Photo: Mike Long
Down in the concourse behind section 234 in RFK Stadium, one of the best traditions in pro sports happens during halftime of D.C. United games.
The supporters section empties out. The drummers proceed from their seats to the concourse.
Then the ultimate soccer jam session happens.
The drums pound and pound, the rhythmic pulse driving the supporters in a steadily rising crescendo. One moment, it sounds like a drum battle. The next, it seems like a pep rally on crack. Then it feels like a mosh pit without the violence. Guys remove their shirts and swing them out. People come in and jump, dance, sing, chant, and cheer. Random passersby pull out their smart phones, line up along the ramp above the drum gathering, and capture the event on video.
It doesn’t matter whether D.C. United craps the bed on the field or not. This tradition happens. And it’s always memorable.
This stayed with me after I left RFK Stadium after Saturday night’s wild 1-1 draw between United and Philadelphia Union and read the quotes from Union manager John Hackworth.
“We were dealing with a lot of changes this week, but we also need to realize that D.C. is a much better team than people realize,” Hackworth said after the game. “The expectation that for us we’re going to come in and automatically get three points is unrealistic at this point.”
For both D.C. United and Philadelphia Union, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The rivalry remains intense, United’s supporters remain raucous, the Union remain cautious, and Hackworth tries to protect his young team by managing fan expectations downward after the game.
Yes, it was unrealistic to expect the Union to automatically get three points in that game. United is improved thanks to the additions of Jared Jeffrey, Luis Silva, and Conor Doyle.
But it wasn’t unrealistic to expect the Union to play for a win they very much needed. United’s back line is garbage. The forwards still don’t score much. This team has been historically bad during the regular season, despite their improbable U.S. Open Cup run. It’s as if the United mystique still hangs in the air for the Union — four league titles, those great uniforms, and that raucous supporters section.
The Union still went into a road game and played for a draw or stolen win, like they typically do under Hackworth. To be fair, that strategy has produced a fairly good road record this year. They keep road games close, and sometimes they steal a win like they did against Kansas City.
But every road game is approached the same: Sit back, wait for a big counterattack, and be content walking out with a draw, regardless of the opponent’s quality.
Saturday’s game was predictable, even if those amazingly wild last 15 minutes weren’t.
In the end, United blew yet another potential regular season win.
In the end, the Union came in playing for a draw or stolen win, persevered, and got a result. The comeback was admirable. Getting outplayed most of the game? Not so much.
Whether it was enough to make the playoffs remains to be seen.
What it takes to make the playoffs
While Philadelphia got a road draw against the league’s worst team, their competitors for the final playoff spot, Chicago and New England, earned road victories.
Now, to make the playoffs, Philadelphia likely have to win one of their final two games: on the road at Montreal or at home against Kansas City, the only MLS club with a winning record on the road this year. Draws are unlikely to secure a playoff spot, considering the remaining schedules for Chicago and New England.
Chicago sits in the driver’s seat among the three, currently in fifth place on 46 points. Philadelphia also has 46 points but is behind on a tiebreaker due to having won one less game than Chicago. (Montreal is also at 46 points, but they have three games left to play, whereas the the Fire and the Union teams only have two.) New England has 45 points. Chicago will play a bad Toronto squad at home and New York on the road. New York may be playing for nothing, which means they could field a team full of reserves, or they could risk a starting lineup to go for the Supporters’ Shield. The Union should obviously hope for the latter.
Meanwhile, New England has a home and away series against Columbus to end their season.
It had seemed those three were in a death match for the final playoff spot, and they probably still are.
But Montreal has lost their last three home games as injuries have finally taken their toll, and they could be in the midst of a spectacular collapse. Montreal travels to Los Angeles for a game on Wednesday, and the Union will get them just three days later in Quebec. The Impact then close the season on the road against a Toronto team that would surely love to knock their Canadian rivals out of the playoff race.
So the Union have a puncher’s chance.
But will they punch? Or will they wait to counterpunch?
Draws won’t cut it the rest of the way. The Union have to play to win.