

Spadina continues down past the University and then through Chinatown before reaching the little Brooklyny downtown area and the walk was extremely pleasant, despite the sun and heat. Toronto architecture is an odd mix of late 19th/early 20th-century houses and buildings with a good sprinkling of 1970s-style oddities. Like the Centre Pompidou but on a massive scale. The contrast is striking and I’m not sure what accounts for it. Was there a 1960s-70s boom? There certainly seemed to be one going now as the waterfront was littered with cranes and construction equipment.



After a quick disco nap back at the hotel while a thunderstorm blew through the city, I changed into my Jared Jeffrey jersey (JJ!) and walked back over to the Football Factory in the post-rain coolness.



The stats and line-up discussions came out over veggie poutine and cider. Who would be starting up top? Ortiz, who couldn’t find the goal if it had a homing beacon on it? Kamara, hopping off a late flight to Portugal? The return of Striker Birnbaum? My line, repeated more emphatically the more I’d had to drink was that it was absurd that we were facing a team that had three players who individually each made more than our entire roster combined. (My other line, again repeated more emphatically the lower the level got in my beer glass, was that if we scored a goal, I’d join the shirtless bros in stripping off my jersey. Something that also holds true for the game tonight.)

BMO Field is a quick streetcar ride from the Football Factory and the handful of us DCU Road Crew who made the trip were quickly sent through security and escorted up to the away section, located at the very top of the extended seating, in the furthest, highest corner of the stadium. Looking out over the sea of polite people in red jerseys advertising “Bradley” and “Giovinco”, I hoped against hope we could get some sort of result. I’d even take a 0-0 draw as success. A GOAL. Just a goal.


(Sunburned nose and CN Tower!)

The first half was a nailbiter. Chances on either end of the field had us cheering for Bill Hamid, drowning out the groans from the section below us. A handful of preteen boys starting getting salty, turning around and flipping the bird. I flipped one right back. Don’t mess with the Americans, little boys.

In large contrast to what is shown on TV, the crowd at BMO is quite subdued. There was one small section of rowdy fans in the supporter seating that maybe numbered about 100 but other than that, it was golf clapping interrupted by that dumb viking clap when prompted by the speaker system.

Up top in our rooftop seating, we ran through the away game standards. “Let’s not sing anything about winning or championships, though,” said Pauly, early on. Smart man.

“Vamos, vamos Uni~ted…”

The second half began promisingly but as the clock ticked closer to 90, United’s concentration lapsed for a second and that second was all it took for Toronto’s big name, big paycheck players to do what they are paid to.

1-0, Toronto.

We’d all been expecting this. As the preteen boys turned around to jeer us, somebody launched into a song and the rest of us followed: “We came a long way, just to lose. We came a long way, just to lose. We came a long way, just to lose. We came a long way just to looooooose.”

Quickly it turned into: “We came a long way, to drink some beer.”

And then as the score flipped to 2-0, “You’re nothing special, we lose every weeeeee~eeeek.”

The whistle blew and that was it. The Toronto players made the laps of the stands while the D.C. guys skulked into the locker rooms, without so much as a thank you clap in our direction. Fair enough. “We came a long way, to drink some beer!”

The preteen boys stopped by to shake our hands and thank us for being good sports. Canada really is different.


 (DCU ROAD TRIP CREW!)

Security had returned and they held us back until the stadium had cleared out a bit. Classic pop hits were playing on the sound system and prompting a singalong to Outkast’s “Hey Ya”--a singalong that continued down the stairs and back onto the streetcar to the Football Factory for more drinks.

All of us rowdy Americans all piled back into the bar, interrupting a guy in a Vancouver Whitecaps jersey trying to watch the game. As it turns out, he was one of the two Whitecaps fans who joined the Ultras tailgate at RFK last year for the 4-0 blowout. “[Whitecaps goalkeeper] David Ousted sent us each a signed cleat to apologize,” said my new old MLS buddy.

Canada really is different.

My flight out was bright and early the next day so I left a bit before one with the party still going on.

There’s nothing quite like a DCU road trip. Even with the loss, I had a great time hanging out with all the Barra Brava and sightseeing around Toronto. Depending on whether or not we make the postseason I may not be back until next year but I’ll definitely be back. Just you wait, preteen kids, I’ve got about a million more birds to flip at your polite, overpaid squad.

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