D.C. United’s 2018 home opener, a mostly forgettable early-March tilt against the Houston Dynamo, had many of the sights and sounds of any of their home games.
Patches of black and red colored the stands at the Maryland SoccerPlex, one of two venues United are calling their home away from home until Audi Field, their permanent digs at Buzzard Point, opens in July. There were the usual suburbanites, soccer moms and youth soccer players, plus a stray heckler or two.
And of course United’s most fervent fans made the trip: the drum-beating, flag-waving, chanting members of the club’s three recognized supporters’ groups—La Barra Brava, the Screaming Eagles, and the District Ultras.
Yet something was off about United’s support at the SoccerPlex. Interspersed between chants of encouragement and support came an unexpected cry.
“Fuck the Eagles! Fuck the Eagles!”
The chants came not from Houston fans but from La Barra Brava, and they weren’t directed at anybody on the field. They were aimed squarely at their fellow D.C. United fans, the Screaming Eagles.
In arguably the biggest year of United’s history, one which will see the club realize its decade-long quest to catch up with the rest of Major League Soccer via its new stadium, D.C. United’s relationship with its die-hards—and their supporters’ relationships with one another—are perhaps more fractured than ever.
It wasn’t always this way.
D.C. United were once the crown jewel of the league, their supporters widely envied. The team and its initial supporters’ groups worked together to foster a fearsome environment for opponents, turning an entire side of RFK Stadium into a smoky, beer-drenched carnival. To La Barra Brava, largely comprised of the District’s soccer-starved Central American residents, it was paradise. To the uninitiated, it could be frightening.
The partnership paid dividends on the field, with United claiming three of the league’s first four championships. The club was dominant, and played with purpose.
Over time, that changed. The league evolved. D.C. United, despite great efforts, did not. RFK, once a suitable venue for the club, began to show its age. As the old stadium on East Capitol Street began to fall apart, the club began to lose money. Attendance suffered.
In 2012, the team was sold, and many of those responsible for the club’s tight-knit relationship with its supporters were shown the door.
Results, too, were often a bit underwhelming. Budget-conscious rosters frequently failed to entertain and often failed to win. Still, many of the club’s original supporters stuck it out.
When United’s years-long search for a new home finally bore fruit in 2013, some supporters celebrated. Others worried. Things would be different at Audi Field, a much smaller venue shoehorned into a tiny parcel of land on the Southwest waterfront. Gone would be the pregame tailgates in RFK’s Lot 8, along with the prime midfield seating the club had afforded their die-hards since the get-go.
Some of that change came about a month before United’s match at the SoccerPlex. The club put out a press release announcing a strategic partnership with the Screaming Eagles, “uniting a shared passion for enriching the communities in the District through sport,” but not including the other two groups.
There was plenty to like in the release. United have a history of community service and engagement, and forging a partnership with the Eagles and DC Scores—a local non-profit which provides after-school programs, summer camps, and other resources to low-income kids—is objectively a win.
Buried in the statement, though, was something more surprising.
“The Screaming Eagles will take the lead role to manage all aspects of the supporter culture, including single game supporter tickets sales for both home and road matches as well as organizing all activities and in-game fan experiences in the north end zone.”
Ticket sales have generally been a key source of revenue for any supporters’ group. From tailgates to banners to “tifo”—elaborate displays put on just before the start of a match—running a supporters’ group requires income, and clubs generally provide blocks of tickets at a discount to those groups for resale. The groups often re-sell those tickets to their members at a small markup, which subsidizes their gameday activities.
United had originally suggested this arrangement would change when they moved to Audi Field. None of the supporters’ groups would have access to single-game tickets and members would have to purchase a season ticket for about $320 to be guaranteed a seat amongst their fellow supporters.
That changed, the club says, when the Eagles offered to buy a block of several hundred season tickets—at an expense of some $72,000—to re-sell to their members. In a conversation with City Paper, a United representative suggested that the club offered that opportunity to La Barra Brava as well.
La Barra refutes that. “That’s absolutely untrue,” says Jay Igiel, a leader within La Barra Brava. “We were never offered the opportunity to buy tickets on the same terms as the Screaming Eagles.” Igiel says La Barra reached out to the club initially last year to explore potential payment arrangements and the possibility of some sort of insurance should La Barra’s tickets remain unsold. The club declined to entertain those requests.
After that, Igiel says, the club was largely non-responsive. “Save for one meeting about logistics, we had no substantive communication with the front office. They cancelled a conference call in October and we emailed them repeatedly in December, January, and February without response.”
La Barra’s members have also taken issue with what they see as a whitewashing of United’s fan base, saying in an official statement that “[we] may not fit the homogenous suburban image that the front office appears to want to promote, but we represent the team’s most loyal fans. We reject the elitism embodied in every aspect of this partnership, and will continue to celebrate our diversity and group’s Latin American origins—as well as the passion of our members from some 50 nations.”
Igiel says La Barra’s membership is diverse and blue-collar. “Our members rely more on gameday ticket sales than the Screaming Eagles do. Our impression is that that’s not the type of individual or group of people the front office wants to target.”
A United representative expressed concern over the perception that the club would purposefully exclude any fan, suggesting that the club’s efforts in the community prove otherwise. “We are very concerned about making sure everyone, no matter who you are and where you come from, feels comfortable and welcome at Audi Field.”
James Lambert, President of the Eagles, largely echoed those sentiments. “We would never cooperate with [an effort to exclude any particular fans],” says Lambert. “People can look at our membership base—I think all of the groups are very diverse.”
Despite the generally negative response—on Twitter, at least—to the club’s partnership with the Eagles, Lambert holds out hope that all three supporters’ groups can reach some sort of agreement, or at minimum a truce, something the club seems willing to foster. In recent days, members of La Barra have begun talks with the team, and the club has expressed a willingness to move past all of this.
“We’re people who like to go out and see a match, and see D.C. United,” said Lambert. “So yes, there’s always going to be hope of coming together … It’s not our intention to try and exclude any group at all.”
To La Barra Brava, the way forward is a bit more clear, the establishment of a “meaningful supporters’ council [made up of members from all groups] that takes over ticketing operations and is in charge of gameday operations.”
For now, the acrimony remains palpable. At the SoccerPlex, La Barra took one last jab at the Eagles, tweeting out a photo of a handful of their newly-minted adversaries quietly taking in the match.
“Our D.C. United-appointed overlords in action,” read the caption.