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Photo: John Gervasi

Demystifying Polo: DC Polo Society

DC is known for big league sports like football and basketball, but not as much for its niche leagues or teams. But times are changing with more unique sports popping up in and around the District, like rugby and polo. When it comes to the latter, Congressional Polo Club’s Seema Sharma says its inclusivity sets the sport apart.

“Everyone should be part of this,” she says of polo. “We want everyone to feel like they belong.”

Sharma, the club’s director of operations, has seen the fields in Poolesville, Maryland go through a few different cycles of management to remain relevant among the growing number of sports offerings in the DMV. This summer marks the first season of the DC Polo Society, a series of eventful Sundays at the club including Funbrella on July 28.

“The vision behind DC Polo Society is to create an organization that welcomes people within [and outside of] the polo community to come together within one setting,” she continues.

Sharma discovered polo through her children. In Sharma’s case, it became a family commitment as her husband Rajeev is the acting director at the club and shares day-to-day duties with her. The couple also shares the goal of hitting a specific demographic: young professionals.

“We want to make this sport more popular and more prevalent,” she says. “Millenials are key. Many have memories of riding [horses] and going to farms as kids. You begin to work and life becomes hectic, and this perception is made that there is either no polo facility close to DC or it is too difficult to get to.”

With the DC Polo Society, these trepidations are ultimately untrue; the Montgomery County-based club is close to the city and provides everything necessary to participate including charter bus options.

As for the sport itself, when most people think of polo they likely imagine big hats and expensive bubbly – but that’s not always the case. Spectators can expect to enjoy a low-key day in the country where they will be surrounded by three grassy fields and a beautiful view of the sky.

“Being there is a wonderful way to get away from the hectic day-to-day of the city,” Sharma says of the club, placing a heavy emphasis on her desire for people to come to a match and have a reprieve from their busy daily lives.

The allure of a day away from traffic and city life isn’t the only pull Sharma promotes. Athletes like professional polo player Nico Eurnekian provide tremendous entertainment in their own right, playing the game at an impeccably high level.

“I was literally born with a polo mallet in my hand and I have been playing ever since then,” Eurnekian, Congressional Polo Club’s very own pro, says.

Every polo club has a club pro, otherwise known as the anchor of the team. Usually, they have been playing or involved in the sport for a long time, thus they have the most experience and can help other players, which enhances the credibility of the club. This creates a link between the club and community – specifically with training programs for members.

Eurnekian grew up on a farm in Argentina surrounded by horses and fields, so polo was a natural fit.

“There is something very particular about polo where when you get into it, it is very difficult to get out of it,” he says.

He also notes that when spectators come to watch a match, all they see is the speed and the immaculate polo shirts and white pants. In subtle ways, there is so much more that goes into getting to that point, such as the work in creating a relationship between the player and the horse.

“They should see how important the interaction between the animal and the person [is], the relationship [being built] in the midst of the game.”

So, why should you attend a polo match? According to Sharma, there are three things you should keep in mind: the beauty of polo, a day out in the country with your family and friends, and the experience of something new. On top of that, this represents an opportunity to meet new people, so what are you waiting for? Climb on that horse.

Join the DC Polo Society for Funbrella on Sunday, July 28 from 2-5 p.m. Tickets $15-$85. For more on DC Polo Society, visit www.dcpolo.com, and for more about the Congressional Polo Club, visit www.congressionalpolo.com.

Congressional Polo Club: 14660 Hughes Rd. Poolesville, MD; 844-260-4827; www.dcpolo.com

DC Fray is a proud partner of DC Polo Society.

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 26: Images of match between Kyle Edmund of Great Britain and John Isner of the United States at the Miami Open held at the Hard Rock Stadium on March 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida (Photo by Mike Lawrence/ATPTour.com)

Old Guard vs. New Guard: Top Players Come to Win at Citi Open

“It’s been a good year so far.”

That’s the low-key summary of 2019 from Reilly Opelka, the up-and-coming American tennis powerhouse who won his first Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour title in February, and saw his world-ranking climb to an all-time high of 53 in May – just a few years into his career.

“It was a big accomplishment for me – a huge step in the direction I’ve always wanted to go in,” he says of the win. “And I hope it’s just the beginning. There’s a lot more I want to accomplish and that’s definitely a really good steppingstone toward the progression.”

