Post-427: Observations at D.C. United soccer opening day 2023

(5200 words)
[Updated April 11]

The sensational World Cup of 2022 put me in a curious mood about U.S. Soccer. I found myself, for the first time ever, on the scene of the “opening day” of a pro soccer team. Saturday, February 25th, 2023.

This day I was alone and just “stopping by.” Maybe it was a sociological investigation. Maybe it was a scouting trip. I took no notes at the time, but I believe I can here adequately re-create my observations from the time as I write, a few weeks later.

Possible one-word summaries include: disappointing, underwhelming. The baseball stadium is a short distance away and invites comparisons. The soccer stadium, area, and atmosphere was “underwhelming” when compared to the fanfare and frenetic activity of the baseball stadium area on baseball-game days and now also other days.

I had intended to follow up my stadium-area visit with watching the second half at least on TV, but found that to be impossible. The U.S. pro soccer league, the MLS, does not even get to broadcast its games on TV. So I learned. To watch the games, you have to sign up for a paid service called AppleTV. I’m not doing that. That is just ridiculous. Sad and disappointing. Nor was the MLS game streaming anywhere: not Youtube, not the team’s websites, nothing. The MLS soccer league, although it has been around since 1997, gets shockingly little respect.

By world standards there are certain big names involved with the MLS. Such is the case of the D.C. United’s new coach, Wayne Rooney. He was a British hooligan-like star player much talked about in the late 2000s and much of the 2010s. A star of yesteryear, he has aged horribly. The D.C. United had its worst-ever season in 2022 but duped a lot of money to get him as their new coach. But still they don’t get on TV.


I had been working hard six or seven days a week in fall 2022, and decided to scale back and follow the World Cup. This turned out to be a great investment because World Cup 2022 was so sensational. A delight. After the lights went dim on the World Cup in late December 2022 after a month of drama and action, a few weeks of nothingness on the soccer front followed, before word of the MLS season beginning renewed my interest.

Those familiar with soccer in countries or cultures with strong traditions of the sport say that soccer is understandable more as social phenomenon than sport. It is (can be) a part of communal life, extension of community, a unifier, a proxy for other identities. In past times a wide range of local traditions defined communal life and a portion of those energies became recycled into soccer in some places. This happened in the USA to a much weaker extent, maybe with a partial exception of the quasi-pro “college sports” phenomenon.

Soccer has been talked up since the 1970s (or so) as one of those coming “waves of the future” for the USA and Canada, unstoppable on the horizon, destined to remake the sports landscape. Each time this prediction comes up or gets traction the envisioned end-goal always recedes without the prophesied effects. As a youth in the 1990s, I myself remember believing the then-current version of the “Soccer Is Coming” happy-talk. I was of ideal age to be impressed (elementary-school age) when the World Cup came to the USA in summer 1994, and I am certain that this influenced me. But the “Soccer Is Coming” prediction(s) never really panned out. Fifty years’ worth of false-dawns for soccer in the USA and here we are.

During the World Cup I “reconnected” with Alexi Lalas, a figure I remember from 1994, then a Team USA player with a distinctive look and now a mid-age man with a dignified but less-distinctive look. He was one of the mainstays of the World Cup coverage and he is also pitching the current version of Soccer evangelistic happy-talk.

In fairness, the still-going U.S. pro league, the MLS, was founded in about 1996/97 specifically  following momentum from the 1994 World Cup (hosted in the USA) and the 1996 Olympics (also hosted in the USA). (The Olympics always include international soccer, but a bush-league version without the top stars, who come out for the World Cup or other tournaments; the organization FIFA jealously guards them.) In that sense the trajectory was favorable for U.S. soccer.

A look “below the hood” of U.S. soccer, though, shows dysfunction and the kind of curiously small world of people networked to each other in a big circle, the kind of ties that characterize dysfunctional organization. The public dispute between U.S. coach Berhalter and the family of one of the U.S. national team 2022 players was an example. The father of the player had known the coach from the 1990s, when both men were on the U.S. national team themselves. The mother was also a pro soccer player. Everyone seems connected to everyone else.

