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On Traveling Support (or Rationalizing 8 Hours on a Bus to and from New Jersey)

In which we mildly wonder if you can stop in Metro Country or anywhere in general, and why we do what we do.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

As I write this, I'm on a bus hurdling down the Jersey turnpike with other DC United fans from last night's 2-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls. Young Frankenstein is playing on a DVD through the several screens on the bus and the scene with Gene Hackman is on. Nobody's really watching, the mix of fatigue, general daze at the result, various beer and liquor with a dusting of other illicit substances are wearing themselves off. Some (well, me) are drinking water and eating macadamia nuts. But speaking purely for myself, I certainly don't ask for better for the guys that I traveled lo these many miles to see.

I don't know if I've ever asked myself that really; I've been doing this awhile. For me, it started with a trip in a van to Ohio with a dozen fans to see D.C. play the Columbus Crew. Most of the people in the van I still call friends, and some of them were on the bus today. D.C. had a chance to get in the playoffs with a win over the Crew, and were it not for the woodwork we would have done so. If the valleys the team hit in the years since we're known to the people in that van, would they still have made the trip? Probably. But why?

I've made many trips since via car, bus and plane to the many venues MLS has to offer. By a rough count I've yet to hit San Jose (because why go to a college to see an MLS team lay when the Soccerplex is right around the corner?), Denver (though admittedly I'm running out of excusesto go there), Vancouver and Kansas City. It's easy to see how other teams have found an identity or even showed the rest of North America an identity they already had, which makes it doubly frustrating that D.C. has yet to discover one as this season has unfolded after drifting for so long. But we still make the trips. Why do we do that?

I think it's partly rooting for something larger than your sense of reality. Consider that in 48 hours that 350 people bussed and drove to New Jersey (willingly and without hesitation, to go to the Jerz), to watch a soccer team play. THEIR soccer team play. The great part is that the more these trips happen, the more conversations are struck and kinships made. Several rows behind me, a husband and wife nap, a couple who are regulars at games. Another couple nearby is shortly going to be married. I don't know if either of them specifically met at games and became the couples they are now, but the quixotic nature of supporting the way they do is certainly a strong bond.


And the friendships I've taken with these people are great. We share well wishes and condolences that go beyond seeing each other a couple dozen times from March to October. And whether it's two days or two weeks before, inevitably the discussion starts up about who is going to bring what, or if someone wants to get some takeout food to bring on the bus. It starts usually after the last pickup for the game, and the beer and food starts flowing. It's remarkably communal. Most of us are pretty well ready to cheer for damn near anything, much less D.C., by the time we get off the bus. But we go for the team we love. It's why whenever anyone ever talks about the same romantic qualities in other sports as they do for soccer, I don't get it. But if you root for a sports team at home, so why wouldn't you bring that environment to their games on the road, regardless of if they play on grass, ice or wood? Some fans have travel clubs in hockey and even baseball and it's great, but let's be honest, a hockey or baseball player has motivations which are a little mercenary. It's just not the same.

So yeah, it may have only been a couple of days, but when the Red Bulls beat Sporting Kansas City, the conversations started about who's doing what and where, and who is on what bus. Max out the hour of sleep from falling back and sleeping in as much as possible? Screw that, there's a game to get to. You sleepily see the same faces you normally do, you exchange a hug with someone who congratulates you on your future fatherhood. You make the stops at RFK and Metro stops to pick up everyone else and you make for 95 like a bandit. Some newer folks do the usual anti-Red Bulls chants early on, and you want to tussle their hair or give them a hug, because you know there's still two more hours on the drive and the vocal cords should be saved for bigger things. No stopping at Delaware House today, it's the postseason. Your fetish for mass produced crap fast food can wait another time.

You eventually get to glorious(?) Harrison, New Jersey, stopping at O'Donnell's, a bar owned by a friend of a friend of someone who facilitates the road trips. In the past, 'pregaming' was limited to steamed hotdogs inside and $3 Bud, Bud Light and the like, but the beer game was upped this time. Not really in the mood for pumpkin beer (the scourge of the craft beer movement), you go to the pizza shop across the street for a beef patty and garlic knot bread. Because they're out of pizza at the moment of course.

You get to Red Bull Arena and listen to the briefing from security about what you can and can't do, bring, what have you. It's been heard so many times, to borrow from a friend, "You wonder what actual important information got pushed out of your head and this took its place." And you go, and you sing the songs you've sung dozens of times before. Now I'm used to them and frankly, they bore the crap out of me (as an old Army guy, the same three cadences tuned me right the hell out and still do). When I'm on the road? I sing my gorram guts out. They are OUR songs, and I'll blow my voice out singing them. If the players who I've traveled here to see cannot hear them then I, WE, have failed them.

Filling In

Late in the half, Bradley Wright-Phillips scores off that pass and the subsequent dummy. It feels like you are part of a organic, resilient speaker system, one that is momentarily crestfallen before taking a breath, lurching back into the same 3 songs. You aren't going to be fazed by whatever is going on below and around you. Halftime comes and you rest, some others go to the concourse and dance around the drums like they do at home games. The second half starts and the pattern resumes. A second goal eventually comes, and the brief sigh followed by the same 3 songs resumes. Shots get to Luis Robles though nothing of huge danger. And when the final whistle goes, it is already a foregone conclusion. And as you wait to be released, you commiserate or even chat up the Jersey security. If nothing else, you want to leave as good as impression leaving as coming in, with 90 minutes of organized chaos in between.

And so the drive back begins, and when it's a loss in New Jersey or Columbus it hurts because the drive back is S-L-O-W, as it is after any loss, but the time drags. Nerves and tempers are a tiny bit shorter (who the hell wants to watch Office Space NOW, for God's sake?), hypotheticals are played out ahead of Saturday's second leg (in the immortal words of Al Neri, difficult, but not impossible), the return trip brings a Delaware House stop because $8 Burger King > any arena food, the bus driver can use the stop and the bus passengers can use a superficial nosh. Folks eventually get off at their stops, and you say your goodbyes until the next trip. And there will be a next trip.

Which again begs the question: Why do you do it? You know they'll go, just as sure as you know you'll go. You go to support your club, simple. It's the thing that an American fan of a European team who scoffs at MLS for being beneath them does not understand, perhaps by conscious choice. You don't understand that detachment or even cognitive dissonance, because after all it is part of the European experience, why wouldn't you try to immerse yourself in it somehow?

To circle back on the comment at the top, and to borrow a quote the philosopher William Munny, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it." You do it because that's what you do. I'll do it again, so will you.