Next up for Opelka is DC’s legendary summer series, the Citi Open, from July 27 to August 4. Formerly known as the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, the series has been drawing District residents (an average of 72,000 each year) to its Rock Creek Park location since 1969.

While summer in DC might not be the preferred weather for all players, Florida-based Opelka loves the playing conditions. He says the high heat helps his style of play.

“I get a lot of help from the court with my serve. It bounces higher when it’s hot, and the ball goes through the court more. So from a conditions standpoint, it’s a good setup for me.”

Opelka’s rankings in the tennis world have been climbing since he turned pro, around the time he won the 2015 junior Wimbledon tournament. The athlete is almost 7 feet tall, making him the tallest ATP-ranked player in tennis history. While he tried his hand at many different sports as a kid, tennis was always his main focus.

“I went to public school and had a lot of friends in the neighborhood, so I spent a lot of time throwing the football, playing baseball, playing basketball.
But tennis was always a priority for me, even at a young age.”

With his incredibly powerful serve, Opelka has drawn comparisons to another U.S. tennis stalwart who also happens to be one of the top players in the world – and one of the tallest. John Isner, currently ranked No. 11 in the world, has been at it about a decade longer than Opelka. But he is still improving every year, achieving his highest career ranking ever just last year: No. 8 in the world.

Isner and the Citi Open go way back to his debut year in 2007, where just six weeks after turning pro, he made a splash and battled his way to the finals but lost to Andy Roddick in two sets. Isner made the Citi Open finals in 2013 and 2015 as well, losing to Juan Martin del Potro and Kei Nishikori respectively. When asked about his chances at this year’s tournament, Isner lightheartedly says that maybe he will finally win it all and take home the big trophy.

“I’ve had some great memories competing in DC and have been close to winning a few times. Do I think this could be my year? Sure, why not? I’m looking forward to being back and playing in front of great DC fans.”

Now a veteran of many Citi Opens and tournaments in general, Isner can spot talent when he looks at a new crop of U.S. players – and he sees it in Opelka.

“Reilly has a lot of potential and is on the right track. He’s a good friend of mine as well and obviously, we can relate on many levels. I think if he stays healthy [and] continues to work hard and develop, then the sky is the limit.”

Catch Isner and Opelka at the Citi Open from July 27 through August 4 at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. Tickets start at $25. Learn more at www.citiopentennis.com.

Rock Creek Park Tennis Center: 16th and Kennedy Streets in NW, DC; 202-721-9500; www.citiopentennis.com

Photo: courtesy of Washington Mystics

Continuity Fuels Washington Mystics’ Fast Start

After a 3-0 sweep in the 2018 WNBA finals against the Seattle Storm, it would have been easy, perhaps even understandable, for Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault to want to shake up the roster. Though the team had reached the last round of the playoffs, they couldn’t so much as take a game off the loaded Storm.

On the other hand, continuity in sports is rare. Traditionally in basketball, teams with the most talent prevail due to the nature of how few people can physically play at a single time. The Mystics aren’t short on talent, but there’s more than just ability on the loaded roster.

The team, off to an 8-3 start since opening play in late May, knows who they are early. The ball is buzzing around the court with tremendous energy, the kind that can’t be bought or manufactured, that can only be earned with trust and understanding.

“When we lost the finals, it was straight back to business,” forward Tianna Hawkins says. “We were hurt and upset that we didn’t win. So coming into training camp, everybody was ready to go in and go to war.”

One early indicator of a team’s togetherness is assists and the Mystics have shown an incredible aptitude for sharing the ball early this season, averaging more than 27 per 100 possessions.

“The chemistry of playing together has a lot to do with it,” Thibault says. “We’ve done a good job with spacing. We penetrate and kick out to shooters. I think the other part of it is if you shoot the ball well, you’re assists go up. It’s all a reflection of the rhythm of the shot and if you make a shot.”

The Mystics are also leading the league in scoring with an absolutely blistering 108.7 points per 100 possessions. Though part of this points binge is a continuity among players with Elena Delle Donne (16.4 ppg) and Kristi Toliver (11.8 ppg) both picking back up as the team’s leading scorers, another explanation for the uptick is the team’s increase in three-point attempts, leading the league with about 33 per 100 possessions.

