The Fan In You: Death Valley Days

In this The Fan In You piece, TSG Photog Extraordinaire Matt Mathai fills us in on how he came about his passion

Death Valley Days “Life nowadays as a DC United fan”

There's only one Matt Mathai. One Matt Mathaaaaaiiii. There's only one Matt Mathai.

My first introduction to top-level soccer in America came in 1992 when a friend and I went to see the USA-Ireland match at RFK Stadium.

More so, it was a chance to see Roy Keane, Niall Quinn, Thomas Dooley, and the new elegant US player, Roy Wegerle. It was really cold and rainy for a May day and match, but we stuck it out and were rewarded with a 3-1 win.

I was hooked.

I had played, coached, and reffed soccer at various levels all my life, but this was different somehow.

I’ve now lost count of the number of times I’ve traveled to watch the USMNT in action since then.  The most memorable time was in 2001 when the Screaming Eagles, a DC United supporters group, organized a trip to Mexico City for a WC qualifier.

Estadio Azteca was and is awesome.

110,000 fans in green, and then there was about 130 of us in red, white, and blue.

The tension ramped up when we unfurled a huge US flag right behind goal. A little unwise, perhaps, but we hadn’t come all that way to sit quietly and anonymously in a corner. We were hit by all kinds of things thrown at us….beer, coins, batteries, and other less savory things that I am too much of a gentleman to mention.

I love the red jersey I wore it that day. It now has a burn mark where I was hit with a lit flare.

Yes, you read that correctly, hit…with…a…lit flare.

All of it, though, the atmosphere, the sound, the singing, the armored riot police escorting us through a tunnel of plexiglas riot shields, all of it was awesome.

1992: USA v. Ireland: Notice the Budweiser ‘frame’ they used for ads.  This was an improvement over having to take commercial breaks, which they did during the TV broadcasts of the 1990 World Cup.

In 1994, my friend and I took a lot of time off and spent a lot of money to see 14 World Cup matches.

The most notable were: Ireland vs. Italy (a shock upset), Saudi Arabia vs. Belgium (one of the finest goals ever scored in a World Cup) and Germany vs. Bulgaria (Stoitchkov beating the Germans with a beautiful free kick ). Then Italy vs. Brazil….the final.  I remember sitting in the stands in Pasadena thinking that I’d fulfilled one of my dreams.

Here’s the shot I took of Stoitchkov nailing his free kick.

And here’s a shot of the pre-game ceremony at the final in Pasadena

I joined Sam’s Army early because I liked the idea of promoting American support for the USMNT.  I was tired of watching games in the US where our fans were outnumbered.   In the beginning, it was often just 10 or 20 of us in red behind a goal.

The players noticed, though, and that made it worthwhile.

I was thrilled when MLS started.

Only the finest graphic design from 1996...

The announcement in 1995 that my home of Washington, D.C. would get a team was a great day for me.

I felt committed to helping it succeed in any way I could, so I decided to form a supporters group….which eventually became the noted Screaming Eagles.

I set up a listserve and a web page and started to attract traffic from the people I used to talk to on the newsgroup.

I contacted the DC team (as yet unnamed) in 1995 while they were still in an office in NYC and we agreed to talk once they set up operations in the DC area.  I was lucky enough to establish very good relationships with everyone in the front office, and those relationships persist to this day.

The first sign I had that we had something was when the Name-The-Team contest was conducted via telephone and my web page.  That was pretty cool.  It’s a long story for another time, but I’m glad to say that sanity prevailed and the name ‘DC United’ was selected.

Here's a shot I took in April 1996 at the Meet the Team event. Bob Bradley, John Harkes, Marco Etcheverry.

Where have you gone, Said Fazlagic?

The year began with such promise.

It wasn’t to last.  We were terrible in the early days. Arena fired half the team after the second game, a 0-4 loss at Columbus, I believe.

There were angry signs all around RFK, including a memorable one that said “‘Arena Afuera’! (“Arena Out!”)  Slowly things started to settle down by the middle of the year and we started to play better.  Then Jaime Moreno arrived, and we were on our way.

On a rare good day in early 1996, Raul Diaz Arce celebrates a goal...

We finished the year at 16-16, clawed our way through the playoffs and actually won theMLS Cup ’96 in an incredible finish. I have Eddie Pope’s jersey from that match–it’s my most prized soccer possession. He, of course, scored the winning goal in overtime.

I was invited to the team’s private post-game party in their hotel, and I remember standing there chatting with the guys thinking that I could never have a better year as a soccer fan.

This next shot was during the brief speech-making break. A very spry-looking Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley indeed.

Budweiser, Kevin Payne, Bruce Arena, & Bob Bradley

Finally, to cap off a perfect year, I was invited to celebrate at the Victory Parade in Washington.

Over the years we had incredible success and were lucky to see some great players such as Etcheverry, Moreno, Harkes, Agoos, Pope,  Diaz Arce, Lassiter, Stewart, Nelsen, Gomez, Llamosa, Namoff…a who’s who of MLS.

