Sulfuric smoke smolders inside the nose and stings the eyes. A snare drum pecks at the inner ear. A deluge of Miller Lite and rainwater chills the nerve endings.
A glassy-eyed man - he identifies himself only as “A.J. Hooligan” - teeters on his seat back, bracing himself with one arm against a comrade’s shoulder. He loses his balance and topples to the wet cement with a thud.
Sitting up slowly as the bleachers bounce around him, he peels the crushed peanut shells and cigarette butts from his face. He climbs back up and begins to wail anew, “La Barra Brava! La Barra Brava!”
At every D.C. United home game, “Hooligan” and the hundreds of other men, women and children meet in Lot 8 of the RFK Stadium parking lot four hours or more before kickoff.
There, the members of La Barra Brava, the Screaming Eagles and La Norte - the three most rabid fan groups in MLS - perform their ritual. First comes a marathon tailgate party, where spirits run high and flow freely. Next comes a long march to the stadium stands, banners and brews held proudly overhead. Once inside, these fans transform RFK into U.S. soccer’s most fan frenzied environment - an Ardennes Forest of black flags, drum taps and noxious gas.
The road to disorientation begins with a midafternoon orientation to soccer tailgating by Paul Sotoudeh, the baron of the ultra-organized Screaming Eagles.
“Want a beer?” Sotoudeh asks a visitor, spouting off a list of choices that sound more like a lineup at a beer-tasting summit than a tailgate. “Soccer fandom breeds beer snobbery.”
The astonishing scene that starts at Sotoudeh’s tent stretches for 300 yards. Behind Sotoudeh, Screaming Eagles scurry about, roasting slabs of beef on $1,500 grills, lighting Sterno cans under shiny buffet warmers, arranging some four-dozen red folding chairs in tidy lines. Underneath a nearby awning stand seven kegs of pricy beer and a pair of expensive stereo speakers blaring indie rock.
Just beyond the barrels of Bass and Guinness is the base camp of La Barra Brava. Farther east, the few-but-proud members of La Norte lug a giant bass drum - they bought it in Peru - under their tent. An ominous patch of storm clouds hovers above it all, but no one in the crowd seems a bit concerned on this soccer Saturday. They have all paid their membership dues, donned their respective groups’ jerseys and tucked away their discounted tickets. Now the fun begins.
Oscar Zambrana, the cocksure caudillo of La Barra, can be found before United games dealing tickets from the trunk of his Toyota Sequoia. Dressed from head to toe in black, a cigarette pursed between his lips, the Bolivian converses in Spanish and English with the followers who come in droves to see him.
The tailgating, chanting and drumming all are the result of Zambrana’s passion for soccer. When he founded La Barra in 1995, it was a small group of futbol-crazed South Americans. Now it has grown into a legion with members from 30 countries, all marching in lockstep in the name of fandom.
At the core of the madness are the “elders” - Zambrana’s top lieutenants - who, on this Saturday afternoon, are crowded around an inflatable pool filled with fruit punch and grain alcohol.
There is Chico Solares, a 49-year-old Bolivian in a black cap and jean shorts who laughs recalling the time in 1997 when a bottle rocket took flight from La Barra’s section and “accidentally” crash-landed on the New York bench, causing a stoppage in play and an ambulance ride for a Red Bulls assistant coach.
There is Marshall Conor, the stocky Culpeper County (Va.) Parks and Recreation employee who chuckles at the memory of a scuffle in the mid-1990s between Brava members and RFK security that resulted in more than just a few bumps and bruises.
There is Tom Faulkner, the stogie-smoking, gray-bearded “Grill Master” who beats his bass drum for the entirety of every home game. And who could forget his mustachioed buddy Matt, who sports a Victorian-era British military helmet and sips from a bottle of scotch?