The MLS Cup Champions (that's right, the Wizards are the nation's best professional soccer team) invited their season-ticket holders to an open house on a cold, wet January evening. Fans walked from the distant parking lot to the Chiefs indoor field, rattled the locked front doors and cupped their hands against the glass to peer inside at the darkness.
A faded grease-penned arrow pointed the faithful to a side door, which was guarded by a large red Dumpster and two huge air conditioners. There, finally, season-ticket holders entered to view their heroes, the defending champs.
About 500 fans showed up at the dinner hour on a school night to watch the Wizards stretch and scrimmage for 45 minutes. "I dragged my [9-year-old] daughter along tonight," said Wendy Wilson, when asked if she was alone. "She's bored to death, but I love it." Wilson grew up playing soccer in Vallejo, California, and finally got the money together this year to afford season tickets.
The fans' devotion was earned by the Wizards' play last season. The kickers swept through the 2000 MLS playoffs behind the outstanding play of Tony Meola, league MVP. Meola recorded a record sixteen regular-season shutouts as the KC goalie. He made ten saves in shutting out the Chicago Fire 1-0 to win the MLS Cup.
But Meola and midfielder Chris Klein missed the Wizards' open house because of obligations with the USA World Cup team.
Fans stood, sat, sprawled and lounged up and down the near sideline as the Wizards sprinted past them on the Astroturf, occasionally brushing against the crowd as they retrieved an out-of-bounds ball. "This was kind of our midnight madness deal, like what college basketball does," said Curt Johnson, the Wizards' new general manager. "I was really pleased."
No food vendors or concession stands offered supper to the fans during the two hours of scrimmage and autographs. Again, not one person or stomach was heard grumbling.
Chris Chavis, a 29-year-old receiving coordinator in Harrisonville, Missouri, who was married exactly three years ago, stood patiently near the rear of a serpentine line of soccer fans, hoping to garner autographs from the Wizards players seated at long cafeteria tables. He loved every minute of it.
"I got the soccer bug in fifth grade when I started playing at Gladden Elementary School in Belton," said a smiling Chavis. "Somebody had a flyer, and I learned the rules as I went. My dad actually went to the library -- I learned this years later -- and he studied to learn the game and be our coach because nobody else wanted to coach."
Asked if this was how she envisioned spending her third anniversary, Brianna Chavis grabbed her husband's right elbow with both hands and said, "He loves soccer, and I love him. I just like watching the guys run around on their little soccer legs."
The Wizards' 87 percent season-ticket renewal rate is the second-highest in league history. The Wizards' season-ticket sales for 2001 have already reached the 3,000 mark and have a realistic chance of surpassing the record number of 4,115 sold in 1996. Puny numbers when compared with the Chiefs', but no one is comparing.
"We realize that these are the people who went through thick and thin with this club," said Peter Vermes, a Wizards defender. "We're glad to see that there is a serious interest after we did what we could on our end, winning the championship. I hope to see a serious improvement in attendance."
Mo Johnston, the team captain, playfully heckled a fan in line holding an empty Wizards Frosted Flakes cereal box. "Actually, I know them all by heart," Johnston said of the fans. "I know all their names."
The Wizards deserve larger crowds, but there is something to be said about the love affair this small band of forgotten fans has with the team. The word "unconditional" comes to mind, especially on a wintry Wednesday night, watching a family of five hug autographed posters and push a baby stroller past the red Dumpster and out into the night.