A Night in the Press Box at Audi Field

By David Shams

Going to DC United matches has always been about routine. 

At RFK, I’d arrive early to mingle with tailgaters and take advantage of the cheap booze in the season ticket members only Champions Club on the eastside of the crumbling monolith. But I was always in my seats to watch the warm-ups. I couldn’t miss those. 

When the team moved over to the state-of-the-art Audi Field, for obvious reasons my routine was much different. A new location required a new routine. 

For the first season, I’d enjoy a pint or two—and let's be honest, it was often more—of DC Brau’s Full Count lager at All Purpose Waterfront ($1 of each pint goes to DC Scores). Then my guest (sometimes my wife, but usually my British expat buddy from Leicester) and I would make the short walk over to the stadium.

This season I made an upgrade to the uber-bougie Club Level—premium seats with all you can eat and drink perks. The math worked out for me, although if I found a way to cut out the booze, maybe I’d reduce both my financial outlay and my waistline. 

Be that as it may, I’ve managed enjoyed my seats in the last row of section C2. The game is closer, the food is better, and the lines for beer much shorter. And for the first time in my Season Ticket Member (STM) experience, I’ve actually made friends with the other STM’s around me. 

But on Wednesday, June 26th, DC United’s United Night Out, I went for a different experience altogether. As a wannabe sportswriter, one who wants to cover the game from a fan’s perspective—and not just necessarily DC United—I’ve always wondered what it would be like to sit in a professional press box. 

My impression, though, has always been that it was something akin to having a Security Clearance. Those of us commoners have to wait until an exposé to hear what really happened, while those with a TSI, or whatever, would know the true story from the beginning. But what security clearance holders will tell you is that like the rest of us they often don’t know either. And in reality, with a handful of exceptions, they only find out a few hours before the rest of society does anyway. 

Even as I recognized that in the back of mind, I was still a little nervous walking up to the stadium two hours before kick off. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss out on anything in my first time entering anywhere as a credentialed member of the press. If I’m honest, I always assumed my first time would be covering foreign policy--asking the President or Secretary of State why they chose a specific path regarding a specific country. 

Before climbing the several flights to the press box, nervous as can be, trying not to sweat too profusely from the high humidity levels in the stuffy stairwell, I picked up my press pass after going through security behind Steven Streff, Flo Sports’ DC United correspondent. In his matching pink polo and pink Pumas, he was hard to miss. 

This whole excursion, equal parts pilgrimage, naive desire, and conspicuous curiosity, started earlier in the year when I reached out to Sam Legg, Communications Manager at DC United, who I had met while volunteering with DC Scores, a local non-profit and DC United Community Partner. Legg responded positively to my request to join the press box, asking for dates and then being gracious enough to walk me through the process to get credentialed. It was far easier than expected. 

As I entered the press box, welcomed by a blast of cool air for the first time since I left my home on the DC side of Takoma, I immediately realized that gilded cage I had assumed would greet me, was really just a glorified conference room where the press huddle before the game to eat some food and gossip about the latest soccer news. 

The buffet was the first thing I noticed, because I was both famished and promised an amazing spread by Legg. It was just to the right of the entrance. To my left, was Dave Johnson and his telecast partner, former DC United defender Devon McTavish. Johnson, unfortunately, did not yell out ‘It’s in the net’ like I was expecting. My imagination had it that he practiced that line before each match. I guess not. (Insert sad face emoji here). 

Apparently, the press box would open to the elements on this night, too. The glass enclosure pulled back to allow each journalist, statistician, and blogger to take in Audi Field in full--noise, heat, humidity, and the sun. Almost immediately, I realized I should have brought my sunglasses. I had forgotten in the summer months for about an hour and fifteen minutes, starting at 7pm the sun shines directly into the faces of those sitting on the east side of Audi Field. The press box wouldn’t be spared. 

Scanning the rest of the space for any cues as to what I should or should not be doing, I found an open seat right in front of Streff. He was a friendly face who didn’t seem opposed to me inviting myself into his pre-game space. Maybe Ben Olsen’s moniker was accurate (Olsen called Streff Captain Positivity after DCU’s 1-1 draw with Toronto a few nights later). 

To sate my growling stomach, I grabbed some food, which I must say was better than expected although I shouldn’t have been surprised because the food in the Club section is usually spot on. Food in hand, I plopped down across from Streff and began picking his brain about the press box. 

I saw a seating chart, which made it seem way more formal than it looked, adding a level or two of anxiety. What if I took someone’s seat? What if I sat somewhere I shouldn’t? What if they politely ask me to never return?

‘DC United politely invites you not to stay,’ I could hear the press intern saying as I crossed some line I had no idea I was crossing. 

“No one really follows that seating chart,” Streff explained, allowing me to relax a little and walking me back from that Hooman Majd-esque scenario. “It’s never that busy up here.”

I spotted Howard Webb’s name was on the seating chart, too. That got my attention and the woeful officiating display later in the evening made it all the more interesting. I wondered if he would be made available after the game--he was not, as far as I know. 

Streff was gracious enough to continue answering my questions and entertain my naiveté. As he did, that luster I had built up in my head started wearing off. 