“And to put more shooters on the floor,” Thibault adds. “We have post players who can all shoot. Sometimes, our post players are our best shooters.”

So far the team has only lost to the Connecticut Sun and the defending champion Storm, as the group has proven beyond any potential hangover from last season’s run. It’s not uncommon for teams who lose the finals to start sluggish the year after, but the Mystics have so far avoided this fate.

“It’s a new season and we’re motivated,” Toliver says. “Usually, when you have the same people coming back, you’re going to click earlier than later. This is the start we should be off to. We’re continuing to learn every day.”

After injuries to the Storm’s Sue Bird and last year’s WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart, some prognosticators picked the Mystics as title favorites. However, the team has so far been immune to any external pressures, adopting a cliché but effective “one game at a time” mantra.

“We know what we’re capable of as a basketball team and we’re taking it one day at a time,” Toliver says. “Everybody in this league can win it. There’s a lot of good teams. Whether people are choosing us or not, we’re not too concerned with it. We had [to believe] in ourselves when people picked us eighth.”

Pegged as preseason favorites, the team is well on its way to capitalizing on its fast start by turning in another strong postseason effort. But the team knows playing well early doesn’t necessarily translate to a championship.

“We know it’s going to be tough to get back to where we were last year,” Hawkins says. “We have a target on our back, but it’s a good feeling to have.”

With a modern style, players who trust one another, and a new home court at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Congress Heights, the team couldn’t have realistically asked for a better start to the season.

The Mystics return home to play the Phoenix Mercury on Wednesday, July 10. For more information about the team’s current season, visit https://mystics.wnba.com.

Entertainment and Sports Arena: 1100 Oak Dr. SE, DC; https://mystics.wnba.com

Stonewall Sports: Builds Community On and Off the Playing Field

Sports bring people together. Playing or watching games builds camaraderie, helps you establish rapport with teammates and, frankly, is an astonishingly effective ice breaker for folks who may otherwise be inclined to avoid strangers. There are a ton of options for people looking to participate in athletics on a social level after they leave high school or college locker rooms.

Stonewall Sports added their name to the list of national social sports organizations nearly a decade ago – but with a more focused mission. Yes, games are played and friendships are fostered, but Stonewall also carries the namesake of the Stonewall Riots, which pitted members of the LGBTQ+ community against police officers in New York City in 1969.

Stonewall Sports describes itself as an LGBTQ+ and ally community-based nonprofit that combines the fun of sports with the initiative to raise funds for other local nonprofits. The organization currently boasts a presence in 16 cities with 12,000 participants nationally, including a thriving DC chapter.

“I moved to DC about five years ago and Stonewall Sports had a very good presence in DC,” says Frank Criscione, Stonewall’s DC manager of community engagement. “Our community engages with locals, whether it be through philanthropic opportunities or volunteering.”

When Criscione moved to the District, he didn’t know many people. After hearing about Stonewall, he figured sports might provide the best opportunity to get to know the area and meet locals.

“It’s better than most ways to meet people, like at bars,” member Anthony Musa says. “This is an alternative way to do that and you get introduced to a diverse group of people with different backgrounds.”

Another factor that sets Stonewall apart is its mission to make members of the LGBTQ+ community feel comfortable in an atmosphere that may not always seem inclusive.

“I think it goes back to the PTSD of being an adolescent in sports,” Criscione says. “It goes back to that feeling of being the gay guy. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only gay guy on a team.

I’m on a whole team of gay guys. You don’t think about the social pressures of how you have to act or perform in that atmosphere. You get to rekindle some of the magic for sports you used to enjoy without those pressures.”

Criscione mentions he focused on individual sports growing up, but Stonewall gives him a chance to be a part of a team as opposed to competing alone. The organization currently offers everything from flag football and dodgeball to climbing.

“It’s a lot of fun, and it can be competitive depending on what you’re looking for,” Musa says. “It’s fast-paced and relatively easy to pick up. It’s a good way to interact with people you may not ordinarily talk to.”

Both Musa and Criscione gush about the fun had on the courts and fields, but the good times don’t stop there. As newcomers to DC, each points out that the teams don’t stop conversing after the final whistles. Meetups and even parties often follow.

