#WFC1982 – Ross Jenkins & Washington Dilpomats

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.”
Dips 81 Head Ross JenkinsRecounting 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.
Dips 81 Home TeamAway 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.

140817 MLS DC United v Colorado Rapids (207)w

With little riding on the game, the crowd was much smaller than usual however; across the pitch from us, a boisterous ultra-style crowd weren’t going to let anything dampen their spirits. They began the evening unfurling a banner reading “EVERY WASHINGTONIAN DESERVES A HOME” and concluded by singing devotedly throughout the next ninety minutes. In return, DC United repaid them with a fantastic winning performance.
140817 MLS DC United v Colorado Rapids (209)wWith Talon the mascot dancing atop the old dugouts, the home side were one up within 15 minutes. Luis Silva slipped his marker and collected a superb defence-splitting through ball. Cutting inside the last defender, he then coolly chipped the keeper. With every other chance of the half spurned, the heart-warming interval saw former United star, Clyde Simms – who retired due to kidney disease – campaigning for the National Kidney Foundation.
???????????????????????????????Once the tractor watering the playing surface behind Clyde had finished its business, the teams broke from their huddles and renewed hostilities. Six minutes in – whilst Nicolas distracted me with food requests – Dillon Serna stole in and equalised for Colorado.
Convincing everyone about us the lead had been restored, when almost immediately, Silva hit the side netting. Some divine skill soon saw Fabián Espíndola strike the crossbar with a deft lob and, Silva was flagged fractionally offside before driving the ball home. As fierce complaints rang out about us, across the way the reaction was even more animated. Dead rubber or not, this game clearly mattered to the home support.
Sean Franklin then first shot wide before – moments later – setting up Silva for his second of the night. With the end-to-end game really hotting up; ten minutes from time, persistent Taylor Kemp beat three down the left before driving a low ball across the penalty area for the onrushing Chris Rolfe who, sliding in with enough force drove the ball home, gave himself such bad cramp he was soon substituted off. In the dying minutes, Espíndola hammered home a fourth in on the break and saw his next effort well saved by Clint Irwin, before a back post header from visiting Deshorn Brown brought some parity to the score line.

140817 MLS DC United v Colorado Rapids (194)   140817 MLS DC United v Colorado Rapids (221)

Eventually turning to leave, we noticed on the wall to our right, plaques reminding us all of the rich yet short history of this MLS club. Amongst other silverware, having won three of the first four MLS Cups, the foundation for this Washington club couldn’t have been better.
Debating our experience on the train back to our hotel, it was acknowledged that the food sellers and constant conversations about certainly made this soccer game closer a baseball experience than those of the Baseball Ground however, to the loyal soccer fans inside the RFK Stadium, DC United matter.
140817 MLS DC United v Colorado Rapids (111)wSoccer in the US is no longer a game of gimmicks and glamour but more one of familiar sporting endeavour where chants were sung with gusto, tactics debated in bars and, the chap at the counter understood the importance of us having a real ticket to keep.
Assessing soccer now Steve concluded, “With European-sized stadiums (18,000-22,000) they [MLS] found the formula that has worked; they have grown steadily but cautiously and the US soccer fan has grown and matured with the league.  While the US fan truly understands that MLS is not Serie A or Premier League, there is a place for MLS and it’s the right place.  It’s a solid league with a strong base of support across all its markets and most important of all, the fact that teams own and manage their own buildings – most of them anyway – makes easy team financially viable, stable and successful.”
One truly hopes DC United can soon find their own home and build on from there… if nothing else their fans, players and staff deserve it.
Final score: DC United 4-2 Colorado Rapids
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Because these articles are initially appearing in the 2014-15 Watford FC matchday programmes, they will consequently have a delayed publication on here.
Ross Jenkins programme (1)   Ross Jenkins programme (2)
This entry was posted in #WFC1982, 2014-2015, Major League Soccer and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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