The first group of fans to arrive outside of Gate A at RFK Stadium for Tuesday's celebration rally in honor of United's fourth MLS Cup championship showed up at 4:04 p.m. By the time the gates opened nearly an hour and a half later, the crowd had grown to just under 100. Even as the early-arrivers poured through the gates, a steady stream of fans trickled in from both Lot 8 and the Metro.
The most impressive entrance, however, was made by the Barra Brava just before 6 p.m. Marching behind their traditional black and red banner, a group of around 50 boisterous members of one of United's supporters groups made their way from Lot 8 to the turnstiles, chanting the entire way.
As the supporters from various groups milled around the RFK pitch, spontaneous chants of support erupted, as local news crews broadcast live shots with players and fans from the rally. The excitement built as the highlight video from the Black-and-Red's Eastern Conference Championship win over the New England Revolution segued into highlights from Sunday's MLS Cup victory. As United's goals were shown, cheers every bit as loud (per capita) as those echoing from behind the goal at The Home Depot Center erupted from the crowd.
Just after 6:30, Dave Johnson - the television voice of the Black-and-Red - took the stage amid cheers and drumming from the crowd of over 1,200. Johnson introduced Kevin Payne, President and CEO of D.C. United, who in turn invited the stage party to join with him in recognizing "the best damn fans in Washington, D.C." for their part in helping to bring the team's fourth MLS Cup trophy home.
"I don't think we would have this trophy today if it weren't for [the fans]," said Payne. "This has been a fantastic ride, this 2004 season, for everyone associated with our team. You all know the success we had in the first four years of the league, we were in four championships and we won three of them. We are the only Washington team to win a league championship in Washington, D.C. But then we had a couple of tough years and you all stayed with us. I think the difficulty for all of us in those years makes this year even sweeter."
Following an introduction by Payne of the entire team and staff, punctuated by loud cheers for every player, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams took the stage. After acknowledging the fans yet again and praising the communication, teamwork and motivation of the Black-and-Red and reiterating a promise to build a stadium for D.C. United by 2007, he proclaimed November 16, 2004 "D.C. United Day," the fourth in the District's history.
After a short speech from Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, echoing the words and sentiments of the Mayor and adding appreciation for D.C. United's non-profit work, Johnson handed the microphone to team captain Ryan Nelsen.
"In all honesty, we as players cannot put a value on how much you guys mean to us," Nelsen said of the fans. "All the hard work you put in throughout the season: the smiles, the signs, the cheers and the chants, all that you give back to us makes everything worthwhile. On behalf of all of the players, I would like to thank you all so much. It's my honor to give this trophy back to you guys, where it belongs."
And although that fitting tribute to the fans brought the rally officially to a close, it would be nearly a half-hour later before the final fan left the stadium. As the players left the stage, they were mobbed by gleeful fans asking for autographs and pictures. And as the field lights were turned out for the final time in the 2004 season, the campus of RFK echoed, as it has so many times throughout the year, with the strains of "D.C. United" chants as the most passionate fans in Major League Soccer celebrated long after leaving the stadium.
John Roushkolb is a contributor to DCUnited.com.