This kind of openness helps Stonewall members in their volunteer fundraising efforts as well, as those represent the organization’s heartbeat and give the members another way to work toward an incredible achievement.

“I think Stonewall has a great impact on the community,” Criscione says. “I get to remind newcomers that it’s more than a sport. It’s being involved.” 

Get involved with Stonewall Sports at https://stonewallsports.leagueapps.com.

Photo: courtesy of Mark Ein

DC’s Tennis Ace Mark Ein Keeps Citi Open on Home Court

Mark Ein didn’t want to risk it.

The local venture capitalist refused to sit idly while other cities around the world bid for the opportunity to host the Citi Open, which has called the District home since 1969. Apart from his undying, unending passion for tennis as a prominent member of the local sports zeitgeist, the owner of the Washington Kastles and Washington City Paper felt a responsibility to keep the celebrated tournament in the nation’s capital.

“I’m incredibly lucky and blessed to be able to do these things, and there’s a sense of responsibility to make these big events happen,” Ein tells me over the phone. “It meant the world to me to be able to save the event for our region. It’s been a big part of our community for 50 years. It’s touched millions of people. When the possibility that it would move came up, I felt a real obligation to make sure it thrives for the next 50 years.”

In April, Ein announced that the Citi Open tournament would remain in DC after he secured a management deal including an option to purchase the tournament within five years. This year’s iteration takes place from July 27 through August 4. The tournament is the only Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour 500 in the U.S. and often features top players gearing up for the U.S. Open.

The process took six months, but Ein’s commitment to keeping the tournament local and providing support for the tournament’s charity, the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, won out.

“Pretty early on, there was a group of people that wanted to keep it in town,” he says. “They recognized I was a supporter of that, and they reached out to us.”

The Citi Open has historically not been without its own challenges, as the weather and location have created uncontrollable problems for the tournament. Often plagued by rain and heat, matches between top players have sometimes been delayed well into the wee hours of the night. Physical upgrades are difficult to apply as well because the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park, the Citi Open’s venue, is subject to National Park Service restrictions.

“We’re very encouraged by the amount of things we’ll be able to do already this summer,” Ein says. “Fans will notice and really enjoy, and there’s a list of things we’ll be able to add each year.”

The improvements Ein mentions all fall under the umbrella of fan experience: food and beverage options, new air-conditioned spaces complete with curated music and games, and improved transportation options such as shuttles, valets and a “re-engineered parking plan.” For larger developments further down the line, Ein says he is encouraged by discussions with the park service.

“It all starts with the fact that it’s a great event,” he says. “It’s the fifth biggest tournament in the U.S., and the setting in a public park is unique and public. We’ve been re-examining every detail in every area to make it meaningfully better.”

With tournament management comes facing the potential risks associated with the production of the event. Despite variables and the dangers that come with them, Ein never wavers when dealing with his passions.

“I only do these things [because I’m] passionate about them,” Ein says with a chuckle. “The motivation for me is not financial at all. It really is to do something special for my community around a sport that I have passion for and believe in. As big of a financial investment as it is, it’s an even larger time investment. I wouldn’t spend time on it if I didn’t care deeply.”

Another tennis endeavor Ein is famous for is the Washington Kastles, a team prepared to undergo changes of its own. This season will mark the team’s Union Market debut, with a new venue currently being constructed on the roof of the famed food hall in Northeast DC. The Kastles are set to take the rooftop in their season opener on July 15 against the Vegas Rollers.

“We’re thrilled about the new stadium on the roof,” Ein says. “It’s going to be a lot smaller of a stadium, and we’re already close to selling out the whole season. But for the people who get to have a seat, it’s going to be tremendous. You’ll be able to see the entire capital.”

The new venue only sits about 700 people whereas previous seasons saw the team fill stadiums three time as large, Ein says. However, with a video board, lights and of course, a full-scale tennis court on a roof, he’s right to declare it a unique experience.

Experiences are what Ein is all about after all. Recreating for others what he once felt as a boy watching and playing tennis is of huge importance for him. The sport has given him so much, so it’s only fair.

“You learn so many important lessons about life on the tennis court,” he says. “You’re there by yourself, and you find yourself in situations that you have to figure out. It teaches you resilience, discipline, fairness and continuous improvement. It’s a great sport for people of all ages and it’s the sport of a lifetime.”

For more information about the 2019 Citi Open, visit www.citiopentennis.com. For more information about the Washington Kastles and their upcoming season, visit www.washingtonkastles.com.

Union Market Rooftop: 1309 5th St. NE, DC; www.washingtonkastles.com
William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Stadium: 16th and Kennedy Streets in NW, DC; www.citiopentennis.com

Photo: John Gervasi

Affordable Athletics: Summer Sports Worth Watching

Summer is finally in full swing, giving DC residents the chance to attend some of the city’s best sporting events. But some sports lovers are probably wondering how they can enjoy seeing a good game without burning a hole in their wallet. Look no further: the District and surrounding areas have a multitude of talented athletes on local teams who can give fans an experience rivaling the NFL or NBA without the hefty price tag. Here’s our short list of affordable local sports with summer offerings, so you can get more bang for your buck while rooting for the home team.

DC BREEZE

DC’s Ultimate frisbee team represents the East Division of the American Ultimate Disc League with a 3-3 record and a current playoff berth of 49-36-1.

“Ultimate is an exciting, spectator-friendly team sport that combines elements of football, basketball and soccer but with a flying disc instead of a ball, and you can watch it at the professional level right here in DC,” says Don Grage, DC Breeze Managing Partner. “It’s fan-friendly entertainment with reasonable ticket prices, $5 meal deals, $6 pints of draft DC Brau beer and live DJ entertainment to go along with the spectacular action.”

The DC Breeze joined the league in 2013 and since then, has made the playoffs in three of the last four seasons including the East Division finals in the past two seasons. Head out to see if the team can extend this successful streak. Tickets are $15. Carlini Field at Catholic University: 4900 Bates Rd. NE, DC; www.thedcbreeze.com

DC POLO SOCIETY

The DC Polo Society made their inaugural debut as a team this spring. Matches take place on Sunday afternoons throughout the summer. Attendees can expect food vendors, tailgating, yard games and drinks in addition to the excitement the game provides. The events also give fans a chance to arrive in style: think sundresses, chinos, bowties and big hats.

“The polo experience at Congressional [Polo Club] is welcoming and authentic,” director of operations Seema Sharma says. “Highly skilled polo professionals from many different countries compete in exciting, fast-paced chukkers on three well-manicured polo fields. Visitors, surrounded by lush greenery and big sky above, find an atmosphere that is both incredibly scenic and pleasantly serene.”

All matches take place in Poolsville, Maryland. The venue is a great spot for those who want to venture off to the Maryland countryside for an exciting day of sports, food, drink and traditional fashion. Tickets $15-$85. Congressional Polo Club: 14660 Hughes Rd. Poolesville, MD;
www.dcpolo.com

OLD GLORY

Old Glory is the first professional rugby team in the nation’s capital, and the local athletes put a heavy emphasis on hometown pride. Former rugby players Paul Sheehy and Chris Dunlavey founded the team after years playing rugby clubs in the DC area. Their opening exhibition game brought in 3,000 attendees to Catholic University’s Cardinal Stadium and garnered attention from onlookers on social media. Old Glory joined the Major League Rugby organization last November and is scheduled to play a full season in 2020. In the meantime, the team is set to play its last exhibition game of the season on June 9 versus the Ontario Blues. Tickets are $20. Cardinal Stadium at Catholic University:600 Taylor St. NE, DC; www.oldglorydc.com

WASHINGTON KASTLES

DC’s co-ed tennis team has been in full swing since July 2008. Since its inception, the Kastles have racked up numerous awards including six World TeamTennis titles. Within the past 11 years, team members have won more than 100 championship titles including Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles. Tennis stars like Venus Williams, Martina Hingis and Leander Paes have even graced the courts for memorable moments in Kastles championship games.

