For traditionalist D.C. sports fans, showing up at RFK Stadium for D.C. United’s game Sunday against the Los Angeles Beckhams could have been an act of the sheerest heresy.
A couple of miles farther south on I-295, the Nationals were cavorting, if that’s the word, against the Orioles in what promoters call the Battle of the Beltways although neither traffic loop passes Nationals Park or Camden Yards.
Soccer instead of baseball, on a day when the heat and humidity of late June was terrible for the former and just right for the latter?
Well, why not? After all, D.C. United, with four Major League Soccer titles and assorted other trophies in display cases, is the biggest winner this town has known since the Redskins stopped collecting Super Bowl championships.
Of the Nats, it could be said they had appeared for every one of their 82 games this season. Other positive factors were difficult to discern.
In the fourth season of its existence, this patty-cake outfit was 18 games under .500, principally because eight of the nine Opening Night starters, plus closer Chad Cordero, had donated substantial time to the disabled list.
Center fielder Roger Bernadina - wasn’t that the name of an old Pat Boone movie? - was making his major league debut, and his .000 batting average fit right in with the likes of Willie Harris (.186), Kory Casto (.209) and Wily Mo Pena (.215), plus dugout onlookers Paul Lo Duca (.194) and Ronnie Belliard (.205).
Austin Kearns is expected back off the DL any day now, but his .187 average does not suggest he will be a savior. When it comes to swinging, these Nats and their team average of .238 are baseball’s version of Lawrence Welk.
So RFK and the sport known as football everywhere else was a reasonable alternative on a day when superstar Beckham was in town, even if glamorous wife Posh Spice was a no-show.
Soccer venues, of which RFK now exclusively is, take some getting used to. Advertising boards encircle the pitch, and in the end zone near what used to be home plate Volkswagen has erected a blue building in which fans can play interactive games and perhaps even buy a Beetle. This is only logical because the German automaker now is an official sponsor of D.C. United, with players sporting on their shirts VW logos that dwarf the team name.
For non-soccer aficionados, a sign posted in the stands by members of the Screaming Eagles Fan Club was puzzling: “Shouldn’t you be in Austria?” This, a man explained, was a sly dig at Britisher Beckham because England shockingly had failed to qualify for the finals of Euro ‘08, whose championship game was being held the same day in Vienna, Austria.
Beckham was not noticeably disturbed by the signage, but neither did he display much of the flash that has made him the world’s most famous soccer player as United romped to a lopsided 4-1 victory before 35,979 presumably delighted spectators. This achievement stretched D.C.’s unbeaten streak to six matches after a 2-7 start, and now this third-place club is looking like a challenger for another Eastern Conference and league crown.
United now has averaged a respectable 20,767 for eight MLS games at old RFK, and there’s no telling how much a new, soccer-specific stadium near Nationals Park might increase attendance. Unfortunately, plans for such a facility at Poplar Point have run afoul of corporate and governmental delays - which has been known to happen before in the capital of the free world.
Thus, until United gets its own home, the club will remain a minor if successful player on the D.C. sports scene. Forty years after the old Washington Whips came to town from Aberdeen, Scotland, in the highly hyped and short-lived original North American Soccer League, it remains unclear what the ceiling is for pro soccer here and in the rest of the United States.
If you come from a country where the game is king or if you or your children played it here, chances are you love soccer - its power, beauty and relative simplicity.
If you didn’t … well, you might be reduced to watching the Nats wave their bats at thin air and lose game after game.
On Sunday, these modern Hitless Wonders were in fine fettle. After scoring a first-inning run, they were shut out for the next 10 before Belliard somehow smacked a two-run homer down the left-field line in the 12th inning to provide a miraculous 3-2 victory over the unbelieving Orioles.
By that time, though, many of the 39,824 paying customers had departed. The way things have been going on horsehide fronts lately, it might not be a bad idea for some of them to check out a rival sport in which there are no pitching changes and games that often seem to dawdle along from here to eternity.