My discovery that it is impossible to watch any MLS games except by paying for “AppleTV” proves how much the MLS has failed to take root. Kicking it off TV seems a terrible blow for a pro sports league. I can more reliably watch the action of the top-tier league pf Ultimate Frisbee than the MLS.

Hanging around a while at D.C. United Opening Day, direct observation corroborated the weakness of soccer in the USA, especially in relation to the baseball stadium.


The Washington baseball stadium is the “popular kids’ table” at the school cafeteria; the Washington soccer stadium is a less-frequented lunch table situated in a corner of the cafeteria, and is host to eccentrics and foreigners who, while they have their own strengths and dignity, lack self-confidence and command pity at best from their fellows. (Life is not fair.)

The D.C. United soccer stadium was newly built just a few years ago and while the structure is technically sound (I assume), it stands as the shrimpy and awkward little-brother to the baseball stadium. If a rain-cover were needed for the soccer stadium, one shaped like dunce cap would be suitable as metaphor for its relative position vis-a-vis the baseball stadium.

Washington’s baseball stadium and soccer stadium stand less than a half-mile from one another. (In practice, and counting from the core-area of the one to the core-area of the other, the distance is up to fifteen minutes’ walking time all told, a set of streets with annoyingly high-speed traffic being in the way.) Close in line-of-sight terms though the two stadiums may be, the difference in “vibe” between the two areas is vast.

The baseball stadium has a large footprint and is in  the  2010 became surrounded by the air of busy-ness of both entertainment and then also high-end residential varieties, the scenes and accoutrements  of an attractive, dense city life. Actually all of it is from the magnetic pull of the stadium. The baseball stadium was a 2000s-er urban (re-)colonization project, and by some point in the 2010s had become a symbol of the new Washington. (This in line with what I wrote in “Maddy’s Taproom, r.i.p., 2011-2020.”)

The baseball stadium construction was one of the prestige projects that really paid off big. Comparing the mid-2000s to the mid-late 2010s, the area around the baseball stadium changed so much that the word “terraformed” springs to mind, and not just because of the physical changes involving the stadium and other new buildings. Terraforming is a sci-fi term (‘fi’ in our time, anyway) of a hypothetical process by which we convert a barren planet like Mars to conditions suitable for human habitation.

The baseball stadium could also be compared to a giant celestial body that attracts satellites that hug its perimeter. The ‘satellites,’ in this case, bars and restaurants of all descriptions but also luxury apartments targeting the “single young professional” demographic and services associated with the latter including high-end grocery stores.

The baseball stadium area is also has a high usage rate by bicyclists per-capita, one of the highest in the whole system in my experience. The ten bikseshare docking stations that are within easy walking distance of the core baseball stadium area have about 240 docks between them, plus a high number of dockless e-bikes around at any time. On any fair-weather day, at peak periods, most of those ten stations fill up completely, and occasionally all 240 docks get full. As originally conceived, bikeshare planners thought the area would only really need one big anchoring station at the stadium itself and attendants during games to keep docks open for arrivers (I once estimated that around 1.5% of game attendees arrived by bikeshare, based on monitoring the station map before and during a game), but by the late 2010s plans were underway to expand to these ten or so stations with these 240 docks, and really with demand outstripping supply they could double the dock capacity to ensure usability. The 240 docks serve up to two or three times that number of actual end-users because of the use of truck rebalancing. Probably there are a similar number shared e-scooter users as bikeshare users.

The frenetic activity associated with the baseball stadium area extends multiple ‘blocks’ deep in two directions. A third direction is blocked by the river. By the late 2010s, it had become so thick that a newcomer would think it a natural thing, that perhaps this place had always been that way.

A first-time visitor airdropped into the soccer stadium’s immediate vicinity, meanwhile, gets a very different impression, which is about this: “There is nothing here.” Very little of the baseball stadium area’s ambiance applies to the soccer stadium area.

It’s not just that the soccer stadium is noticeably smaller than the baseball stadium. More immediately noticeable than the comparative smallness is the vast emptiness all around the soccer stadium. A sea of concrete and a road. Not a single place to buy anything to eat or drink! Nothing. There is so much nothing, in fact, that still no one has yet bothered to put in working pedestrian crossing lights. There are fast-moving cars off to one side, and you have to either be confident at the art of “darting across” or move in groups.

The only actual business in the soccer stadium vicinity is a hotel of dubious quality. Behind that hotel and covering several square blocks are some (relatively low-density) “housing projects.” These are left over from another era. In past visits to the general area, one scene I remember is a group of about ten or fifteen Blacks loudly chatting it up on the sidewalk. Other characteristic scenes of this area include usually low-level sights, sounds, and noises associate with urban blight (such as stolen bikeshare bikes painted over to conceal their easy-identification at a distance; or the foul smell of marijuana; or the suspiciously high number of “temporary tags” on vehicles), but they are basically now “peripheral features” rather than more like “defining features” as had been the case in the 2000s.

The existence of the “housing projects” on the immediate flank of the soccer stadium I presume to be a primary reason why no one has invested in even a single restaurant, bar, or the like in the soccer stadium area up to 2023, many years into the soccer-stadium extension of the “baseball stadium urban-colonization” effort. Optimists will say the current baseball-stadium area was, up to the mid- or late-2000s was a lot like that which is observable with the soccer stadium area now, and look how completely the baseball stadium turned its area around. The optimists’ dreams were hit hard by the arrival of Lockdownism in March 2020, which probably froze any movements for a period measured in years.


Something happened the night of the D.C. United game in the “housing-project area” adjacent to the soccer stadium area. A homicide. A man was killed not just on “opening-game day,” but while the D.C. United soccer game was in progress, in the second half. The tut-tut versus the body-bag; one trumps the other.

Americans, I have long noticed, are trained to have a pavlovian “tut-tut-ing” response at the mention of things like “housing projects” or associated dysfunction or anti-social behavior, and instinct tells them to resist. You can see this at work in interactions but also quantifiably so in online discussion-communities where, if someone mentions anything critical of that sort, the person gets “down-voted” by other users whereas someone doing a “virtue-signal” gets up-voted. He who wants to be socially respectable learns, or absorbs and recognizes, a subtle dance of the right platitudes and a set of codewords. He trains himself to respect the pavlovian reaction as high-status marker. Woe be to him who doesn’t learn properly or who get some muddleheaded principle or Truth in the way.

The murder the night of the D.C. United game was metaphorical dynamite through the social wall of the pavlovian tut-tut-ing instinct. It happened a few minutes’ walk from the main entrance to the soccer stadium. As best I could tell from the crime report, if the street-grid were filled in across the whole stadium area, the site of the killing was two blocks north of the stadium’s main-entrance, not much above 0.15 miles (250 meters), only about twice as long as the soccer field itself.

The spectators inside the stadium were not aware of the homicide. Some were reportedly alarmed upon seeing dozens of flashing police lights not far off, but the game went on. (A similar incident occurred at the baseball stadium 2021 during a game: gunshots were heard next to the baseball stadium, creating a mass-panic inside the stadium and a game disruption as people tried to flee. It was a blast-from-the-past incident of some dispute (“beef”) between rivals. Three Blacks in a car were shot and injured. The assailant fled. The single staccato of a haze of bullets was enough for some fans to think the shooting was inside the stadium, and this began a chain-reaction of panic as about half the stadium left seats. Being on the far side of the stadium, the panic did not affect the area I was in. We saw those on the other side scrambling away for safety against the illusion of a shooter inside the stadium.)

A homicide during a pro sports game, occurring within a literal long stone’s throw from some of the paths people used to flow to the stadium from the distant Metro station entrance, is typical of 1960s-to-2000s Washington dysfunction, and is a reason I hold Washington in general disdain. Is “disdain” the right word? It’s more a combination of things including disappointment, pessimism, anger. I grasp for a single perfect word and cannot find one. My personal resolution to refuse to participate in the pavlovian-game I mentioned earlier is a result. The people behind the crime and blight and anti-social behavior are so different from me that I cannot regard them as being of the same nationality as my own. If I have a nationality at all, it is not theirs, it cannot be theirs. The Russian Empire was called “the prison-house of nations,” and at times like this it make me think the USA is not so different.