I asked if we got to hear the play-by-play or explanations of VAR decisions. We didn’t, but it seemed he and I were in the same boat. We were frustrated that there’s no way to tell what’s happening when MLS referees head to those little computer screens just behind each goal. It’s like there’s a little black box only accessible by the guys in yellow and whatever decision never really filters out to the other 20 thousand people in the stadium. Those of us in the stands are left to confer with the people around us, making our best guesses, or tweet and text friends watching at home. 

To be fair, though, MLS PRO does issue a video explanation of VAR decisions in the week after games. So, there is a way to parse those controversial decisions, but it’s always after the fact and well after blood has been left boiling. And sometimes, they admit they got it wrong, which, if I’m honest, has been happening a lot more than it should.    

As I finished my slightly spicy Southwest-style chicken meatballs, Pablo Maurer, writer for the Athletic, former auto mechanic, and amazing photographer eased into the seat next to me. He took two bites of his meatballs then pushed his plate away. It seems he didn’t share my opinion on the food selection. 

No matter, because Maurer, who is effectively the elder statesman (unless longtime Washington Post soccer correspondent Steven Goff is there) began regaling those within earshot with crazy stories from the battles past. Goff has been off covering the Women’s World Cup, otherwise, I assume at least, he and Maurer would be bouncing stories and anecdotes off one another. Like two veterans trading war stories. 

But on this evening, the hot-goss surrounded the new facilities for Loudoun United, DCU’s reserve squad. There was an assumption that the new fields would be natural grass, as that’s what the team had promised and many players don’t really like playing on sports turf. But aerial photos told a different story. Maurer and the other journalists sharing the table shrugged their shoulders as if this 180 wasn’t necessarily surprising. 

Pablo moved on pretty quickly. And I can’t remember how we got there, but he relayed some crazy behind the scenes stories from one of the wildest night’s he’s ever had covering DC United. Everyone remembered the scoreboard fire at Crew (now known as Mapfre) Stadium, but no one had talked about the insanely mad postgame scenes. I’ll leave the details for him to share. 

All of them had horror stories of having to find their way out in total darkness night after a Washington Spirit match at Maryland Soccerplex. Apparently, once the lights go out there, it’s pitch-black and quite eerie. Having grown up in rural Kentucky, I didn’t get what the fuss was all about. Pitch-black nights were the norm on our farm several miles outside of town. 

About an hour in, though, after listening to everyone share their stories and compare notes for the upcoming match, my twitter buddy, Sarah Kallassy, the MLS Female’s reporter for DC United, showed up. It was exciting to finally meet up with her, as we’ve spent the better part of this season supporting each other’s work on social media. 

But we also realized we had much more in common than a love for the beautiful game and all the stories that go along with it. Like me, she’s Middle Eastern American and was drawn to studying to the region through college and then into grad school. She maintains her ties with the region, trying to go back every year to visit family. 

“We should set up a Middle East Happy Hour. You know people, I know people,” Kallassy said.

“I was actually hoping to do that with all the soccer writers and DC United podcasters,” I responded. “But we could do a Middle East one too.”

We spent most of the warm-ups catching up, discussing what led us to DC, how our families ended up in the US, and what we’re doing outside of trying to get paid to write. And we realized we had several mutual friends.

Kallassy, a Marine Corps veteran, moved to DC for work and to attend Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. When she’s not hustling down stories at DCU match, she’s working as a research consultant for a think tank in town.

As for my own DC origin story, I arrived here after being medically disqualified from the Navy’s Officer Candidate School. Leaning on several close friends and a promise of a restaurant job, I packed up my clothes and made it happen. 

If anyone deserves credit for making my press box experience worthwhile, though, it’s Kallassy. She made sure I understood the basics and that my anxiety was in check. 

“The first time can be overwhelming,” she explained in a pre-game message on Twitter. “The interns can help you too.”

During the game, she had a story to chase down. So she would head out into the stands to interview a few people she had made arrangements with beforehand. 

I stayed in the press box, watching the game in relatively uninterrupted silence. Something I’m not accustomed too unless I’m watching at home alone. That’s not to say I don’t love my neighbors in C2. I do. They’re all knowledgable about the game and we all work as sounding boards during each game trying to figure out what’s happening, how we’re playing, and what changes Olsen should be making. 

But that was the most remarkable thing about my experience--how quiet the press box can be. Sure you can hear the noise from the stadium, especially after Wayne Rooney’s 65 yard bomb. Sure you could hear Bill Hamid yelling over to the bench about something, maybe asking Olsen to bring on a sub or two. Sure there’s the noise of keyboards clacking and papers shuffling, it is a press box after all. But the press box was oddly serene during the match. It was an oasis in a chaotic environment, a noiseless cacoon in the middle of a heaving stadium. 

As the final whistle approached and Kallassy hadn’t returned from interviewing a fan, she sent me a text message.

“Follow the crew downstairs,” she instructed. By downstairs she meant the post-game presser by Ben Olsen. 

I saw the two Emily’s, Olsen from ProSoccerUSA.com and Giambalvo from the Washington Post, start to pack up and head down to the interview room. I followed as quietly as I could trying to keep up with both, clearly more experienced than I’ll ever be. Without them, I would have never made it through the crowd--shout out to them for cutting a winding pathway from the press box to the interview room in the bowels of the Audi Field. 