We appeared in the first four MLS Cups, winning three.  Ben Olsen was in our midfield and scored for us in 1999.

Then came 2000 – 2003.  The lost years.  Let’s not talk about them. Moving on…

Why not a rabbit’s foot?

I have a lot of soccer jerseys.  I’m a compulsive jersey collector.  At some point late in 2003, things were so bad with DC United that I started to wear jerseys of other teams to our home games, strictly for luck.

Nothing helped.  I continued wearing other jerseys in 2004. This time, though, with Piotr Nowak in charge, things were different.

We started to win. I couldn’t stop wearing those jersey’s, could I?

Mike Scott, Glenn Davis and Joze Cruz...heck all of the Houston Astros would be proud...

The winningest one was a 1996 mesh KC Wizards jersey.  It was ugly as sin, but it was a winner. When we reached the 2004 MLS Cup final, I had a decision to make, since we were playing KC in the final. I ended up wearing my DCU jersey over my KC jersey.  It must have worked, because we won.

Since then, it’s been a slow decline.

An Open Cup here, a Supporters Shield there, but our form has been poor and it has seemed as though we’ve tried to hold on to the old ways of playing without the players to do it.

I rediscovered my love of photography in 2005.  I got a media credential early that season, and started to appreciate the sport a whole new way.

Now we’re about to start the 2011 season, and as it does every year, this one begins with optimism.

Ben Olsen is our coach and we all hope he can bring back some of the passion and bite that’s been missing.


The Stare by Ben Olsen is back. Biting...

We have some good young players in the fold and lots of competition for places in the starting lineup.  The totally unexpected news about Charlie Davies has put some real buzz back in the team.  I hope, on many levels, that CD9 is successful in his comeback.

My happiest soccer memories?  Wearing a DCU jersey in England, Greece, Mexico, and a few other countries and having people come up to me wanting to chat because they recognized the jersey.  It’s a sign that soccer might be really taking hold in this country, and nothing could be better than that.

More from Matt Mathai on The Shin Guardian:

» Meet Matt Mathai: Moments Spoken In Picture

» Images: USA vs. Colombia, October 2010

» USA vs. Chile, January 2011: Selected Images

» USA vs. Brazil, August 10th, 2010

19 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for sharing your story, Matt. Very cool.

    Also thanks for sharing those hilarious Coach Sweatpants photos. Bob in denim!

    Keep up this great series, TSG.


  2. Posted by dikranovich on 2011/02/13 at 6:59 AM

    dc really has a nice soccer atmosphere. rfk is a great venue and is going to be out of this world this spring. there cant be many better soccer bars than summers restaurant at the courthouse in arlington. we have great indoor soccer leagues, and pretty good fans. and the best soccer team in mls.


  3. Posted by adam on 2011/02/13 at 8:41 AM

    Excellent stuff, Matt. Thank you.


  4. Posted by Mark F on 2011/02/13 at 9:04 AM

    Wow this is an awesome story……Loved the Mexico part


  5. Posted by Christina An on 2011/02/13 at 7:44 PM

    Great article, Matt! Thank you for sucking me into your crazy world, too! :)


  6. Thanks Matt, you captured the soccer communities joie de vivre with your words!


  7. Posted by Soccernst on 2011/02/13 at 9:59 PM

    Thank you for sharing your story and your photos. They are a large part of what differentiates TSG from the other recycled content floating around at lesser sites. You are a gifted man. Cheers!


  8. I am genuinely excited for the first time in some years to watch DC play this year. With the additions of Dax McCarty, Perry Kitchen (drafted #3), and the hope that Davies can contribute this team is looking up!


  9. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/02/14 at 11:43 AM

    Thank you for sharing your story and photographs, Matt. I always enjoy viewing them, and wish I had your photography skills – I am very jealous!

    Please continue to contribute to TSG! Thanks again, man.


  10. Posted by Brian Spence on 2011/02/15 at 8:19 AM

    Excellent article Matt!


  11. Posted by Jake C on 2011/03/01 at 12:01 PM

    Matt, just noticed that pic of Olsen. It’s fantastic, and terrifying.


  12. […] workin’ his own denim kit in the D.C. United days. Stonewashed for Mr. Stone-faced.  [Via The Shin Guardian/Matt Mathai] Categories: Denim | T.D.Que? | U.S. Soccer Tags: Bob Bradley […]


  13. […] those new to TSG, Matt Mathai is a our resident […]


  14. Great stuff Matt, as I’ve told you many times I love your work and I love hearing more of the story. I’m proud to have been able to collaborate with you and hope we can do more in the future.


  15. […] His story and affiliation with US Soccer and MLS is deep; you can check it out here. […]


  16. every time TSG tweets this, I read it again. Can never be too informed about good history.


  17. […] His story and affiliation with US Soccer and MLS is deep; you can check it out here. […]


  18. […] part of our society (specifically the MLS and USMNT) after some of the great work people like Matt Mathai and supporters groups across the US have done to build supporters and the […]


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