The fans who had come out for the game were mostly of the “no-crime” type. These are a people who, regardless of their participation in the pavlovian game, in fact have no tolerance for things like crime, casual homicide (!), or even old British-style sports hooliganism. Crime is very bad for stadiums, certainly if a stadium needs to attain and keep the Washington baseball stadium model of vibrancy around it, which all requires turning people out. Many of the spectators I saw flowing toward the stadium before the D.C. United opening game came with children. Soccer in the USA generally remains, even in the 2020s, seen as a sport for kids. About the same proportion of kids attend games at the baseball stadium, so perhaps not too much should be made of this point. I don’t know if the tone of game-day in England or France, say, is any different.

I had been down the very street where the homicide happened, or on an adjacent street, about three hours before it happened. I had come into the stadium area from that direction. As I had seen it in the dusk light on the Saturday evening, the street was silent with no one around.

The homicide got almost no coverage, just another hum-drum of no particular note, occurring a short distance from the soccer stadium during the game being en embarrassment for all concerned and best not mentioned. It leaves me pessimistic on the USA.


I spent about sixty to ninety minutes in the soccer stadium area ahead of the start of the D.C. United opening match. Somewhere in the vicinity were the players and team staff. I arrived on the fair rside of dusk and left under ‘night’ conditions. Being still in the month of February, it was cold.

There were small grouplets of people around as I arrived. There was nothing like the energy of even the most-poorly-attended, off-hour baseball game would get even in the Washington Nationals’ worst season (which I think was 2022’s). The baseball stadium has a Metro station, the soccer stadium does not. A steady flow of people began coming in from the baseball stadium direction after a certain point, which I assume to be people coming from the baseball stadium Metro entrance and walking the long distance to the soccer stadium, traveling in groups along the same route for dignity’s sake. They walked through the empty, Lunar-like terrain of nothingness that surrounds most of the soccer stadium. There they go, the soccer fans, with their lunch trays and milk-boxes, having walked past the popular-kids’ tables and headed to the corner. Even the corner-table kids have the dignity of comradeship, and everyone can be popular to someone.

Emanating from the soccer stadium entrance was loud music and someone working the crowd, a routine of a particularly recognizable kind. The music effort was being run by Blacks and the emcee was shouting different slogans through the  PA system, punctuating the music, which was the usual kind of music you’d expect from U.S. Blacks in an urban environment would come up with for an event like this. I expect the D.C. United fan-base has very few U.S.-origin Blacks. The choice of music was off. The mismatch of the music and the fans fits the theme of the day, anyway, of this stadium not quite working in the organic way that a stadium should.


With thin crowds and no hangers-on in the area (given the absence of restaurants, bars, or the like), I had to find other points of interest. I did find some in an investigation of the graffiti and stickers in the stadium area. Some was “soccer graffiti, other was general political graffiti. The strangest were were the pro-vaccination messages. One sticker someone had put upon a lamp-post or something, which I think it involved a cat, was of the ironic, “meme” type and the gist was: Get Vaccinated. It must have been left over from 2021, or early 2022 at latest. This pro-vaccine sticker, in the soccer stadium plaza area, was at once confusing and ridiculous to me. It’s got to be a “first” within the genre of sports graffiti to have a vaccine message. Such was 2021.

The most overtly political graffiti had a message involved the word “fascism,” I think. Someone was urging opposition to fascism. This message signals something of the politics of soccer in the USA, a sport long seen as associated with the Left, and U.S. critics of soccer tend to be of the Right.

Soccer tends to be ‘political’ in Europe and elsewhere, in many cases team-affiliation going far beyond personal preference. An Englishman with whom I worked in Korea once told me of how a father “passes on” support for a certain soccer club to his son, a family inheritance thought important. Affiliation with some soccer “club” can be an identity all its own, maybe more comparable to a religious identity in many cases. There is nothing like this in U.S. pro soccer (MLS), and I don’t think there’s much of it in other pro sports.

Soccer and club-fandom’s ties to identity can be as for a proxy for place, but then what is “place”? It can also be tied to ethno-religious, regional, national, or political identities, none of those things mutually exclusive. These strong, deep, “inherent”-seeming associations so close to group-identity must be why the European soccer leagues have endless campaigns against racism, with bizarre-seeming mandates that teams must produce anti-racism slogans for prominent display. Those anti-racism soccer campaigns go back many years before a similar moral-panic in 2020 shortly after the worst of Lockdownism brought U.S. sports in the same direction. As often the case, what is communicated is what is not said. The anti-racism campaigns are ideological, true, but they are not arbitrary, because soccer club identities are so tied to other forms of identity in Europe.