Press conferences always seem like an awkward affair. That impression was still pretty accurate. Although, there were only a handful of credentialed journos in the room, so I’m sure the awkwardness was tempered, plus DC United eeked out a victory lightening the mood a bit. 

DCU’s Olsen entered and Maurer, the epic story-teller, opened the Q&A. But within 15 minutes it was over. There were definetely more questions that could have been asked. What was Bill yelling at the bench about? Why are the games against Orlando so crazy? Why does DCU seem to slump in the second half, unable to build on a lead or build from the back when facing a high press? What are the thoughts on VAR? The lineup sheet said you were playing a 3-4-3, but clearly, you were playing 4-2-3-1? Does the formation on the line-up sheet really matter anymore?

Maybe there’s some sort of embargo on those questions and maybe going a few more times would help me figure that out. Or I could ask people like Streff and Kallassy, they seemed willing to show an aspiring writer the ropes.

The press gaggle followed Olsen through a hallway and into the home locker room where they milled about until the players were ready to chat. My job at this point was basically done. I was there to write about my experience in the press box, what it was like on the other side of the line. So, I thanked Kallassy for being my guide throughout the evening. I’m sure I looked like a fish out of water, but she made it less embarrassing. 

As I left the stadium, my press pass still dangling from the lanyard around my neck, I felt a weird sense of accomplishment. Maybe it was more closure. A box ticked off on my bucket list. The evening was still warm and sticky, a proper DC summer night. 

I was still relatively amped and somewhat hungry, there was no way I could go home yet. Moseying my way over to the burgeoning restaurant district just south of Nats Park, I found myself at Salt Line surrounded by more cacophony this time from the remanents of the Congressional Baseball Game. It seemed whatever hope I had for a quiet reflective drink would be dashed. This wouldn’t be like the press box. 

Nevertheless, I pulled up to the bar, collecting my thoughts, doing a bit of mental pre-writing, and pretty damn excited that I had managed to grab a behind the scenes look, something that most fans will never get to experience. 

Three glasses--or was it four--of Terra d’Oro’s Chenin/Viognier and a few oysters later, I headed home satisfied and thankful for the opportunity. 

The moral to the story is that sometimes all you gotta do is ask and be willing to mix up your routine. Maybe it’s everything you expect it to be, but often it's not. This was a little bit of both. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Thank you to everyone who made it possible.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC. You can follow him on twitter at @ShamsWriter.

Finding Liverpool

By David Shams

“It doesnt matter where you’re from. What religion you are. What language you speak. If you’re a Liverpool fan, you’re a Scouser. All of us are Scousers,” Neil Atkinson bellowed. Atkinson is one of the main writers and producers behind The Anfield Wrap, a popular podcast following all things LFC.

He was speaking during The Anfield Wrap’s End of Season Party on May 11th at Mountford Hall on University of Liverpool’s campus.

For me, that moment had been nearly 14 years in the making.

My Liverpool fandom hasn’t been lifelong. Growing up in Kentucky, my siblings and I didn’t have much access to soccer on television. Our soccer coverage relied on infrequent subscriptions of Soccer America, the occasional promo magazines sent to our dad, and old recordings of matches from the ‘90 and ‘94 World Cups.

Having an immigrant father usually meant the team you followed was selected for you. Normally, it was passed down from generation to generation in the same way that each parent passes on their DNA. But my dad immigrated from Iran in 1964, before soccer became as popular as it is today.

The bottom line, we didn’t have much of a soccer culture growing up. Sure we played and sure we watched games. But “we didn’t,” as my dad likes to say, "know shit from shinola.” We had to make it up as we went along.

It wasn’t until the mid-90s that we were regularly exposed to club soccer. We knew it existed and we knew some of the major teams—AC Milan, Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United, Liverpool. But we didn’t know much else.

Owing to that lack of ‘culture’ or pre-determined fandom, my brother and I never really settled on a single club to cheer for while we were growing up. We ended up cheering for specific players and watching games for the sake of watching games, to pick up on some sort of tactical innovations that we hadn’t been—and likely never would be—exposed to in Bardstown, KY.

We’d absorb every game possible. Record them, watch them again, dissect them in every way possible. But never once did we settle on a team to cheer for. Ajax, Juventus, and Barcelona all came close to capturing our undivided attention. Ajax won the first Champions League title we saw on television. Juventus won it the next year and made it to the finals in the next two seasons. Barcelona was televised more often as ESPN picked up La Liga and they had more of the players we tried to follow—Romario, Ronaldo, Ronald Koeman, Gheorghe Hagi, Hristo Stoichkov, Luis Enrique, etc.

I chalk all this up (our lack of support for a specific team) to irregular access to games on television and little to no coverage in whatever print media we had access to. Even with regular access to the internet, it was quite hard to know where to find updates on what was happening overseas.

At the turn of the century, though, as I was graduating from high school and heading off to play soccer at Union College in Barbourville, KY, I started to have a little bit more access. My teammates and I could watch games via satellite or pay per view cable channels. Teammates from Brazil came from different areas, so they had different teams they cheered for—Ponte Preta, Flamingo, Sao Paulo, Gremio, Cruzeiro. One from Scotland had played in the Glasgow Celtic youth system. A few of the Latinos were Real Madrid fans, which clashed with the fact I favored Barcelona.

