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D.C. United kicked off its preparation for Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference finals with a Sunday evening workout at United Park in Herndon. John Harkes, the team’s captain and most experienced player, was a no-show. Turns out that earlier in the day the car he was driving had hit a deer, and in the mishap Harkes’ young son suffered minor injuries to which dad was tending.

Harkes wasn’t the only notable absentee. Win, lose, or shootout, the opening game of the best-of-three series against Tampa Bay later in the week would be United’s last home date of the 1996 campaign, the first for both the team and MLS. But even with the big games so close, no daily press or TV news crews cared enough to check out the practice session. Not a one. No fans dropped by to gawk, either.

United Park used to be known as Redskin Park when the local American football squad ran its drills here. When the former tenants held a workout under similarly significant circumstances, everybody paid attention. Imagine the uproar if a Skins captain unexpectedly sat out a pre-championship rehearsal as Harkes had: A media mob would have sped off from the practice site near Dulles Airport to where the player bagged his wildlife, and shots of the venison-topped road pizza would lead 11 o’clock news broadcasts and be above the fold on front pages of local sports sections. Were his father a Redskin, the younger Harkes’ day-care mates would’ve probably even been sought out for gurgled reactions. (Doubt it? Well, Dexter Manley’s fender bender right outside Redskin Park back in the Skins’ glory days, though it occurred during the regular season and nobody was injured, sure rated plenty of ink.)

But, D.C. isn’t soccer-crazy. Not yet, anyway.

“It will be,” divined Kevin Payne, United’s general manager. If the lack of attention paid Sunday’s workout bothered Payne, he sure wasn’t letting on. After the official portion of the practice ended, Payne took the field and knocked a ball around with a small group of United players and coaches. Though everyone involved appeared to be enjoying the very informal session, Payne wore the biggest grin. He’s been wearing it for most of the last year.

“I can’t really tell you what makes me feel best about the way this first year has gone,” Payne, beaming, told me at the end of his pickup game. “This is a great job I’ve got. The whole thing makes me feel great. I mean that.”

His team’s home attendance in its rookie year—an average of around 16,000—is well above preseason projections, and is one of the sources of Payne’s obvious pleasure. And the rabidness of those who have come to games at RFK suggests that the organization can count on that to be an absolute minimum for as long as United plays here. Just ask Harkes.

“RFK may not get the numbers that I got used to playing in front of in England,” said Harkes, a Premier League veteran and the first American to score in hallowed Wembley Stadium. “But when the fans are singing and they have the drums going, it has the mood of an international game, a big game. And I’ve played in some big soccer games.”

Another portend of continued fan loyalty is the amount of money United ticket buyers threw this year at vendors who sell merchandise bearing the team’s logo.

“I’ve been told by a lot of vendors that they can’t keep anything in stock, because anything with our colors sells out,” Payne said. “The licensing firms haven’t really done a good enough job in keeping up with that demand.”

Bootleggers have stepped in, trying to capitalize on the shortage of authorized United product: U.S. Marshals recently confiscated 1,000 unlicensed T-shirts near the Armory Metro stop. Though counterfeiting seems a very sincere form of flattery, Payne refused to take any pride in the bootlegging bust.

“I’ll never have anything good to say about that. We know now that getting enough licensed product ready is just an area we have to work on,” he said.

There have been other headaches for United’s management, but no real migraines. There are some upsides to not being in the media spotlight: Stories that could’ve proven terribly embarrassing for the team and the league went virtually unnoticed by the mainstream press.

For instance, when MLS unveiled the logos of its charter members prior to the season’s opening, some discerning history buffs noticed that the menacing eagle inside the D.C. team’s coat of arms was fabulously similar to an icon favored by Hitler’s Germany (you know, back before Beckenbauer). Everybody loves a good Nazi-sympathizer story, but the United snafu only garnered the attention of a few soccer journals.

“That version of the logo should never have been put out,” Payne said. “By the time the league released it, we had already rejected that logo because it was too, I don’t know, Germanic. That’s why we softened it.”

The current United symbol does have rounder edges than the one that caused the Hitler allusions, but truth be told, it still looks a whole lot like that Nazi eagle. Which may explain why team management, though saying publicly it’s very happy with the logo, is contemplating affixing a different symbol to United’s 1997 jerseys.

And when Harkes was spit upon by MetroStar Tab Ramos (a teammate on the U.S. national team) during a United game at the Meadowlands a few weeks ago, there were no sudden Nightline exposés about the growing lack of civility, as there were after Roberto Alomar hung a loogey on the face of an umpire.

“I see all the attention [Alomar’s expectoration] is getting, and I’m thinking, ‘What about me? I’m a victim, too!’” Harkes said.

Someday, when MLS gets as big as Payne predicts it will, that kind of scrutiny will arrive. And he’s spent a season working 80- and 90-hour weeks to make sure the future arrives soon. With the end of the season imminent, the heinous hours will draw to a close, but Payne’s hardly enthused about taking a vacation from soccer. He’s already talking about next year.

“Tell you what: I bet we’re going to sell out RFK for our home opener,” he blurted out. “You watch.”

—Dave McKenna