Major League Soccer
DC United v Colorado Rapids
Sunday, 17th August 2014, 7pm
Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium
Entrance $45, Programme $free
Distance (from Vicarage Rd) 3711 miles, Attendance 12814
Rattling about inside the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium, DC United clearly look out of place. There is no doubt they have an exceptionally talented squad, nor that their passionate fans want to take the club forward but in Washington, football – and I mean soccer – still feels like “the other sport”; a distant cousin.
Host to some fantastic matches at the 1994 World Cup finals, the colossal RFK Stadium is situated east of the city centre, in a spacious, purpose built setting, with great transport links. It’s big enough to cater for any capacity gridiron crowd however, unfortunately when the Redskins moved out in 1997, what remained wasn’t really made perfect for MLS. In fact, it’s hard to see that much has changed since the NASL – North American Soccer League – last put is its professional roots down in the capital.
Back in 1981, the very last NASL incarnation of the Washington Diplomats graced the RFK Stadium. Though the original NASL Diplomats side had folded a year earlier, in the close season of 1980, the Detroit Express relocated to DC and renamed themselves after their predecessors. With attendances slipping away, what followed was a single high profile season, sadly finishing without any great success.
Chaired by Jimmy Hill and managed by former Watford boss, Ken Furphy, the new Diplomats started the season promisingly with “everyone on the squad, all on board the team effort” then Dips PR Director, Ken Droz, informed me. By mid-season the squad was also bolstered by the return of Dutch master Johan Cryuff. “I was hugely thrilled as the press coverage was sensational.” Ken continued “at that time there was no baseball team in DC, so we had front page stories of every game.”
Recounting the side Ken told me “We had some good players, and also had a tremendous victory over the Cosmos, at a home night game, that had something like 35,000 fans at.” By coincidence it was against NY Cosmos that season, that Ross Jenkins would score what he has since described as his “best goal ever; a half volley from the edge of the area”.
Having broken his ankle against Swansea in December 1980; when the injury didn’t heal quickly, Jenkins met Hill in London and was soon heading across the pond “to “get some football in and, get [his] fitness back.”
In a lengthy conversation about American soccer back then, Ross explained how the games were “not as strenuous” which afforded him the time to “blow the cobwebs away”. A traditionalist at heart – there are many nuances he’d rather hadn’t entered the modern game – Jenkins saw the then NASL end-of-game shoot-out as little more than a gimmick. That said, Ross talked of enjoying his US experience “immensely”; he also singled out the likes of skilful Trevor Hebbard as a real force within their Dips squad, and a pleasure to play with.
Away from the pitch the younger members of the squad regularly hung out in bars like the capital’s Sign of the Whale or, Tramp’s Discotheque out in Georgetown. Determinedly professional to his sport, Ross however was always more of a family man. Living across the river in Virginia, the Jenkins’ family would spend much of their free time exploring their new country. Ross jovially added, “It’s hard enough to look good on a football field, let alone look good at a disco.”
At the end of the American season, the Dips had narrowly missed the play-offs and within a month Jenkins was back in the starting eleven for Watford’s 3-1 win at Chelsea.
Steve Winter, PR consultant to the Diplomats for that season, summed up the season “The same financial mismanagement that killed the team in Detroit, did them in here in Washington. The team needed to win its final regular season game in Montreal to make the playoffs, which would have provided the owners with one more home game and likely enough money to keep the team afloat but they lost and never played another game.”
With some humour, Ross described his time in American as akin to The Jetsons. Comparing the NASL and MLS, both Ken and Steve also pointed to some incredible highs but, went on to surmise that the then model was simply unsustainable. Steve explained “I absolutely loved the NASL because it was exciting and dynamic. The Soccer was fun to watch, the players friendly, personable and accessible and the European stars loved being treated like royalty without having to deal with mobs of fans… but the beauty of MLS is that they are here to stay.”
Clearly soccer in North America has come a long way since Ross’ rehabilitation; youth coaching has doubtless improved but, the question now is have Joe public really embraced it?
Like Ross I wouldn’t have wanted to find out without my family so, settling into our seats in the RFK Stadium, my son Nicolas and I engaged in an evening game of spot the difference.