Some of the American players were like me and didn’t have regular access growing up, so didn’t have a team they cheered for. Of the ones who did, they were usually Manchester United fans, owing primarily to that teams’s Treble in 1999. And being obstinate, I made up my mind I would never cheer for the Red Devils.

But, if anything, as opposed to finding a team to support I figured out which teams I wouldn’t be cheering for, and so, I continued following my favorite players—Thierry Henry, Claudio Reyna, Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard, Edgar Davids, Zinedine Zidane.

Even with satellites and pay per view, coverage in the US remained patchy, though. Meanwhile, the MLS continued struggling to improve quality wise. Add to that being in Kentucky where the soccer culture hadn’t fully developed, there still wasn’t massive pressure to pick a side. Rather, the excitement came with any game that would be televised, no matter the sides competing.

It was much of the same when I transferred to Murray State. Although, I would say the campus was a bit more diverse and had a strong international student community. Naturally, this meant there would be more interest in specific clubs. Some of my fraternity brothers were Liverpool fans, others were diehard supporters of Man U. They’d grown up in the St. Louis area, one of the US’s soccer hotbeds.

For some reason, I was still reluctant to go beyond cheering and following specific players. So much so, I had two Claudio Reyna jerseys from when he was at Man City—the horror. I’d tell myself, ‘It’s okay, you love the game, you don’t need to pick a team to cheer for.’

After I studied in Germany during the fall of 2003, I flirted with the idea of becoming an FC Bayern Fan since I went to their Champions League match against Glasgow Celtic. There was a little moment when I felt the same for Newcastle after spending a weekend there when I went to visit Durham University. And my appreciation for Ajax grew a little larger after I saw them play Feyenoord at the Amsterdam Arena. To be clear, I have a soft spot for all three sides. But nothing more grew from it.

A few years later though, I found my way to Liverpool.

It was May 2005, the school year had wrapped up and I would be home for a few weeks before returning to Murray for the summer classes I needed to graduate. I chalked up my fatigue to the tough semester I had just completed. But when it didn’t go away after a few days, I went to my primary care physician who ran a battery of tests to figure out if something more was at play.

Those tests came back with a troubling result. My platelet count, 11,000, was well below normal (150k-450k). I was rushed off to an oncologist for fear that whatever I had could be cancer related. He did a bone marrow biopsy, prescribed me with some steroids to increase the platelet count, and asked me to come back early the next week.

A few days later, the morning after hitting the driving range at a local golf course with a friend, I woke up with a paralyzing headache. My parents drove me back to the oncologist for some sort of emergency triage. For some reason, they sent me back home for 24 hours. And by the next day, when I went back in for my regularly scheduled appointment the pain hadn’t dissipated. In fact, it had only gotten worse.

The doctor admitted me to the hospital next door. They called in an infectious disease specialist, requested another battery of testing, and pumped me full of anti-viral drugs and pain killers. I was supposed to rest and not over exert myself. I wouldn’t have to worry about over exertion, as my headache had immobilized me. But rest would be far more difficult. Whatever drugs they had given me were doing a number on my dreams—think Twisted Metal but in real life.

My second day in the hospital wasn’t much better. But even though I couldn’t hold any food down, one thing was certain. I was going to must up all my strength to watch the Champions League Final that afternoon.

Since Ajax beat AC Milan in 1995, I had only missed on final—Juventus v Real Madrid in 1998.

“Mother,” I started, using the preferred, more formal title, “the Champions League Final is this afternoon, I’m going to watch it.”

She rolled her eyes, because she knew, despite my condition, this was a statement of intent not to be trifled with.

The final pitted Liverpool against AC Milan. If I’m honest, I didn’t think Liverpool stood any chance at winning. AC Milan had a squad filled to the brim with talent.

By halftime the score was 3-0 in favor of AC Milan. My gut told me I should turn it off and actually get some rest. But my soul, that little bit that had directed my lifelong love of the game told me Liverpool would offer up a rebuttal.

“Liverpool still has a chance,” I told my mom, “anything can happen.”

She had gently suggested that maybe I should forget about the game. My Jordanian nurse took one look at the scoreline, clicked his tongue, and agreed with my mom.

“No chance they come back from this. Maybe you should turn off the tv and rest,” he said.

I didn’t budge.From my hospital bed, fighting off fatigue and migraines, I witnessed the Miracle of Istanbul. All it took was six minutes.

Starting in the 54th minute, Steven Gerrard directed a looping header to the far post, fooling AC Milan’s goalkeeper. Two minutes later, Vladimir Šmicer took a speculative shot from 20-plus yards out that went through two defenders and narrowly missed his teammate Milos Baros before finding the back of the net. And four minutes after that, Xabi Alonso missed his penalty kick, but then buried the rebound to complete the comeback.

“Mother, I told you they’d do it,” I said faintly.

“I know, son,” she said, now sitting on the edge of her seat fully captivated by the comeback.

Liverpool fans the world over all know what happens next. LFC held on to beat AC Milan in a shootout winning their fifth Champions League/European Cup.

Captain Steven Gerrard lifting the Champions League trophy in Istanbul

Captain Steven Gerrard lifting the Champions League trophy in Istanbul

Within the next few days, I started to make my own comeback. The migraines subsided, my appetite returned (I’d lost nearly 20 pounds over a ten day period), and I was able to get out of bed and move around for extended periods of time.

As I’m sure most of you guessed early on, my primary care physician missed the signs suggesting I had Mononucleosis—fatigue, low platelet count, swollen lymph nodes, etc. When they prescribed steroids to increase the platelet count, the virus attacked the fluid around my spine and brain causing the headaches. The end diagnosis was Mono and viral meningitis.

I spent the rest of the summer recovering, which wasn’t terrible, but meant I would have to return to Murray for the fall in order to finish the classes I needed to graduate.

But my hospital stay, in all of its terribleness, led me to Liverpool. I will forever link the Miracle of Istanbul to my own comeback. And for that, I will always be a Kopite, a Red, a Liverpool fan, a Scouser.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC. You can follow him on twitter at @ShamsWriter.

Personalities in Liverpool--Ro, our AirBnB host

“David, that walk will take you nearly an hour,” Ro texted back via the AirBnB app.

I, along with my wife and my friend Jeremy, had just arrived at Liverpool’s Lime Street Station. After 2 hours on a train from London (a little longer for my wife and I as we had an early morning train from Cambridge to London), we had decided we’d walk to our AirBnb on Anfield Road.

Initially, I ignored Ro’s message. The distance didn’t look too far and I wanted to see the city by foot. What I didn’t plan for were all the crazy intersections and four to six lanes of traffic we’d have to cross on our way to the Everton/Anfield neighborhood.

But about 20 minutes into the walk, each one of us had the same thought.

‘Let’s uber this.’

I messaged Ro back to tell him we’d reevaluated our strategy and would be coming by car.

We were picked up in an odd light industrial zone just west of Rupert Lane Recreational Garden. If we had brought less luggage, maybe we could have made it. But given we were le tired and new to the city, it was probably wise we changed course and hailed an uber.

Our AirBnB host, Ro, had been communicative from the moment we booked in late March and even after we arrived. Early on, he let us know that our quest for tickets may not be fruitful—especially if we weren’t willing to spend over £500 for each. Spoiler alert: we weren’t. But he also informed us that the pubs will be equally as exciting.

By the time we arrived, Ro had our room ready and gave us some tips on where to catch the game. But first he insisted we take a walk around the ground.

“The atmosphere is amazing right now. It’s buzzing. Fans from all over have surrounded the ground. Kiosks are up selling merchandise and gear. You all should get over there before it’s too late,” Ro told us.

“I know you mentioned a few pubs in your messages, but are there any others,” I asked.

“Well theres the Arkles, which is where I’ll likely be for the game. The Flat Iron down the street. The Sandon, The Park Pub. I’d recommend hopping around to a few and there all over the place. If I see you at the Arkles, then I’ll buy you a pint.”

(We eventually made it to all of those pubs.)

“Thanks, we’re probably going to do that.”

“Before I go, as a gift for coming on the last day of the season, I’d like to offer you these mugs. I don’t usually do this, otherwise I’ll have to buy a new set after every match day. That can get expensive.”

“Oh man, thanks. We really appreciate it.”

Ro left us to explore Anfield. While my wife napped, my friend Jeremy and I walked around the stadium, took pictures, and visited the team store.

We didn’t see Ro again during our trip. But in exchange for him giving us those coffee mugs, I left him two of my Liverpool t-shirts, ones he’s likely not to get over in the UK. The first was my LFC-DC shirt that comes with membership in the Official Liverpool Supporters Club in DC. And the other was a custom shirt I had made by the Anfield Shop—with You’ll Never Walk Alone around an outline of Kentucky.

I think it was an even exchange and to be honest, I was planning on leaving one of those shirts anyway.

Ro’s hospitality and generosity won’t be soon forgotten. He went out of his way to provide us with excellent tips to navigate the area on match day. We would have been lost without his help. Here’s a link to his AirBnB.

My Weekend in Liverpool

By David Shams

Since becoming a Liverpool fan, it’s been a dream of mine to visit Merseyside. Less than ten days ago, I did exactly that.

My friend Jeremy and I had been throwing around the idea of going. He’s a Liverpool fan too and wanted to experience the match day environment. Five years ago that we watched Chelsea end our title hopes and since then it’s been nothing short of a roller coaster ride—Steven Gerrard leaving for the MLS in 2015, a Europa League Final defeat in 2016, and losing to Real Madrid in Kiev last year.

By January, when it looked like there was another title run in the making, we’d all but settled on making the trip across the pond for the final weekend. There was a glimmer of hope that it’d be a double celebration—Liverpool winning their first top division title in 29 years on my 37th birthday.

We were too late to secure tickets into the ground via the fan club allocation—apparently we should have done that in October. And on the secondary-market prices were astronomical. But that didn’t stop us. Just being in the pubs and around other fans outside the stadium would be enough for us.

I found us (my wife joined as well, she didn’t want to miss out on this experience) an AirBnB on Anfield Road, just blocks from The Shankly Gates. It was an old Police Station turned into a hostel/dormitory. Our host, Ro, was exceedingly hospitable and overflowing with tips on what to do in the neighborhood during our stay.

The Shankly Gates May 12th, 2019.

The Shankly Gates May 12th, 2019.

