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.

Nostalgia: Champions League Style

By David Shams

The first time I saw a Champions League Final was in 1995. To be honest, I had no idea what I was watching, but at the end I knew I wanted more.

Ajax’s young guns, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Nwankwo Kanu, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Saar, well basically their entire starting lineup, faced off against AC Milan, a squad that could only be described as the old guard, remnants left over from one of the more dominate footballing sides of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I didn’t know it at the time, but they had met in the group stages with Ajax taking both matches 2-0. But, it just like a changing of the guards. Even though we didn’t get access to much club soccer on television, we did get a handful of soccer magazines. And from those sources my brother and I knew that AC Milan was powerhouse, they were the pinnacle, they were the Yankees.

It was the 85th minute before 19-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert’s first touch from a Frank Rijkaard pass took him 1v1 with the goalkeeper. And with two defenders closing, while losing his own balance, Kluivert slotted the ball past an on-rushing goalkeeper.

The game winner.

An addiction to the beautiful game and arguably its most exciting competition took hold.

Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. I was already addicted. My brother and I would watch tapes of old games from the 1990 and 1994 editions of the World Cup. (I still have those tapes by the way) This was pre-MLS and pre-EPL being televised regularly where we grew up.

But there was something about that game that drove that hook even deeper. Like the first time you taste a craft beer after years of stale macro brews. Or when you get that first sip of 12-year Balvenie after growing up on bourbon. Whatever it was, I wanted more.

They made it to the finals the next season and could have been back to back champions if not for a silly defensive error. But to be honest, Juventus had one of their own that let Ajax back into the game. The final had to be settled in a shootout with the club from Turin hoisting the title. And by summer Ajax’s finest products in a generation had been shipped off to distant corners of the continent—mainly Spain and Italy.

I would be lying if I said seeing Ajax making a deep run in this year’s Champions League didn’t have me overcome with nostalgia. And not just for that spring afternoon 24 years ago in May. But for every Champions League campaign after that.

Rushing home from school to catch the last half of what ever game between whichever teams. Begging our soccer coach to delay practice so that we can catch a glimpse of our heros play each other. Jamming in a VHS cassette (I had to look that up because I had forgotten the terminology) and recording over the 1992 slam dunk contest, even if it’s only for the last 30 minutes of the game. Getting to see FC Bayern beat Glasgow Celtic at the Olympic Stadium on the opening match day of the 2003-04 Champions League.

Seeing Ajax in the semifinals does that to me. I’m not even an Ajax fan. Not in the same way, I’m a Liverpool fan, at least. But seeing them do well, seeing them make a deep run, against better funded, superstar filled squads, makes all those memories come flooding back.

And while this team may not be as dominant as the Ajax teams of the past, as, year-on-year, it’s far more difficult to keep up with the big spending Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, they’ve nonetheless made a strong case for keeping their club’s spot in the pantheon of footballing royalty.

A healthy mix of young and old has Ajax two games away from a Champions League Final. But undoubtedly, though, this summer will, just like in the summer of ‘96, see all those bright young superstars in Amsterdam headed off for new challenges—La Liga, The Premier League, Serie A, The Bundesliga. They’ll be Ajax’s missionaries, plying their trade and talent across the continent.

In a way it’s heartbreaking. Imagine what this side could do if they stuck together. (It should be noted that the club made it to the 2017 Europa League Finals with some of the players from this year’s team.)

But that’s the modern game. Heartwarming, heartbreaking, nostalgia-inducing.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC.