Category Archives: 1996: The Inaugural Season

That first year

Rob Gillespie Comes Home to D.C. United

Sarah Kallassy - DC United/mlsfemale
Official DC United Reporter

By Sarah Kallassy // @SarahKallassy

Since the Beginning

Audi Field just turned a year old this past week, but one of D.C. United’s most ardent supporters only recently passed through the stadium’s gates for the first time. 96’er and Barra Brava elder, Rob Gillespie, finally made his way home. Affectionately known in the Black-and-Red community as ‘Big Rob’, Gillespie has been a fixture in the D.C. United community for over 20 years, his story woven into the fabric of the Club’s history.

Rob remembers the beginning of D.C. United. A gifted storyteller, he is able to transport his listener back in time with tales of Lot 8 and a young Ben Olsen on the pitch. Now, there are no more tailgates in Lot 8, and Ben Olsen has become United’s head coach who is shaping the future of the team. However, some of the original 96’ers, like Rob, remain; preserving the traditions they can and sharing the past with a new generation of supporters.

Becoming a part of the Barra Brava happened by chance, with a fight between Rob and Barra founder, Oscar Zambrana, resulting in their friendship and him joining the group. 

“I actually got into the Barra Brava because Oscar Zambrana, the founder of the Barra Brava and I got into a fight over a misunderstanding. 

They were getting hassled by security down at the Barra and I started yelling at the security guys. Oscar mistook me yelling at the security guys for me yelling at the Barra guys. So, he came up and you know, we were both well lubricated at that point. We ended up getting in a little scuffle, which is good on Oscar, because I’m twice his size. 

Then some people pulled us apart, and were able to explain to Oscar… I was trying to explain to him while we were fighting… that I was actually on his side in this thing. Then about 10 minutes later he came and grabbed me and dragged me down into the Barra and I sort of stayed ever since.”

Coming Home

Despite his long relationship with the Club and testifying in front of the D.C. City Council in an effort that ultimately helped win the permission for the construction of D.C. United’s new home, Rob had never visited the Stadium at Buzzard Point. A 2012 diagnosis with a rare form of Leukemia upended Rob’s life and he was eventually forced to move out of the area due to the financial strain; leaving the District before Audi Field ever opened its gates.

After years away, Rob finally came home to D.C. and on July 12th he headed to Audi Field to see his team, D.C. United, face off against the New England Revolution. 

Rob’s first reaction to seeing Audi Field was one of almost disbelief, as he saw the long-awaited new home of D.C. United.  He said, “It was surreal, to turn down third street and see the stadium for the first time. Finally, it was there after all those years.” 

Although happy to see a new home for D.C. United realized, Rob felt that something was missing. “I share Bruce Arena’s disappointment that there isn’t more connection with the past. That’s something I noticed right off.” Rob said. 

Accompanied by his sister, Aryka, and his son, Marco (named after Bolivian and D.C. legend, Marco Etcheverry), Rob was in for a warm reception. He said, “it was just a great experience, definitely a coming home, even though we live in a new house.” 

“It was amazing. It really was. I went to training on Thursday. I’ve been friends with Ben and Dave Kasper for almost 20 years, and I got a good chance to talk to them and see them. Ben made sure all the players came over and said hello. I don’t know most of them, so they introduced themselves. I went up into 130 to see Marco’s aunt and uncle, and that’s where a lot of the old time Screaming Eagles are at and people clapped when I went up there. I was completely overwhelmed by that… It was just one old friend after another.”

Photo Credit: Kim Kolb

While Rob spent the match alongside the Barra Brava and friends he hadn’t seen in years, his family were guests of a local medical practice and D.C. United official oral surgeons, Fairfax Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (FOMS), in their suite. Prior to Rob’s homecoming, FOMS had taken to social media to auction off suite tickets in support of his treatment. 

Aryka and Marco debate a play. Photo Credit: Sarah Kallassy

At halftime, Rob made his way to the FOMS suite to check on his son and thank those who had participated in the auction on his behalf. Dave Johnson, play-by-play announcer and legend in the D.C. sports scene, was there to greet him. Having known each other for years, Dave wanted to show his support by spending the match with Rob’s family and some of the community who had come together to support him. 

Dave Johnson and Rob Gillespie. Photo Courtesy of Rob Gillespie.

“From day one he has cared about the team and he has cared about others. In short, Rob helped make D.C. United more than a club, he helped make it a family. Through good times and not so good we are always united, and it only adds to the times when we are united with Rob.”

… Dave Johnson, D.C. United play-by-play announcer
Dave Johnson with Rob’s son, Marco, and sister, Aryka. Photo Credit: Sarah Kallassy

D.C. United took a draw against Bruce Arena’s New England Revolution, finishing the match 2-2. Even after dramatics on the pitch worthy of an Oscar (Quincy Amarikwa’s stunning goal, anyone?), the Black-and-Red were unable to secure three points at home. 

Ben Olsen, who Gillespie has watched play (and now coach) since he was a young man, came over to greet his old friend. 

“Ben came over to see me at the end of the game and, he had tears in his eyes. And he said, ‘God I wanted to get that win for you. I’m so sorry.’ I said, ‘No man, it was great. A great comeback. I’m really happy.’”

Photo Credit: Kim Kolb

“I wasn’t happy about the unpleasant little thing that happened.” Rob said, referring to those who chose that poignant moment to begin chanting ‘Olsen out.’ “I thought it was disrespectful. Ben’s done as much if not more than anyone to build that house, that beautiful stadium that we have… That was a really special time for me and him. I would have rather they said [something] about me than about Ben.” Rob continued, “I don’t think it’s wrong to criticize somebody… There was a place and time for that kind of criticism. But that [the stadium] was not the place. Especially not for someone like Ben.”

Gillespie wasn’t alone in his criticism of those choosing that moment to voice their criticism of D.C. United’s coach. Supporters took the offenders to task on social media, calling them out for their poor timing. 

“We always had a rule or a policy within the Barra Brava where we did not boo the team, we didn’t do any of these negative things in the stadium, it wasn’t the place. That was the place for 100% support, win, lose, or draw.” 

‘Win Championships, Serve the Community’

Gillespie has long been a part of D.C. United’s legacy to serve the community, participating in everything from cleanups at the Anacostia River, to getting local schools ready for the new school year. He has taken to heart D.C. United’s slogan of ‘win championships, serve the community’. 

Rob believes, “There is no better way to get rewards than to give.” After years of serving the community he loves, Gillespie is now the one in need of help. 

“My life is a perfect example of that I always tried to give. I never thought I would need any help. Look at me now, I’m still alive in large part because of my relationship with D.C. United. I could not raise the money I need for cancer treatment without that relationship.”

With his out of pocket cancer treatment costs totaling between $3,500-5,000, plus travel, each month, Rob has come to rely on his community – his D.C. United family, to help him raise the money he needs to stay alive. “The people that support me day in and day out, week in and week out, they are D.C. United people.” 

While Rob’s cancer is rare and incurable, treatment is helping to extend his life. As a single father, Gillespie is driven to continue fighting cancer to have more time with his son, Marco.

Sometimes, help comes from unexpected places. Just last year, “out of nowhere, Jozy Altidore donated $1,700. This is a player I’ve had no connection with and that just really gave me a little bit of breathing room. It really helped.” Rob said. 

Of course, “the ideal situation is that you wouldn’t have to do this at all and could just focus on getting healthy.” Rob has had to conduct constant fundraising since he depleted his $900,000 savings and proceeds from the sale of his house. Gillespie calls the process, “humiliating and extremely stressful.”  

A Family

Even through the hardships, Rob remains positive and committed to the D.C. United and Barra Brava family, the same family he credits with keeping him alive through their fundraising efforts and sharing his story. 

“You can never go wrong by thinking about DC United or the Barra, or the Screaming Eagles, or whomever as a family. You want to show that love and respect and put in that work that you would in a family. Care for your brothers and sisters who are at your side. That’s really important.” 

As Rob continues his battle with cancer, the D.C. United family remembers how much he has given to our community, and we all stand with him, united.

Author’s Note: If you would like to support Rob Gillespie’s fight against cancer and help him pay for life extending treatment so he can continue to be with his son, please donate! ‪

PayPal/Venmo: nffc65@gmail.com or CashApp: $MarcoDad

Featured image: Kim Kolb // Twitter: @NestDevil09 // IG: kolbkl

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @SarahKallassy

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The Short-lived KC Wiz

kirsten-sporting-or
Official Sporting Kansas City Reporter

By Kirsten Arpin // @Kirsten_Hoogs

If you’ve been to a Sporting KC game then you have surely heard the Cauldron sing:

“Oh when the Wiz go marching in. Oh when the Wiz go marching in. Oh how I long to be in that Cauldron when the Wiz go marching in.”

Or chant:

“Ooooh KC Wiz! KC Wiz! KC Wiz! KC Wiz! Vamos KC!”

These chants echo back to a single season from the beginnings of a humble little sporting association called Major League Soccer.

The MLS was officially founded as an LLC in 1995. The reason for founding the league was because the United States promised to start a Division 1 professional league as a stipulation of their successful bid for the 1994 World Cup. It would have been pretty silly to have the World Cup in a country without a highly competitive professional league.

Kansas City sportsman extraordinaire Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, was one of the founding investors of the MLS, and he owned two of the original ten chartered teams. Hunt wanted to bring more to the sports culture of Kansas City, so he started the Kansas City Wiz. The Wiz even played their home games at the home of the Chiefs, Arrowhead Stadium. Mr. Hunt also owned the Columbus Crew and in 2003 purchased the Dallas Burn who are now FC Dallas. Mr. Hunt was such an influential figure in the US soccer community that in 1999 the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) renamed the US Open Cup to the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.

The Wiz were officially named a charter member of the MLS on June 6, 1995, and it took them four months to name former Crystal Palace player and Arizona Sandsharks manager Ron Newman as the first ever manager of the team. Newman was the first coach hired into MLS service, and he brought his son former San Diego Sockers (Major Indoor Soccer League) player Guy Newman with him as an assistant coach.

October of 1995 was an exciting month for the young MLS. The Wiz named Newman as a coach on the 11th, and MLS Unveiled, the first televised MLS programming, was simulcast to all ten MLS market cities on the 17th. At MLS Unveiled each team released their inaugural kits, colors, logos, and their first allocated player.

The event turned out to be pretty ridiculous. The league let the uniform manufacturers have too much say in the team names, colors, logos, and jerseys. That’s how the Tampa Bay Mutiny ended up with a mutant bat. Personally, I think The Wiz ended up as the winners of the name, color, and kit categories. There ended up being a problem with the name, but we’ll get to that later. The Wiz’s first ever allocated player was national team member and St. Louis native, midfielder Mike Sorber.

mlsunveiled

In December, January, and February, The Wiz were allocated one player per month. The player for December was former US national team forward Frank Klopas, January’s player was Zimbabwe national forward Digital Takawira, and the last allocated player was future Sporting Legend and future US national team member Preki. The rest of the players vying for a spot on a roster went to a combine and then to the draft where The Wiz drafted national team midfielder Mark Chung.

The Wiz’s first season was pretty exciting. In their April 13th home and season opener, The Wiz won their first ever game defeating the Colorado Rapids 3-0, with Digital Takiwara netting a brace. Three games later, on May 2nd, The Wiz and the Columbus Crew took part in one of the highest scoring games in MLS history. The two teams combined to score 10 goals with KC taking the win at 6-4.

Preki and Mo Johnston both scored twice with Sorber and Chung each getting a single goal. After losing their next four games, which took place over a 15 day streak, The Wiz traded wins with their opponents for the next eight games. That set of games was bookended by a game against future Sporting KC coach and player Peter Vermes and the NY/NJ Metrostars. The Wiz won the first game 2-1, but fell to the Metrostars 0-2 in the second game. The second game against the Metrostars also ended a five game scoring streak by Preki.

The Wiz had a successful inaugural regular season with 17 wins, 15 losses, and 0 draws as draws weren’t actually allowed in the first seasons of the MLS.

*Since the league was “experimental”, the founders decided to try a few rule changes from regular soccer. They thought that American fans would be bored by draws, so they implemented a shootout at the end of tied games. If a team won the game they would get 3 points, the losing team would get zero points, and the winning team in a shoot-out win would get 1 point. Another weird rule change was that the time clock counted down to zero as opposed to counting up to 90.

Their record qualified The Wiz for the playoffs. They defeated the Dallas Burn two games to one in the Western Conference Semi-finals before losing to the LA Galaxy two games to zero in the Western Conference Finals.

Wizards V Clash
21 Apr 1996: Team photo of the Kansas City Wizards before a game against the San Jose Clash at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, California. The Wizards won the game 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Dunn /Allsport

At the end of their first season The Wiz were in a bit of a bind. There was a company in a different industry that already had been named The Wiz, and they sued The KC Wiz for use of the trademark. After a little digging I found that the trademark was most likely held by a small electronics chain from the northeast called Nobody Beats the Wiz. Since they weren’t allowed to continue with The Wiz, Kansas City officially changed their name to the Kansas City Wizards at the end of their first season. Thus ending the short life of the KC Wiz, but laying the foundation for the Sporting KC we know today!

#WeTogether

While doing research for this article I found this set of interviews done by Sports Illustrated. You should check it out >> https://www.si.com/longform/2015/mls/index.html

Featured image courtesy: @SportingKC

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