While my wife napped, we had a bit of a bender in Cambridge the night before thanks to one of my old soccer pals from DC who’s now doing research at the University there, Jeremy and I walked around the ground. Fans from all over had converged in what can only be described as a pilgrimage. For some this would be their only glimpse of the hallowed ground, for others it was more of a chance to get reacquainted, but for all of us we stood in awe the temple that’s played host to so many of our favored football memories.

The team shop was jam packed with fans, too. And if I’m honest it wasn’t something I enjoyed. The shop was great, but the whole experience reminded me of Black Friday shopping in America. Having worked in retail for several of those days, I didn’t want any part of it. Jeremy and I stuck around just long enough to make a few purchases and continue along our path around the ground.

I manage to pull off a half-assed jahel stance, while not really smiling, even though I’m standing beneath The Kop.

I manage to pull off a half-assed jahel stance, while not really smiling, even though I’m standing beneath The Kop.

As we made our way past The Paisley Gateway and then along the outside of the Kenny Dalglish Stand, we ended up back at The Shankly Gates. There was a gentleman just outside the gates with a replica Champions League trophy selling photo ops for £3 a pop. He waived the fee after hearing we didn’t have cash.

Seeing as we were less than a block from the famous Arkles Pub, we stopped in there for a quick pint and an order of fish and chips from the next door chippy. As we entered, though, a group of lads struck up a conversation with us.

“You all going to the game tomorrow,” one asked as we were about to enter the north side of the pub.

“Unfortunately, no. We couldn’t get tickets,” I said.

“Wait, are you from America?”

“Yeah, Washington, DC.”

“I love that accent. I love Americans.”

“Thanks,” I said, chuckling and a little confused.

“Aw, well, I’m sorry about that, if it makes you uncomfortable.”

I knew what he was getting at. We do the same thing when they come over here, so it was even.

“No worries, we do it to you all when you head over to America,” I said trying to go back into the pub so I can have a pint.

“Right, okay, well go have your pint then, I wont hold you up any longer.”

Jeremy grabbed the pints, while I went to the chippy next door to get what was supposed to be something small to share, but ended up being a huge piece of fried fish. It was delicious, but several hours later I had some massive heartburn.

After her nap, my wife joined us before we raced off to the Classic Football Shirts pop-up down at the Royal Albert Dock. It was almost as if they knew I would be in town. I’m a sucker for old football jerseys. My goal was to pick up a Liverpool kit from the mid-90s. Those seem to be in short supply, so I ‘settled’ for two tops from a later period.

I ‘settled’ for these two beauties.

I ‘settled’ for these two beauties.

Once we wrapped up our business on the docks, we decided to catch an Uber to the Penny Lane area. Our parents would be upset if we didn’t at least make an attempt to head up there. We ended up grabbing a glass or two of wine at the Penny Lane Wine Bar, which I think had been overrun by some rather raucous, but still polite groups of lads. Nonetheless, the wine was delicious and the snacks we had hit the spot.

But we had bigger fish to fry on Saturday evening. My favorite Liverpool based podcast, The Anfield Wrap, was hosting their end of season party over at the University of Liverpool. To be honest, I was expecting a panel discussion and some Q&A from the crowd. That’s what I get for living in DC for the last 8 years—everything is a damned panel discussion. Even though the event was more pep rally than intellectual conversation about what’s going to happen in the summer or next season, the event was an experience I won’t forget. The three of us learned new chants, ones that I’ve not heard at the watch parties here in DC. And most importantly, we celebrated the amazing season Liverpool has had so far with all the other Scousers in attendance.

Jeremy, me, and Amanda at The Anfield Wrap pep rally

Jeremy, me, and Amanda at The Anfield Wrap pep rally

Owing primarily to the previous night’s shenanigans, my wife and I were beat. And it seemed Jeremy was too. So we all headed back to our AirBnB on Anfield Road. We wanted to be well rested for the long day ahead of us.

The next morning, my wife and I woke up a bit early. It was our plan to take a light run through Stanley Park and around Everton’s ground—Goodison Park. I’ve always been fascinated with stadiums, especially ones smack dab in the middle of neighborhoods. Both grounds at opposite ends of Stanley Park fit that bill. We ended up walking, though, as my achilles tendon was (and still is now as I write this) bothering me.

Goodison Park.

Goodison Park.

An old college buddy has been living in Liverpool for a few years now. He recommended a small bakery near Anfield that sent its proceeds to those who are less fortunate. Seeing as my wife and I love to support local businesses and are suckers for a good cause, we made sure our walk ended at Homebaked Anfield to pick up one of their delicious pies. Afterwards, we stocked up on bottled water at a nearby store—hydration would be key for a long day that would include heavy beer consumption.

Once we rallied back at the AirBnB after Jeremy returned from his own pie run to Homebaked Anfield, we headed to the Sandon. We were told it would be a hopping place to watch the game—to be fair, almost every pub in the area was. It was a bit confusing though, as we knew there would be a beer garden with a huge TV, but we couldn’t figure out how to get there. After a few minutes of deliberations, going through a few doors that led to some back passage ways, which themselves led into other bars, we emerged into a back courtyard that was the beer garden we had been searching for.

It was packed. Not sure why it surprised me, but it did. The scene reminiscent of a college bar on gameday. Lads chugging beers, talking shop, dulling the anxiety from the impending game, all while enjoying the amazing weather. As we took in the scenes just a few blocks from the stadium, drinking plastic 16 ounce bottles of Carling (owned by Molson Coors), the crowd in and around the Sandon started bellowing out the various chants and songs Kopites know by heart. The Fields of Anfield Road, Allez-Allez-Allez, You’ll Never Walk Alone, and other ballads commemorating specific players and their exploits for the club.

I believe they call this multi-tasking…or double fisting…or being responsible (see the water there?).

I believe they call this multi-tasking…or double fisting…or being responsible (see the water there?).

We met a group of young fans—some were just out for the scenes and didn’t really care about the football—that had congregated near us at the north end of the Sandon’s back garden, which was too far away from the big screen to actually enjoy the game. About twenty minutes before kickoff, the other group snaked their way through the crowd to get a better view of the big screen that had been bussed in from out of town, Amanda, Jeremy, and I followed, exploiting the gaps they were leaving in their wake. We made it to about four or five rows back from the fence protecting the bus from the crowd. It was as close as we could get.

There was a bit of a hiccup at the start of the match. The big screen was running on wifi or some sort of internet service and all of our cell phones were sucking up the bandwidth. After being instructed to turn our phones to airplane mode—a first outside of actually being on an airplane—the game booted up although we missed the first few minutes.

I could try to analyze the game here, but that’s not the point. They did win 2-0. But the real amazing moment was that all too brief 21 minutes when Liverpool stood precariously balanced at the top of the table. Sadio Mane scored for Liverpool in the 17th minute. But in a game much farther south between Manchester City and Brighton, one in which every Liverpool fan wanted Brighton to steal a point, Glenn Murray, Brighton’s journeyman striker, nodded home a corner kick to put Brighton up in the 27th minute.

The fans in the ground had started making some noise, which led all of us to believe that Liverpool had scored a second and for some reason our feed was delayed. As phones came out and off airplane mode there was a sudden realization that 29 years of waiting might actually come to an end.

Pandemonium. Scenes. Shouts. Screams. Ecstasy.

Beer was thrown, smoke flares were set off, fans quickly became friendly enough to embrace. An odd, profusely sweating chap with a Barcelona hat on backwards and wearing a heavyish leather jacket was giving everyone in his proximity double high fives. And this young lad with an Irish accent—or maybe it was Scouse, I don’t know—was nearly inconsolable. I’m not sure he was alive the last time Liverpool won a top division title.

“Are you okay,” I asked after we hugged in celebration, my hand still on his shoulder.

“No, I’m not,” he said laughing, possibly even holding back some tears, doubling over with his hands on his knees.

We all had some tears, if I’m honest. It was hard not to.

But less than a minute later, City had equalized. And ten minutes after that, they’d gone ahead. This was the exact scenario that my friend Jeremy and I had wanted to avoid. Brighton scoring first would only upset City even more and push them into a higher gear. They went on to win 4-1. Liverpool’s slim title hopes were dashed.

As both games wrapped up and the coverage switched from the Liverpool players lap of honor around Anfield to City’s trophy celebration down in Brighton, the inevitable beers started flying towards the imported big screen. Some missed. Some landed square in the heart of the screen. Fans cheered. It was an understandable frustration. Had Liverpool lost because of a bad call or egregious error by a match referee, the response would have likely been far worse. But Liverpool did everything they could—they lost once, had a points haul that would win the title in all but the last two years, and still managed to finish second place.

When we arrived on Merseyside the afternoon before, there was this overwhelming sense of jubilation, hopeful optimism, the idea that Liverpool fans were within 90 minutes of seeing their team get their hands on the league trophy for the first time in 29 years. My wife and I felt it on our walk Sunday morning. And in the bowels of the Sandon and more so as we emerged in the back beer garden, it was even more palpable. There was a buzzing a sense of accomplishment, that whatever happened, Liverpool had finally arrived back at the pinnacle of English football.

Maybe it was that feeling that somehow managed to mute what might normally have been a much more destructive response to having to delay their celebration for another year. But as we left the Sandon and headed toward Anfield Road to find Jeremy a match program, the entire atmosphere felt more deflated. As fans were finally filing out of the stadium after applauding their team for the best season Liverpool has had in ages, their facial expressions told a bigger story.

Dejection, confusion, heartbroken, but all with their heads held high. Not just because of the points total, but also because Liverpool’s season isn’t over. In two short weeks, Liverpool will travel to Madrid to face off against Tottenham in the Champion’s League Final—LFC’s second in a row.

Unlucky in our own pursuit for a program, we did manage to find much needed sustenance at a wonderfully named take-away counter. Wok On is exactly what you would think it is—a greasy spoon, serving asian noodles and rice, doing a thriving business on match days. It hit the spot, six hours of beer, sun, and only a smattering of water and our stomachs were engaged in a debate only the British Parliament could surpass.

My wife called it quits after the food, though. Jeremy and I spent the rest of the evening bar hopping. A quick beer at the Park Pub, just across the street from the Kop at Anfield. Then, on the advice of my wife, we headed down to the Flat Iron, where we got the last pints of Guinness before the owner cut off all the taps and ordered the bar staff to serve bottles only. To be fair, they’d run out of everything on tap…or were nearly there by the time we walked in.

