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Last week, Manchester United scored twice in the final 90 seconds to beat Bayern Munich 2-1 in the European Champions League final, in the most astonishing comeback in the history of the most important professional club soccer match in the world. Dave Ungrady watched the action via satellite at a local bar, as he does every year. Though he just hit the dying side of 40, Ungrady now has more in common with all those lucky lads on the pitch in Barcelona than he ever had before. He, too, has belonged to a pro club.
Ungrady, a writer and Alexandria resident, pulled a Plimpton last year: He spent a spring and summer with the Northern Virginia Royals, a minor-league affiliate of D.C. United that toils in D-3 of the United Soccer Leagues, or the lowest level of pro soccer in the country. Then he wrote a book about it: Unlucky: A Season of Struggle in Minor League Professional Soccer.
The idea for the project came to Ungrady at the Royals’ preseason media day last year, the team’s first. He covers soccer for several national publications and had gone to the “Meet the Players” event merely to squirrel around for story material. Despite the free buffet, mainstream Washington media ignored the function. Sensing the Royals’ appetite for publicity, Ungrady, after a plate of chicken wings, began leveraging a deal that gave him total access to the team throughout its inaugural campaign. Better still, he requested and was granted a pledge from the coaching staff that he’d be able to train with the squad and be given a legitimate shot at a roster spot, and maybe even some playing time.
Before the deal was finalized, Ungrady knew he needed the Royals a whole lot more than the Royals needed him.
“I thought this might be the chance of a lifetime, the chance to live out my dream,” he says.
Ungrady enjoyed an above-average scholastic athletic career more than two decades ago: all-state soccer selection in high school in New Jersey in the ’70s, a track scholarship to the University of Maryland. But recurring leg and back injuries left him in the press box after college. He got involved in pro soccer by doing some announcing for local minor-league teams several years ago and then serving as the first English-speaking play-by-play voice D.C. United ever had. These brushes with real pros, even so long after his own glory days, made Ungrady crave a crack at a play-for-pay lifestyle.
“My dad was always into competitive sports, and when I was a kid I always heard about how he played semipro baseball and was an elite runner in Trenton when he was younger,” Ungrady says. “It never worked out for him. But I grew up wanting to be a professional athlete.”
To chase that dream, Ungrady gladly accepted a sentence of several months of running, kicking, and road-tripping with a group of guys, some of whom were half his age. When he told his parents about the plan, his mother told him to grow up, and his dad said to go for it. Despite Mom’s counsel, Ungrady planned to compensate for his overripeness, and perhaps catch the coach’s eye, by consciously outworking his mates during practices and keeping an immature mind-set.
Early on in his stint with the Royals, Ungrady discovered that this was a professional soccer team the way the Kentucky Wildcats are an amateur basketball team. The same lack of publicity that had helped Ungrady get total access was keeping the turnstiles from turning at the Royals’ home games at Fairfax High School. Owner Moe Sheta told the team that until the gate picked up, he couldn’t afford to pay anybody’s salary. There is no union in the USL, so the players could either take it or leave it. Taking it meant living off whatever they could make away from the pitch, plus their savings from the per diem of around $20 a day on the road.
“In minor-league soccer, you end up eating a lot of breakfast buffets at Comfort Inns—sleazy and free,” says Ungrady. “When you consider the level of commitment required, in time and a lot of other things, that’s extraordinary.”
The Royals’ unique salary cap put Ungrady’s teammates in much the same boat he was: They, too, played on only because of the dreams that filled their heads. But Ungrady didn’t envision himself scoring on a diving header in the box or a curving blast off a free kick in front of a packed stadium; he just wanted a few minutes to run up and down the field—any patch of grass would suffice—in a real pro soccer game. Most of the real Royals, meanwhile, hoped to use the USL as a springboard to the show: Major League Soccer’s D.C. United.
As lowly rated as the league was, Ungrady saw guys on this squad who had all the physical tools of the players he had hung with during his days with D.C. United. He envied the young Royals for the natural skills and fresher legs they showed off in scrimmages. But it takes more than talent to stick out a minor-league season. Many extremely gifted players walked off the team in midseason—some for financial reasons, some because the team lost far more often than it won. The money situation also plagued those who stuck around. Rachid Mahboub, a Moroccan national and striker, was perhaps the best player on the team. Mahboub began taking more shifts waiting tables at Tuscana West, a pricey downtown bistro, to pay the bills. Though he didn’t quit, Mahboub didn’t always have his head and legs in the game.
“I wish I could train more and work less,” Mahboub tells me. “I want to play for a much better team, not in the minor leagues. But if the Royals won’t help me make a living, then the restaurant is going to be my life. That means I’m on my feet all day. But I need the money.”
With the free time most freelancers have, Ungrady made more practices than the real Royals. The turnover and fiscal turmoil prevented the kind of camaraderie he had hoped to find, but the players’ truancy and relative disinterest only enhanced his odds of actually getting in a game. When the team’s playoff chances died during a three-game losing streak late in the year, his pluck was rewarded with a game uniform and a contract. At a nonceremony at a Starbucks near the Royals’ practice facility, he signed his first professional deal. He knew what he was getting into.
“I knew I wasn’t getting paid,” Ungrady says. “But I had a contract. With a professional sports team. I couldn’t believe it.”
Ungrady dressed out for the final three games. But, alas, the Royals coaches never saw Rudy. The season ended with a 3-1 loss to the Wilmington Hammerheads and with Ungrady on the bench in an unsullied uniform. Forget the book; he was staring at the game clock and praying for the match—and his pro soccer career—to go on and on and on.
Looking back on the season, which the Royals finished with a 7-14 record, Ungrady doesn’t think of himself as, well, unlucky. Even without the happy ending, he says, the journey was plenty worthwhile.
“I’ve never enjoyed work so much,” he says. “Regrets came out of this: Like, now I regret not chasing this dream earlier in life. But, well, the regrets were the best thing about this. At least for one year, I gave it a shot. And now me and my dad have a lot to talk about. We both think we missed our chances.”—Dave McKenna