Friday, October 31, 2003

Forget the last seven months for D.C. United.

In the playoffs for the first time in four years, United takes on the Chicago Fire tonight at RFK Stadium in the first game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. After what coach Ray Hudson called an “angst-filled year,” suddenly there’s a sense of optimism among players, as evidenced by the intense and competitive training sessions the team went through this week.

Hudson knows his team is the underdog after it limped into the playoffs with a losing record, but he wants to take a page from his favorite baseball team, the World Series champion Florida Marlins.

“Could we be the Marlins?” Hudson asks. “Why not? I followed that team. Three times they were close to elimination and came back. Can we do that? How much does this team have?”

The last time United entered the playoffs was Oct.16, 1999, when it beat the now defunct Miami Fusion 2-0 before 18,011 at RFK Stadium. The team went on to win the MLS Cup over the Los Angles Galaxy 2-0. Then came some bleak years.

Now the club has a chance to relive some of its glory.

“The playoffs are a high-wire act, and our bravery must come out,” Hudson said.

United had the Fire’s number this season, going 2-1-1, and Chicago never has had it easy at RFK with a 2-5-1 record over the years. The teams have met only once in the postseason, when the expansion Fire defeated United 2-0 in the 1998 MLS Cup at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. That game, which involved a controversial Fire goal and a couple of bad calls, hasn’t been forgotten.

“It’s going to come down to the taking of a chance,” Hudson said.

Hudson’s big game decisions are whether to go with three or four defenders in the back and whether to start fiery Hristo Stoitchkov or bring him off the bench. United will be facing two powerful strikers in Ante Rasov (14 goals) and Damani Ralph (11), which might require Hudson to go with four defenders.

“They are one of the best teams this year, but it’s a new season,” said United’s season MVP, Dema Kovalenko. “Whatever happens tonight, we get to go and play in Chicago on the big field at Soldier Field. That suits us.”

Kovalenko and Stoitchkov are former Fire players and love games against their old club.

“Hristo and I always talk about these games,” Kovalenko said. “It brings out the best in us.”

There will be no overtime if tonight’s game is tied after 90 minutes. The second game, Nov.9 in Chicago, will go to overtime if the series is tied.

La Norte — Unlike United’s play at times, the action in the stands at RFK Stadium never has been dull. Take, for instance, La Norte (Northside), one of United’s most colorful fan clubs, which congregates behind the north goal. The “Nortenos,” as they call themselves, are noted for hurling rolls of toilet paper — 25 during an average game — on the field and dancing to drums under a continuous shower of confetti and shredded paper.

La Norte is one of three supporters’ clubs at RFK Stadium. The Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava, congregate at the “Nest” along the sidelines at midfield and have been around since the early days. The smaller La Norte was formed in 2001. All three groups give United arguably the most colorful fan base in the league.

“Around the world, the hard-line fans are always behind the goal,” said Sachin Shah, a consultant from Arlington and one of the founders of La Norte. “Opposing fans used to stand there, but we wanted to take back that part of the stadium and razz the opposing goalies.”

La Norte is famous for its big two-header bass drum called the “Bombo.” Sachin said a group of them once drove 22 hours to Miami for a national team game because the drum wasn’t allowed on a plane.

“Definitely a group of fanatics, and we love them,” Hudson said. “They’re all soccer nuts, but it’s that great passion and loyalty you see.”

RFK officials allow La Norte to bring in bales of shredded paper and hurl it into the air when United scores a goal.

“Our supporters’ club defines American soccer,” said Shah, who with his black beret and United regalia looks like soccer’s version of Che Guevara. “We are a mix of people from all over the world, young and old, congregated in one section to root for United.”

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