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?
The two old friends are asked what separates their group from the Screaming Eagles.
“The Barra is more organic,” Faulkner says.
“We’re a little more laissez-faire,” Matt adds. “When you stand out from the crowd, you tend to stand together.”
Tailgating with La Barra is like attending a potluck supper in Haight-Ashbury - booze and food are free for anyone who brings something to share. For one member on this particular game day, that means siphoning vodka into a watermelon and attaching a sign that reads, “Ask your parents first!”
Soutoudeh’s Screaming Eagles are a tad more upscale. Nonmembers pay $6 for an all-you-can-eat feast that includes dumplings, tiramisu and other delicacies outside the boundaries of normal tailgate fare.
“We try and have a good mix between family-friendly and urban hipster,” says Sotoudeh, a lawyer for Transportation Security Administration “We are a full-service operation.”
La Norte, founded in 2001 and still developing, has a much younger contingent. Leader Dougg Jimenez and his cronies pride themselves on the large bass drum they pound unceasingly and harassing the opposing goaltender from the north corner of the stadium. Membership dwindled after the arrival of the Washington Nationals eliminated the seats directly behind the goal. According to Jimenez, a mohawked Salvadoran, the group is growing again and is aided by curious fans who walk up and join the fray as the game progresses.
As game time nears, Sotoudeh fires up his troops by crushing cans of Red Bull under his feet. In the distance, La Barra Brava members in board shorts play beer pong and voice their desire to see a certain anatomical misfortune performed on the Red Bulls.
Before the procession into the stadium begins, Screaming Eagles scramble for the port-o-johns. Members of La Barra make a bee-line for the Anacostia.
Armed with road flares, “Hooligan” serves as parade torchbearer, and the groups blend together as they enter RFK. Only a narrow staircase divides the Eagles’ “Nest” in Section 134 from La Barra’s base in 135, and together they form a bastion of black and red that bounces, rollicks and roars for the next hour and 49 minutes.
“We are all here to support the team and leave it on the field,” says Zambrana, who spends most of the match leading chants he remembers from his boyhood in Bolivia.
“All soccer fans should be united,” Sotoudeh says. “Heck, it’s the name of the team.”
Perhaps no one exemplifies that unity better than Tim Sheetz, one of a handful of fans who swear allegiance to both groups.
Sheetz, who lives in the District, began following United as a member of La Barra, with whom he met Srdan Bastaic, the creative Croatian who makes La Barra’s flags and banners. Bastaic inspired Sheetz so much that he combined his love of art - he earned a bachelor of fine arts in theater design from East Carolina - with a passion for soccer. He has since become such an expert in what soccer fans call “tifosi” - Italian for “supporter”- that Sotoudeh asked him recently to become the Screaming Eagles’ artist in residence.
Name any political, historical or biblical figure and there’s a good chance they have graced one of Sheetz’s signs. He has made banners featuring the Virgin Mary (“She’s with United tonight!”), D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (“Keep United in D.C.”) and Capt. James Lawrence (“Don’t Give Up the Ship!”).
When he learned midfielder Marcelo Gallardo was known in his native Argentina as “El Muneco” (“The Doll”), Sheetz fashioned a sign with Chucky from the “Child’s Play” film franchise wielding a knife. He had a special message for Chicago Fire striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco, whose head, he thought, appeared to sprout right from his shoulders. “Donde esta el cuello?” (Where is your neck?)
Sheetz takes his work seriously - he spends 15 hours a week making signs - in the belief he and his fellow supporters are integral to the team’s success.
“We’re part of the action - we help the team win games,” Sheetz says. “Without us, we’re not going to win.”
United midfielder Ben Olsen can’t help but laugh when told of Sheetz’s comments.
“They definitely help us out. I’ll put it that way,” Olsen says. “Some teams talk about home-field advantage - they sleep in their beds, and they don’t have to travel. We truly have a home-field advantage. It’s an atmosphere that gives us an edge.”
Team president Kevin Payne calls United’s supporters “without a doubt, hands down … the best fans in Major League Soccer.”
Perhaps the biggest contribution of zealots like Zambrana will be soccer’s growing popularity.
As the stands empty following a recent victory, brothers R.P. and Brendan Whitty watch as La Barra beat their drums and the Screaming Eagles sing. The brothers from Kensington were asked what they thought of their first D.C. United game.
“Crazy,” 12-year-old R.P. stammers.
“Exciting,” 9-year-old Brendan says.
At first, it’s unclear whether the brothers are speaking of the game action or what they had seen in the stands.
Then Brendan clears the air: “The smoke was awesome!”