We finished the night at the Arkles. Most of match day crowd had died down and gone home by that time. But when we entered it was still buzzing filled mostly with employees from the stadium. Plus they weren’t experiencing any beer shortages.

Jeremy and I struck up a conversation with Walter, a security guard at Anfield. He doesn’t get to actually see the games or participate in the chants/songs, because his job requires that his attention is elsewhere. But he does record the games.

“If we lose, I delete it. But I try to watch all the other games,” Walter told us.

He was a big fan of San Miguel, which is a popular spanish lager in the UK. We get it here, in DC, but its not as wide spread as it is there. We, also, found out that he supported the New York Yankees and does his best to catch as many games as possible on TV, but they were often too late. When we told him that the Yankees were coming to London, he seemed excited. But he didn’t act like he’d be able to make it. Before he left, Walter invited us to a few bars the next day to watch some bands play, which we declined since we had to leave for London early in the morning.

By the time we left Arkles, we had made several other friends, seen one person escorted out of the bar, one drink thrown on a patron, one person puke and then rally almost immediately, heard several renditions of the Bobby Firmino song, and at least one Sweet Caroline sing along.

When we arrived back at our AirBnB, we were famished but all of the chippies and restaurants had closed by that point. So we ordered Dominos, which is a realtively easy task rendered a bit more difficult once you realize you’re in a different country. What if the driver needs directions to your location? What if they need to call you? Will the pizza even be worth it?

Not being a Domino’s fan, it was a tough decision for me to make. But it wasn’t bad. And after an evening of beers, I’m pretty certain anything would have worked.

I feel asleep serenaded by the sound of Jeremy watching the Tick, or whatever it was called, on Netflix.

It was tough waking up honestly. Not because I was hung over…the hydration tactic worked, apparently…or maybe it was the pizza, but because I wasn’t ready to leave. Alas, we had an 11:45 train to London from Liverpool’s Lime Street Station.

The weekend in Liverpool was an amazing experience. And as cliche as it sounds, I’m already planning my next trip back. Hopefully, in late September-early October and this time for a little longer than two days. I’ll be back on Merseyside in no time.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC. You can follow him on twitter at @ShamsWriter.

Can You Forgive My Hot Takes?

It’s highly likely I’ve been jinxing Liverpool all season.

Back in late August, while sitting in Brooklyn’s Monro Pub, a favorite haunt for Kopites in the Big Apple, I leaned into my wife. She’d joined me enthusiastically, just as I join her a handful of times each year at a few Sunday services.

This was my church, my religion, not that I’m well versed in the history of the famous club from Merseyside. I’m not going to remember games from the high times in the 70s and 80s. If I’m honest, I’m only a recent Kopite convert choosing the Temple of Anfield as the way I worship the beautiful game.

“This is the year we do it, Doc. We’re just that good,” I whispered, hoping that it wouldn’t be loud enough for the soccer gods to hear and then spin whatever machinations necessary to make it not come true.

At Christmas, in a text to a friend I said, “City dropping points to Palace and now Leicester makes this Liverpool’s to lose.”

He texted back something along the lines of “It’s still too early to tell.” Apparently, he wasn’t wrong.

When City managed to lose at St. James’ Park, almost a month after Liverpool lost that energy sapping match at the Etihad, there was a palpable sense that Liverpool just may pull it off after all. My friend and I had just decided to buy tickets for a trip across the pond to celebrate my 37th birthday and maybe even be present for the first top division title in 29 years. Understandably, I got caught up in the excitement.

Then a few weeks ago, bursting with hubris and a visceral hatred for the Mancunian Sky Blues (maybe visceral is too strong a word, but this is sports and we’re allowed a few outrageous sentiments), I tweeted out that we’d be celebrating a title after a win v. Huddersfield.

To be fair, I did add the hashtag for TooHotTuesday, but clearly it’s part of a long pattern of over-confidence.

And the coup de grace, the one that’s made me a bit more reticent for any future hot takes.

In a state of ceaseless optimism, I engaged in yet another crossing of the hot take line. This one predicted Barcelona, that ever dangerous side driven by arguably the greatest single player to ever grace a soccer pitch, would go down easily.

Again, I’d like to point to the hot take hashtag. That should have been enough for the great soccer puppet masters in the sky to not smite my hopes of a trophy this season. Apparently not.

But I’m not going to say all is lost or that there’s zero chance Liverpool hoists a trophy this year. What ever is left is but a glimmer, a thin sliver of light, a sniff or two of something delectable. If anyone can do it, it is Liverpool.

“We’ve been ying-yanging between two improbable championships,” Rob Gutmann from The Anfield Wrap said on the Post-Match Pint after Wednesday’s match against Barcelona. He’s not wrong. But at some point, we reach the end of the road and either the results we need will come or they won’t.

If someone had told us, though, at the beginning of the season Liverpool would be nearing 97 points by May 12th and in another Champions League Semifinals, we all would have thought that would have been enough for at least one trophy. Our enthusiasm—and let’s be honest, hubris—would have been understandable.

This season has been brilliant and while I’ll fully admit my hot takes were a bit premature (but isn’t that the point of hot takes?), I know that this campaign signals one important thing. It’s Liverpool’s shot across the bow of every damn club in the Premier League and Europe.

And next season, we go again.