Could one person be responsible for creating one of the most recognizable supporter groups in MLS? You bet. Meet Matt Mathai, D.C. United's first fan and founder of the Screaming Eagles. MLSsoccer.com caught up with Matt over e-mail to relive his story and some of his favorite memories.
MLSsoccer.com: When and why did you first become a fan of D.C. United?
Mathai: I was at a MLS press conference in 1995 and DC was awarded a team. It was then I decided I wanted to do something to help the league succeed. To me, the bottom line was awareness and attendance, and I figured that I could help drive both as a fan.
I actually contacted DC's front office, team CEO and president Kevin Payne and vice president Stephen Zack and offered to help in any way I could. At that time, they were still in New York City, and were very surprised to hear from me. I told them that I had started a web site and an email list and that already had hundreds of people ready to help. This was eight months before the inaugural season. After that discussion we began a regular, almost daily dialog.
I loved the fact that they were open to working with someone who had contacted them from out of the blue. They agreed to answer questions and to keep us updated on the progress being made towards opening day. Remember, at that time we didn't have a team name, a coaching staff, or players. (The "Name the Team" contest was held in The Washington Post and on my website.)
I guess I was a fan already because they were so willing to reach out in order to succeed. Kevin and Stephen deserve a huge amount of credit for doing this, for taking some pretty non-traditional steps to build their fan base.
On a more superficial level, my support of D.C. United was also cemented by the choice of their name and uniform. To me there could be no more traditional and classic look/name for a soccer team.
MLSsoccer.com: Which supporters group do you belong to, and what has your role been throughout the years?
Mathai: The supporters group I founded became the Screaming Eagles. I ran it for eight years before stepping down and handing control over to others' capable hands. Since stepping down, I have limited myself to serving as an occasional sounding board for ideas. I've also taken photographs for the club, and gone on several road trips.
MLSsoccer.com: What does being a D.C. United and MLS supporter mean to you?
Mathai: I love having top-flight soccer in the US. I love having a team (and an incredibly successful one, at that) here in DC. I love seeing the sport grow, both through MLS and through the national team, and I'm happy that I tried in my own small way to help that growth.
There are plenty of signs that soccer is taking off — announcements such as the TV deal with NBC, Designated Player signings, soccer-specific stadiums, the interest in new franchises, etc., all tell me I don't have to worry about the survival of the sport in the United States.
MLSsoccer.com: Many people say that the supporters' culture in DC has helped shape soccer culture across America. Would you agree with this? Why or why not?
Mathai: I'm biased, but yes, this is undoubtedly true. I think the D.C. United front office went out of its way to recognize and work with its supporters clubs and set the tone for successful interaction with its fans.
For example, we requested, and received, the right to control ticket sales for our members. D.C. United was the first to agree to something like this. They basically agreed to hand over tickets to prime midfield sections (at a discount) to us. This was borderline revolutionary, they took a risk that we'd be able to generate visual interest and committed ticket sales right at midfield. They also didn't need to worry about selling tickets for large blocks of people on game days.
They're still very responsive to ideas and issues coming from fans. This is something unique in American sports. I can't imagine executives of an NFL team calling me or e-mailing me to chat about things, or being willing to respond so quickly to fans' concerns. I'm sure this may change as time passes and the league grows, but what a way to begin.
MLSsoccer.com: D.C. United have won more MLS Cups than any other team, so this might be a tough one, but what are your top three D.C. United or MLS memories since the league's inception?
Mathai: OK, I had trouble limiting it to three, and surprisingly, not all have to do with winning:
1) Sitting in the press conference that announced the DC MLS team. I remember pinching myself and realizing that it was actually going to happen.
2) Watching us lose to San Jose in the MLS inaugural match on [Eric] Wynalda's goal. Yeah, we lost to a team with awful uniforms, but I loved that we had all gotten together to watch professional soccer. I was actually pleased that the home team had won, since that was more likely to bring local fans out for the next game.
3) I was invited to kick out a ball in the center circle before the match against Tampa Bay in the 1996 Conference final. Shaking hands with John Harkes and Cle Kooiman (has there ever been a scarier player in MLS?) and being deafened by the noise of the crowd — I'll never forget that.
4) In MLS Cup '96, held in the middle of a nor'easter, we were soaked to the skin, cold, and losing 0-2 with just 17 minutes to go. Kevin Payne was out there in the elements (which I thought was great). When Tony Sanneh leaped up and headed in Marco Etcheverry's cross, I screamed and as Kevin and I hugged, we fell over onto the people standing in the row in front of us. Thank God they were there — I could have killed our president. Of course, we won in a thrilling overtime and were on our way.
5) D.C. United traveled to Hershey, Pa., for a US Open Cup match in 1997. We brought up a large contingent of supporters, and the atmosphere was electric. I really believe that was the day that our supporters club came together. Watching the team, cheering, screaming. It went to PKs (which we won) and the atmosphere was so tense that our goalkeeper, Tom Presthus, couldn't bear to watch the action. Instead he crouched in front of us, using our reactions to tell him what was happening.
6) In 2004, Peter Nowak had put together a good team, leading us out of the wilderness of the 2000-2003 seasons. We had been doing so badly that I had taken to wearing other teams' jerseys to our games for luck. The one that seemed to "work" the best was a 1996 Kansas City Wiz jersey. We ended up playing Kansas City in the MLS Cup that year, and I had a dilemma as to what to wear. I ended up wearing a D.C. United jersey over my Kansas City jersey at the final in Los Angeles. I've rarely been so uncomfortable and happy at the same time.
MLSsoccer.com: If you could give one piece of advice to a new soccer/MLS/D.C. United fan, what would it be and why?
Mathai: Get involved with a supporters club. It really doesn't matter which one, since each bring something unique to the table. With your new friends — and they become friends very quickly — you'll learn about the history of the club, its traditions, its best players, its trademark songs and cheers, etc.
You must travel to an away game with a supporters club! Nothing will bond you to your club and the team faster and more firmly. Being part of a small group in a hostile stadium, hearing the boos and jeers as you walk into the stadium and sing, being able to raise your flag in the "enemy's" camp, having your players acknowledge your efforts — these are all indelible experiences.
Do it just once and you'll be hooked.