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Carmen Soriano, unofficial hairstylist of D.C. United, says she’s been crying a lot lately. She only recently learned that her 14th Street peluquería, Oscar’s Beauty Salon, was about to lose its highest-profile customer, a friend and fellow El Salvadoran who happens to be a member of the two-time defending Major League Soccer champions.
“I do not want Raul to go. I am so sad. Everybody I know is so sad,” she laments.
Raul is Raul Diaz Arce, No. 21 in your United program, No. 1 in the hearts of Soriano and others in the city’s huge, futbol-crazy Salvadoran population. Since coming to America two years ago to play for United, Diaz Arce has patronized Soriano’s business, and the proprietor says their common roots (she’s from Morazan; he’s from San Miguel) have led to a close friendship.
The friendship will last, but Diaz Arce will soon be in the market for a new barber in a new town. He’s been traded to the New England Revolution.
To the Salvadoran faction of United’s fan base, Diaz Arce’s shipping off to Boston is as shocking and misguided as Boston’s casting off of Babe Ruth 80 years ago. OK, Diaz Arce ain’t Ruth, and soccer sure ain’t our national pastime, but there are some parallels. Both moves, for example, were inspired not by a desire to improve the team but by financial concerns: The Red Sox’s owner wanted funds to bankroll a Broadway musical; United has to meet the MLS salary cap. Both players, despite banner years, were given away for a song: Ruth, even then a home run champ and record-setting pitcher, went to the Yankees for $125,000; United settled basically for draft picks for Diaz Arce, MLS’s top goal scorer. Finally, both teams were coming off recent championships. The Red Sox, as we know, haven’t won another title since the Ruth transaction, a skein blamed on “The Curse of the Bambino.”
Time will tell if
the Curse of Raul has
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been cast upon United.
Losing Diaz Arce’s scoring punch isn’t a blessing, but even without him United has the most talent-laden roster in the leaguefour D.C. players are on the U.S.A. national squadso coach Bruce Arena should be able to work around Diaz Arce’s absence.
The impact his departure will have at the gate, however, won’t be so easily masked when the season kicks off next month. From its founding, United has depended on Hispanic fans far more than team officials care to admit. At certain home games last yearespecially those on weeknights when the weather was crummyit seemed that about 90 percent of the crowd was Latino. The largest and most loyal subdivision was Salvadoran.
Now, there are clear rumblings that the local Salvadoran community is about to drop United like a bad habit. Spanish-language WMDO radio, a loud voice among the area’s Salvadoran residents and the team’s flagship station (there is no English-speaking flagship), has been blaring the anti-United sentiments of its listeners ever since the Diaz Arce trade was announced. The anger isn’t unrepresentative, says Soriano.
“Everybody who comes into my shop sits in the chair and says, ‘How could D.C. United do that to Raul? Why Raul?’ Everybody is upset,” she says.
Doris Rubio, a waitress and Salvadoran émigré now living in Silver Spring, counts herself among the Oscar’s patrons who are about to disassociate themselves from United.
“The Salvadoran people will not go to RFK this year,” rails Rubio. “We like D.C. United. But we love Raul. And he is gone, so we are gone, too.”
As harsh as Rubio’s threatened boycott of the home team seems, United and MLS set themselves up for it. When the league was founded two years ago, Diaz Arce was already a star with the El Salvadoran national team and the Central American squad Luis Angel Firpo. Precisely because of the popularity he had with his people, MLS officials kept Diaz Arce out of the general draft and put him in a special “international player” category that was used to build up interest in each of the founding franchises. Diaz Arce was allocated to United because D.C. had the biggest Salvadoran population of all the league’s original cities, just as Italian star Roberto Donadoni was assigned to New York, and Mexican Jorge Campos ended up in Los Angeles.
United reaped dividends from the allocation of Diaz Arce for two years, and now it will have to heal the wounds caused by his departure. Though the trade with New England wasn’t made official until last week, there is hard evidence it had been in the works for some time: The team’s season-ticket brochure, which wasn’t produced overnight, doesn’t include a single picture of Diaz Arce, and he’s also conspicuously absent from the highlight package included in commercials for the upcoming season that now air on local TV.
In recent weeks, Kevin Payne, United’s general manager, had been warning the Hispanic community that one of their own would probably be unloaded soon, and he used MLS payroll restrictions as the rationale. (In a press conference, Payne accidentally and comically attributed the need to trade Diaz Arce to United’s need to get below the league’s “salary crap.”) True or not, that excuse hasn’t mollified Diaz Arce loyalists.
“The Salvadoran people are the ones who were always there for D.C. United from the start,” says local restaurateur Carlos Buruca, a Salvadoran. “We are the ones who rented vans and drove all the way to New England to sit in the rain to watch the team win that first championship. Kevin Payne knows that, and he still trades the only Salvadoran player on the team. He should have traded somebody else.”
“I don’t care who,” says Buruca. “Just not Raul. He will learn that.”
Payne, who is now in Florida with the team, didn’t respond to interview requests, but one United official recently said management had been well aware that the trade wouldn’t sit well with Salvadorans, but that management also refused to make personnel decisions based on blackmail threats from one segment of its fan base.
“Our point here is that we want people to come to our games because they’re D.C. United fans,” said the official, “not because they’re Diaz Arce fans or John Harkes fans or any one player’s fans.”
Soriano will say goodbye to Diaz Arce this week when he comes by Oscar’s to get one last cut before going off to the training camp of his new team. She’ll still tend to the coifs of Diaz Arce’s now-former teammates (Soriano personally bleached Jaime Moreno’s hair blond), but she doesn’t think she’ll attend many home games this year.
Rubio, meanwhile, already knows when she’ll be at RFK. She swears she’ll go twice, and only twice: March 29 and May 13, when the Revolution comes to town.Dave McKenna