28 September ~ “In our lives, freedom can never last for more than a few brief seconds, but it’s for those few seconds that we live,” the German writer Alfred Andersch philosophised in his post-war novel The Cherries of Freedom. He was perhaps broaching greater existential themes than the tribulations of being a football fan, but once I’d calmed down on Saturday night after watching DC United score four gloriously worked goals in just under 20 minutes, I thought about all the years of waiting and watching that most fans endure before they might experience such a sequence of breathtaking play.
First, some context. DC United have been a patchy, mediocre team for several years in Major League Soccer. This season, they have been slowly recovering from their worst-ever year in 2010, when they finished bottom and scored only 21 goals. They are on the periphery of the post-season play-offs, but have stuttered all year by throwing away leads, especially at home.
Their opponents on Saturday night, Real Salt Lake, have consistently been the most watchable US club side over the past three years – champions in 2009 and finalists in the Concacaf Champions League this past spring – and before Saturday were looking to challenge the LA Galaxy for the league’s top position. They had won their previous five games, including three on the road.
I made two confident predictions to my travelling companions before the game. Salt Lake would outplay DC, and the first half would be tight, with few chances likely until the second 45 minutes, when the players would start to tire from all the energy-consuming hustle that characterises so many MLS encounters. I’ve seen hundreds of games in this league, so I must know what I’m talking about. And so it came to pass that by the 31st minute, with DC 4-0 ahead, my expert credibility was being deservedly squashed to a pulp by 16,000 joyously jumping home fans.
Here are the highlights, but you had to be there: goal one in the 13th minute was a smashing finish on a quick counter-attack by Honduran teenager Andy Najar, discovered by the club playing kickabout football outside a DC-area high school. The long precision pass was played to him by Canadian playmaker Dwayne de Rosario, inexplicably traded to DC earlier this season by New York in exchange for the ineffective workhorse Dax McCarthy.
De Rosario followed this with a spectacular hat-trick in just nine minutes: a pristine header from a long Najar cross that followed a neat passing exchange in midfield; a sweet 25-yard strike from a deft Josh Wolff lay-off; and finally, a direct free-kick from 30 yards that beat bedazzled Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando on his near post.
These were beautiful goals by any standards, in any league. To see four of them, out of nowhere, in such a short timespan, from a team that’s become a byword for boredom over the past six years, was like showing up for work on a wet Monday morning in Mansfield to be told that your office has been moved to a luxury Caribbean cruise-ship. Oh, and your work hours have been halved. Oh, and your salary’s been doubled. With stock options that will probably allow you to retire at 50.
I complain more than enough about the shortfalls of the modern game, and there’s a temptation, when following teams like Lincoln City and DC United, to sink into a permanent comfort zone of low expectations and despondent yammering. Then all of a sudden, football sends you something magical. An ideal representation of the game as depicted in the textbooks. Four consecutive sparkling gifts that restore your faith in pure sport, which have you leaping from your seat and howling unfettered like an uncaged wolf at full moon picking up the fresh scent of a pack of young and willing wolverines. I’m alive! I’m free! Goal, goal, goal, goal! Did you see that? Did you see what he did there?
De Rosario’s hat-trick came just three nights after he took a horrible flop in the penalty area in the third minute of stoppage time to win a penalty against Chivas USA. The score stood at 2-2, and he missed the spot-kick, and it felt right that he missed it. So he’s not a perfect person. But for just under 20 minutes on Saturday evening, he was the perfect player. And thanks to those 20 minutes, I’ll keep on watching for at least another 20 years. Ian Plenderleith