Soccer identities in places where the sport is a big deal can be maybe most readily seen through a look at a club’s “Ultras,” organized groups of super-fans. The word has the flavor of “political militant,” and I think that is the word’s actual historical connotation in the 19th- and early-20th century or so, before being adopted by fans (similarly with the etymology of the word “fan” being, famously “fanatic”). It is said that when Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s and militias emerged into the vacuum, it was often from these pre-existing sports-club fan groups that crucial organizing was carried out. Soccer “fans” (or at least the Ultras) transitioned to armed militants, cores around which marginals later attached themselves. The same happened in Ukraine in  2014 when the specter of civil war descended upon that unhappy country. With events moving fast, the weak, flabby, and widely distrusted Ukrainian state was unable to control the situation. Major disputes about national visions led to secessionist calls going on and militias formed, again some based on local soccer club fan-bases.


My own experiences in Germany, where I spent the better part of a year in the late 2000s (with around two subsequent visits in the 2010s), corroborate the view of soccer as something more important in Europe than its shrimpy-little-brother status, readily observable in the USA for those even aware of pro soccer’s existence.

I have written in these pages of how the day I departed for Germany, age twenty, was the day my life really began (that is to say, an adult life worth calling a life, not that what came before had no meaning). In the course of learning about the new place and making a concerted effort to learn the language. The one piece of advice my low-level German teacher in the USA had given before I left was: Don’t make a habit of talking to other Americans. I don’t think I needed the advice to know the idea was good.

It had proved easy to pretend to be a German, or at least some non-German foreigner in Germany who didn’t speak English well and needed to communicate in German. In remarkable time I somehow became conversant, and not just in ability to hold some little daily-life conversation (though that is inevitably the mark of success). Partly in the context of  language study and practice, I became a student of street propaganda in Germany, of which there is far more per-capita than in the USA ad which I remember as of generally high linguistic quality. Whenever I went to a new place, I made a study of the public political propaganda and tried to decipher it. Sometimes this was easy, sometimes it was a real puzzle. It was always interesting and boosted my confidence the more I realized I could understand.

The political propaganda or slogans or things were not textbook-sentences in which everything was neat, tidy, and inoffensively neutral. It became like reading a code-language of its own, and was something I could explain to others in the rare event they were really interested.

I remember soccer clubs appearing in some of the decipherment puzzles among the public ‘political’-style propaganda. Some of the messages of these I gave up on as indecipherable without outside help. Even understanding words and symbols does not always give a valid understanding without something more. But soccer clubs’ names definitely appeared in this ‘political’-style propaganda, the kind of thing most foreigners would walk past and ignore and therefore  be unaware of.

One I remember is a sticker-campaign featuring the words “Gegen Jena.” I remember seeing this with an American friend. I spoke better German at the time, but he later spent years there and became much better conversationally. On encountering the Gegen Jena slogans. He seemed to interpret them as a zany, off-the-wall messages, surrealistic joke-slogans by someone arbitrarily deciding to bash another city for no reason. I suspected the Gegen Jena slogans were of a political nature somehow but didn’t know more, just like the wall one faces when dealing with Chinese characters without knowing many. You can only make guesses. When more such “Jena” slogans appeared, some implying a soccer connection, I saw the outlines of it, and guessed it to be a soccer-club rivalry without being limited in meaning to soccer. The specifics were still out of reach without more info, and my initial theory on “Gegen Jena” was corroborated (that it was political), my friend’s (that is was zany surrealism) discredited.

I now interpret the “Gegen Jena” sloganeers of the 2000s, whose work we saw back then, to have been associated with the “FC Rot-Weiß Erfurt” soccer club and targeting “FC Carl Zeiss Jena” club. Erfurt and Jena are two cities in Germany, not immediate neighbors but close enough for the regional rivalry to hold. That rivalry is said to be the biggest in the state of Thuringia, 2000s-era population 2,400,000. The German wiki page for FC Rot-Weiß Erfurt has someone’s commentary on the rivalry, dating it to the late 1950s and explaining how it developed in the East German soccer league and how it was going strong as of the 2000s including with occasional rival fan-group physical skirmishes. A plan for a new, joint stadium between the teams in the midway city of Weimar sparked huge backlash from both fan groups and was cancelled.

