The 2004 MLS Cup champion D.C. United celebrated their triumph with an intimate victory rally with their fans at RFK Stadium on Tuesday night. The free event, staged on the RFK field, included remarks from club CEO and President Kevin Payne, Washington, D.C. mayor Anthony Williams and team captain Ryan Nelsen.
The rally gave United supporters an opportunity to get up close and personal with their beloved Black-and-Red while reveling in the team's fourth MLS championship in the league's nine-year history. After the formal remarks, the squad mingled with the crowd of over a thousand, signing countless autographs and posing for pictures.
Throughout the evening, fans of all ages were able to kick around on the same turf where United compiled the best home record in MLS this season, a mark that D.C. players directly attributed to the dedication and intensity of their supporters.
"Absolutely everything," said Nelsen when asked what the fans meant to United's success this year. "This is the complete 12th man. That's the reason why we don't do as well away from home, is because of these guys."
"I was in Chicago three years ago, with great fans," said midfield terrier Dema Kovalenko, "but it's unbelievable here. Thanks to them. Like Nelsen said, because of them, our record on the road is not great, but when we play at home, it's unbelievable. They come and support us -- the crowd averages (almost) 20,000. The record speaks for itself."
Kovalenko, who received one of the loudest ovations when Payne introduced every player on D.C.'s roster, was the last player to leave the field as dozens offered their thanks and congratulations to the combative but beloved Ukrainian native. Kovalenko described his horror at receiving a red card for a goal-line handball in the second half of last Saturday's MLS Cup, a misfortune that made the fans' appreciation all the more gratifying.
"Things just happen, in a moment," he said of the controversial play that forced United to finish the match a man down. "You have not even a second to react. I didn't mean to do that, but it just happened. Thanks to (the fans) -- they supported me, they understand I didn't mean to do that. I would never want to hurt the team by doing that.
"I was praying in the locker room that they would get by, with the 30 minutes they played, and with the extra six minutes, I was so nervous. But thanks to the man upstairs -- he watches over me, and he watches over the team. We deserved to get in the playoffs, we deserved to be in the final, and we deserved to win the championship."
D.C. Mayor Williams hailed the "dedication, teamwork and vision" of the champs, declaring Nov. 17 "D.C. United Day" in the nation's capital and making an important promise that elicited a roar from the gathered fans.
"On behalf of everyone in our city, congratulations," Mayor Williams said. "D.C. United has been our city's most successful sports franchise in recent memory. This team has brought to our city a new generation of fans ... I pledge to you to build this great team a brand new stadium on the Anacostia (River) waterfront by 2007."
The most prominent absentee was head coach Peter Nowak, who missed the rally due to illness. But attention centered on another key figure in United's 2004 title run whose departure may be imminent.
Team leader Nelsen, who is out of contract and reportedly close to signing with a team in the English Premier League, was greeted with loud chants of "stay, stay" when introduced by Payne, who assured the crowd that "we're trying, we're trying."
United has reportedly offered Nelsen a new contract which would make him one of the highest-paid defenders in MLS. The New Zealand international was touched by the fans' pleas, but remained noncommittal.
"It makes it even harder to make the decision," he said, "but I'm just going to have a couple weeks off, have a nice break and go from there."
Still sky-high after winning the first major trophy in his career, Nelsen said he is determined to fully enjoy the thrill before moving on to more sobering career decisions.
"It's still going," he said of United's championship euphoria. "We're still riding on a cloud, and probably will be until next week or so."
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando was equally ecstatic about his first MLS title after five years in the league.
"I'm not remembering a lot of the (last two) nights," he said. "We were out late, and a little dizzy in the morning. But it feels great to be a champ."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major Leage Soccer or its clubs.