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Episode 2 - Hungry Are The Damned
Very few players, if any, enter the professional ranks to act as an extension of the hatred and recrimination of people they don’t know in cities of which they know nothing. But sooner or later, they’ll get sucked into the vortex of rivalry. Whether it’s Mark Lisi kissing the Metro crest shortly after being dealt from United, or Ben Olsen writing a more-or-less formal article about how he hates the Galaxy (and who can blame him?), for a player with true heart, there is no escape from the maelstrom. Which brings me to my next little talking point: fans accuse players of lacking heart all the time, but it’s a rarity to see a player accuse a fan of that offense. That happened Wednesday night after DCU’s sickening 2-4 home loss to the Galaxy.

A few fans, myself included, made camp outside of the players’ parking section to praise, console, or berate members of the squad as we saw fit. The tone was generally conciliatory until Mike Petke drove up. After signing some autographs and shaking hands with a few of us, he started to drive off when a cry of “You suck!” perforated the air and somehow made it to Petke’s ear, causing him to throw his vehicle in reverse, approach our crowd again and call out the person who cast the aspersion on him (names and identities will be omitted to protect the guilty, and no, it wasn’t me). No one confessed to having said it, but some fans were very vocal in pointing out Petke’s defensive errors on the night, of which there were many.

It would seem like a simple, although contentious dialogue, but it got to the point of one fan tossing Petke his jersey and hat in disgust, possibly from the sentiment that Petke remained defiant and determined to keep his dignity intact, despite his culpability in the evening’s disastrous proceedings. Petke accused his insulter of not having “any heart”, for not directly confronting him to elaborate on his apparent suckitude. The hat and shirt were recovered, but some serious damage was done to the player-fan relationship, especially when Santino Quaranta chimed in with a string of expletives and not much else to offer to the debate. I’ll offer more on that part a little later. Most people would cringe at the thought of a professional athlete defending his honor to a fan, and might even call them classless for doing so, holding them to an abnormal standard of saint-like patience and restraint. But athletes are humans just like their fans, a truth which is often lost among grousing over insane salaries and unrealistic expectations of a return on a fan’s “emotional investment” in their team in the form of instant success.

An unfortunate double-standard exists between fans and athletes; the latter is expected to bear criticism from the coaching staff, the fans, and the media with unfailing grace, no matter how unfair or borderline abusive the comments might be. Meanwhile, the former can berate, scold, and take an “armchair quarterback” position in pointing out an athlete’s foibles, without the pressure of having personally been in that situation. Seemingly, their role as a fan of the team entitles them to this fringe benefit. Nowhere is this more evident, or intense, than in the “beautiful game”.

For all the hyperbole of the “gridiron wars” of the Redskins and Cowboys, or the lopsided and overblown rivalry of the Yankees and Red Sox, neither of these sports, and none of their rivalries, can compare to the powerful emotions generated by, and the fanatical, almost insane rivalries of the game of soccer. As a result, the double-standard relationship of player and fan is amplified. It’s almost impossible to maintain that balance, with emotions running so high on both sides of the stands. As this entire exchange dragged on, I was mortified at the sight of a player I admired jawing with my friends and fellow true believers, but in hindsight, I can understand why he argued, and frankly, I applaud him for it. It’s a well-known fact that Ben Olsen has lost no love for the Galaxy, and most likely will never find it. No one really knows for sure how deep Mike Petke’s feelings run in regards to our western rivals, but after having been ripped apart for 4 goals in nine minutes on a night that should’ve been an instant victory for DC United, I doubt that he sees them in any favorable light, and I hope that he would not. I hope he takes the humiliation of conceding the second-fastest hat trick in league history and uses that as fuel for the fire, so to speak, to better himself as a player for the benefit of United. I hope he takes the anger that he brought to bear on our group in the parking lot and uses that to mentally fuel himself as well, but not too much of it.

Petke may have been guilty of giving goals to the Galaxy as if they were going out of style, but he was still playing with heart. That much was evident when he defended his pride as a professional to us on Wednesday night. I was admittedly aghast at the sight of one of my favorite players (and one of my most hated in his days of Metro stripes) exchanging verbal barbs with one of my friends; not because an athlete should keep a Zen-like patience in the face of our intense and sometimes warped love, but that a hard-working player (and a decent man off the field) had to be put in the position of further humiliation after such a terrible night on the job. There are already enough prices to pay in soccer for failure, and personal abuse shouldn’t be one of them.

Offering constructive criticism is one thing, but a true fan of a team should balance that with support for someone wearing their crest and colors. Petke had every right to question why RFK was so quiet for so long; even after 4 straight goals, those of true heart would still have made noise for United, which the three clubs tried their hardest to do. That point wasn’t raised, to his credit; it kept the argument short, and might have boiled over into something worse than hoarse-voiced recriminations and angry clothing donations. There is only so much any of us can take, especially in the emotional world of soccer.

A player defending his commitment and effort is one thing; a player raining abuse on fans is another, especially when they have little or no evidence of their industry. Quaranta’s shouted appeals to security to “get these people the f--- out of here” were classless, unintelligent, and in light of how little he has done for United besides collect the best workers’ compensation checks in MLS, almost hypocritical. Quaranta tried to take the mantle that Petke had abandoned upon leaving the stadium, but his position had one fatal flaw: Petke had played that night, and has played nearly every game for the past two seasons.
The man known as “Q1” appearing in a starting lineup or even on the substitute’s list is a rarity on East Capitol Street, and he’s been noted more for off-pitch occurrences in the course of convalescence for his various injuries than he has for standing out in practices or making a favorable impression on Coach Nowak.

If Quaranta had the heart he claims to have, he would work harder to gain full health, and maybe, just maybe, actually play a few minutes. As it stands, all he’s been seen to do in a game is to lob and juggle a few balls during halftime; occasionally, small children playing 5-minute youth-league friendlies at the break show more endeavor to succeed than forward #25. To paraphrase Ray Hudson, he’s been doing more playing with himself than just playing. You might think that I’ve gone back on my argument about abusing a player, but I haven’t simply said that he “sucks”, and certainly not without a reason to back it up; I’ve merely questioned his commitment to succeed as a player, and as a member of DC United. Even if I begrudge his lack of heart and his lack of tact, I still support him, and all of United’s roster, as long as they wear my beloved black shirt and eagle crest.

Soccer fans and soccer players are hungry for success like none of their counterparts in all of sport, but the bond between club and supporter can occasionally warp and distend, especially in the face of dark defeat to a hated foe. There should be no surprise when a player stands up to the mad throng of supporters hurling abuse at him, especially when such a close relationship turns sour with a bitter loss. Unfortunately, players are damned to our abuse, just as we fans are damned to the agony of their defeat. But love for a team shouldn’t lead to acrimony between fans and players; as true fans, it’s up to us to offer our support in good times and bad, as much as it’s up to the players to win for their team, and for us. It’s a vicious circle, but it’s one that I couldn’t live without. The fans and players all have heart; showing it in the right way is what counts for all concerned.

P.S. Lost in all this was Freddy Adu’s cracking goal in a losing effort. That was a glimpse of the brilliance to come, and he didn’t even have to start the game to do it. That’s a substitute worth accepting.
May 22, 2004 Darth Norteño


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