There are probably dozens if not hundreds of rivalries in Germany alone comparable to the one that produced the political-propaganda-esque “Gegen Jena” campaign I remember. Very many of these, whatever their origins, can tend to evolve political-identity implications, which happen and which manifest in ways that outsiders cannot understand at a glance. This is the real flavor of local life you are unlikely to get from insta-info by googling something, and is one of the great interests of soccer.

Among the reasons I’ve heard proposed to explain the relative failure of U.S. soccer are: (1.) the most reliable likely fan-base in the USA is heavily foreign; and (2.) the non-foreign fan-base, upon whom a “pro sports league” must necessarily live or die, inclines away from the militant-idealist or identity-based “Ultra” type. My own impressions on the D.C. United opening day 2023 corroborate this. I wish I could give more specifics but several weeks’ time have washed away what may have been the most illustrative specifics.

I see no prospect of U.S. soccer fan associations trending towards identity-reinforcement except perhaps the already-established vague-Leftist one. I’d have to count it a major surprise if it does begin to happen in the 2020s.


My usual attitude on pro sports these days is active uninterest. I feel a spiritual disconnect with people who seem really committed sports fans for something like, say, the Miami Dolphins. I have an arm’s-length interest in soccer, which may be more sociological than practical. It is an interest for which I have no real outlet.

The negative of pro sports as we now understand it is: It all seems artificial, it involves too much money, it is entirely inorganic, and it is a giant waste of time, a distraction.

My steady loss-of-interest in sports was complete by about age twenty or twenty-one, coincidentally shortly before going to Germany the first time and making some of the observations as the one I’ve sketched out on the “Gegen Jena” slogans. I remember thinking that I might care more about sports more if the teams had some real connection to the places they ostensibly represent, rather than being big-money corporations with rosters composed entirely of millionaire mercenaries, having no real connection to the place. If the majority of a sports-team’s roster has to come from the local area, it may work better. This may be one reason I am interested in soccer, the pro leagues of which, I am told, have long had that tradition. This also may be a main source of the reports of racial taunting against non-European players brought in. The same people doing the taunting would not do so if encountering the same foreigner on the street, but when the big-money money bring him in, it feels like an attack on the local identity symbolized so unavoidably by the racial difference. It’s the same instinct striking workers have when they feel hatred for strike-breakers brought in.

European soccer is said to be under strain from the big-money interests who want to continue to capitalize on their  business-interests by continuing to move elite European soccer towards a more-fully “rootless mercenary” operation, similar to what all U.S. pro sports have been for many years to the extent that it’s something notable and rare when a player is from anywhere near the city or region on whose team he plays, and often not from the USA at all. The European pro soccer dilemma of globalizing itself would seem to invite critiques from the Left and the Right. Once such a process begins, and it began quite a while ago, the long shadow of U.S. power is sure to extend influence against any prospective counter-move that would seem to, as the buzzword goes, “backslide.”


After I left the stadium area on the D.C. United opening day, I rushed home and spent time fruitlessly trying to figure out how I might tune into the game. Learning that no MLS games are allowed anywhere on U.S. TV, and later learning of the homicide two blocks from the stadium during the second half, I went into a pessimistic mood, some of which I think I’ve captured in this essay. I have reached the conclusion that U.S. soccer may be one symbol of the USA’s problems.

Incidentally, a point that seems related: as I write this, the D.C. United is near the bottom of the MLS ranking, having won only one match out of six played so far.

The World Cup is coming to the USA again in 2026, the second time in my life the USA will have hosted the event after the first, in 1994. Will “World Cup USA 2026” fail to live up to expectations? Even if U.S. soccer in the MLS form is a consistent let-down — the shrimpy little brother of the big, respected, powerful pro sports — the World Cup is something else entirely. It gives a window-of-insight into the power of soccer, some glimpses of which I have had in life, but not including D.C. United opening day 2023.



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