WASHINGTON -- While a certain town 40 miles northeast of here may be transfixed over the fortunes of a certain baseball team just now, the nation's capital is experiencing playoff fever of a much different sort.
No pennant pangs around here, just the chants of, "Ole, ole, ole, ole, ole," the drone of toy, plastic horns and the swirl of white confetti through the night autumn air. Soccer -- the real thing -- drew 23,566 fans to RFK Stadium on Thursday night for a Major League Soccer conference finals match between D.C. United and the Tampa Bay Mutiny.
Professional soccer, it appears, is here to stay.
The nascent league has been a resounding success. Embraced by both ethnic groups and suburban soccer families, the pro league surpassed attendance and revenue expectations for its inaugural season. Washington is one of 10 cities around the country to have a team.
"For the soccer community, we're kind of their Redskins," said Kevin Payne, D.C. United president and general manager, who has targeted marketing at Hispanic and suburban audiences.
United has averaged nearly 16,000 fans, just below the league average. Even more promising to league organizers have been the television ratings (ESPN2 televised 21 matches) that have compared with those of National Hockey League regular-season games, all of which suggest MLS has found a toehold in its climb toward acceptance as America's fifth major professional sport.
Led by the captivating play of Bolivian superstar Marco Etcheverry, Salvadoran forward Raul Diaz Arce (each team is allowed only four foreign players) and U.S. national team standout John Harkes, D.C. finished the regular season 16-16, good enough to make the playoffs.
In a best-of-three quarterfinal series, United edged the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, 2-1, each game decided by one goal. On Thursday, D.C. trounced Tampa Bay, 4-1, behind Diaz Arce's hat trick, and now must win today or Wednesday in Florida to advance to the league championship game on Oct. 20 against the winner of the Los Angeles-Kansas City series.
"I've been waiting 24 years for this moment," Luis Monterrosa said, smiling, as he surveyed the festival-like scene outside RFK Stadium before a recent playoff game. Monterrosa moved to Northern Virginia 25 years ago from El Salvador, where he played soccer. Now that the U.S. professional game has finally caught up with him, he has attended every United home game this year.
The team has found a home in Washington, particularly among the 270,000 Latin-Americans who live in the area, according to the 1994 census. But it also creeping into the demographic group characterized by the baby-boomer suburban soccer parents.
Tom Lapsa, 48, from Frederick, accompanied his 10-year-old son, Michael, and soccer teammate Gerrit Jones-Rooy, 11, to the first-ever MLS playoff match at RFK, against the MetroStars.
"I'm glad there's finally a professional team they can see as role models and heroes," said Lapsa, who's been a soccer dad for seven years. "It's important for [young players] to visualize soccer at this level of play. Up to now, that's been very hard to do."
But when these Anglo fans enter the stadium, they become part of a unique scene. Latinos, who usually account for at least half of occupied seats at RFK for United games, set the standard for etiquette in the stands. They come equipped with drums of all sizes, plastic horns, whistles, flags -- both of their homeland and their adopted team -- and an inexhaustible supply of energy.
A section of 300 or so diehard fans, known as barra brava, or brave group (which can number several thousand in Latin-American stadiums) stand for the duration of every game, and during tense moments, jump up and down in unison as if on pogo sticks, and cheer wildly.
"This group provides the rhythm for the game like the samba," said Carlos Caban, editor of El Tiempo Latino, the largest Spanish-language weekly in the Washington metro area.
The rest of the fans spend more time out of their seats than in them. If you're a soccer fan, the winning goal is just at the receiving end of the next perfect lead pass downfield.
For all of the excitement, the level of play is considered by many to be far from world class. Caban says the quality of play has improved greatly since the league kicked off just five months ago, but is still only on a par with the second-division teams in Italy, England and Spain.
But for soccer-starved fans in the States, a few superstars and a hustling supporting cast (mostly Americans) have done the trick. And league organizers say that the talent pool of American players will only improve, just as home-grown players are vastly more polished than they were 11 years ago, when the last attempt at major American professional soccer outdoors, the North American Soccer League, went under.
"A lot of people who had been critical of the sport because of the slow play and the low scoring were really turned on by the World Cup" hosted in the United States two years ago, said Caban, whose paper devotes two to three pages of coverage of every game.
Now Major League Soccer's April-to-October schedule lines up head-to-head with baseball.
"We're not asking fans to pick between soccer and baseball," said Tom Lange, spokesman for the U.S. Soccer Federation. "We're asking fans to pick soccer because it's soccer. And that's why they're coming back."
Pub Date: 10/13/96