United's fans in the spotlight Friday night
When NBC Sports rolls into town Friday night for the fourth nationally televised game in the network's landmark deal with Major League Soccer, one thing is certain. D.C. United's legendary fan base will be given every opportunity to shine on the nation's largest stage.
"The atmosphere is something that we take pride in showing," said NBC pre-game host Russ Thaler ahead of Friday night's match between the Black-and-Red and FC Dallas. "We've had three great (opportunities) to start the season. It's important that non-soccer fans see how well supported MLS is and how much fun it is to be a part of an MLS atmosphere. It's very different than going to any other professional sporting event in the U.S. I think, from my experience, that D.C. United is a great representation of that."
Thaler's experience with United - and the club's fervent fan base - dates back to the beginning of the millennium. As a reporter with Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, Thaler covered the Black-and-Red for nearly a decade between 2001 and 2011. In his new role with NBC Sports Network, the former Gaithersburg, Maryland resident has been exposed to supporters from Philadelphia to Seattle, but still feels that D.C.'s faithful have a place all their own.
"I was really impressed with what the Emerald City Supporters were able to do in Seattle and the way the public really rallies around that franchise," noted Thaler, who said his first introduction to MLS came via famed D.C. supporters groups Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles. "I take it a little bit personally coming back to D.C. wanting to show a nation what United supporters are all about. I think D.C. supporters set the original benchmark for MLS fans. I'm really hoping that the country gets to see the best that D.C. has, which I think compares favorably with any other support group in MLS."
If there's someone else who knows a thing or two about United's tradition of ardent support, it’s the man responsible for starting it. In 1995, before the Black-and-Red ever played a match, local resident Matt Mathai approached President Kevin Payne about creating a supporters group for D.C.'s as of yet unnamed franchise. With Payne's blessing Mathai formed the Screaming Eagles, which - alongside Barra Brava - set the benchmark for supporters groups in the early days of MLS.
But Major League Soccer's recent expansion brought with it a new breed of fan. From Canada to the Pacific Northwest, soccer-starved supporters joined together deep in numbers and motivation. The media took note, as evidenced by an NBC broadcast schedule loaded with trips to Portland and Seattle. Mathai says the attention is well deserved, and hopes the rising competition inspires his fellow United followers.
"To tell you the truth I feel like we need to step our game up here," Mathai admitted. "Right now we are behind. All our supporters groups are great, but it's not the same impression you get from watching a game in Portland. It doesn't have that in your face, volume turned up to 11 kind of sound. If you don't want to get there, you are not in the right place."
For Mathai, who has been to a pair of World Cup qualifiers in Mexico's notoriously raucous Azteca Stadium, atmosphere begins with one simple ingredient. Noise.
And come Friday night, D.C.’s first fan expects plenty of it as United's faithful get the first of just three chances to prove their mettle on a nationwide broadcast.
"TV is a visual medium. We have to show big and we need to bring it," added Mathai. "What you want a fan base to communicate to a team is a blind, undying, rabid kind of support. That support is communicated through the noise level. It needs to be sustained. It needs to be loud. And it needs to be everywhere.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 Friday night from RFK Stadium. $20 tickets available for college students.