This year, matches will be held on the roof of Union Market. The new venue will provide a more intimate setting, allowing for only 700 people compared to their previous home at the Smith Center with more than 2,000 seats. Although the Union Market location is smaller, it allows for a more vibrant experience as attendees can partake in the food hall’s diverse array food and drink before or after catching a match. The first match of the season is July 15. Ticket prices TBD; check website for updates. Union Market: 309 5th St. NE, DC; www.washingtonkastles.com

WASHINGTON VALOR

The Washington Valor is the DC area’s professional indoor football team, making its debut in the District in 2017 as part of the Arena Football League. The team has seen recent success, including quarterback Arvell Nelson taking the team to victory in last year’s ArenaBowl championship with a 69-55 win against the Baltimore Brigade. Football fanatics can come out and support the team during the NFL’s offseason; though the Valor kicked off in April, the team plays until July 20 when they’ll close the regular season at home versus the Columbus Destroyers. Tickets start at $15. Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; www.washingtonvalor.com

Photo: courtesy of www.isiphotos.com

USMNT Kicks Off Gold Cup Run at Audi Field

The U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) is gearing up for the 2019 Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) Gold Cup, squaring off against Jamaica on June 5 at Audi Field in a rematch of its 2017 Gold Cup finals contest, which saw the U.S. team win 2-1.

The game is the first for the U.S. following its official submission of the team’s 23-player roster for the tournament and marks their first appearance at Audi Field as a full unit under head coach Gregg Berhalter.

“We’re in the beginning of a new time with a new coach and younger players, and anytime you get new energy, it creates excitement,” says forward Paul Arriola of D.C. United fame. “After the few games we’ve had under Gregg and his system, it’s been very positive. We’re all very optimistic and fans should be excited about the future and our first real competition with the Gold Cup.”

Previously, the team played its DC matches at RFK Stadium. Arriola is looking forward to playing at Audi Field – his home field when he suits up for the D.C. United.

“It’s exciting because I play at Audi Field week in and week out,” he says. “The fans never disappoint and are extremely loyal. It’s a great stadium and atmosphere.”

Aaron Long, a defender with the New York Red Bulls, is happy that he’ll be finally be cheered on when he steps foot onto Audi.

“I’ve been going there with the Red Bulls and playing against DC, so it will be nice to be in this new stadium and be rooted for instead of against,” he says. “It feels super up close and personal. The fans are right on top of you and it’s an amazing place to play.”

The National Team opens this year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, which takes place from June 15 to July 7 in the U.S., Costa Rica and Jamaica. This year’s lineup includes a game against Guyana on June 18 in Minnesota as the USMNT looks to win its seventh title in the tournament’s 15-year history. The team will also have games against Trinidad & Tobago and Panama.

The trio of Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge) and Sean Johnson (NYCFC) will serve as goaltenders for the tournament. The team’s defenders will consist of such superstars as Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Tim Ream (Fulham) and Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact).

Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Tyler Boyd (MKE Ankaragucu) and Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders) join Arriola as top forwards, and Djordje Mihailovic (Chicago Fire), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea) and Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy) lead the talented collection of midfielders.

“We take this tournament so seriously and we want to make our country proud, so to be part of this team just means everything to us and we’re going to go out there strong,” Long says. “We’re really starting to gel and these games right before the Gold Cup are going to be the last thing we need to bring this team together and go out full force.”

Jamaica is one of the favorites in the tournament, making it to the finals in each of the past two years, so the road to the Gold Cup won’t be easy.

“Our team is no joke,” Arriola says. “We are here to win and continue to build as a national team and be respected around the world. It never gets old putting on the jersey and seeing your national flag on it and knowing you are representing a huge, powerful country with a lot of history and the history of U.S. soccer.”

Don’t miss the USMNT at Audi Field on Wednesday, June 5 at 7 p.m. Learn more at www.ussoccer.com.

Audi Field: 100 Potomac Ave. SW, DC; 202-587-5000; www.audifielddc.com

Photo: Courtesy of D.C. United

Ben Olsen Still Kicking As D.C. United Head Coach

When Ben Olsen hung up his cleats in 2009, the famed D.C. United midfielder figured his 24-year relationship with soccer had ended. After college ball at the University of Virginia and an entire Major League Soccer career with D.C. United, Olsen hadn’t yet considered a coaching career as a way to deepen his relationship with the sport he gave his life to. Despite his hesitation to man the sidelines, he joined the team in 2010 as an assistant coach. Just a few months later, after a poor start to the season, the team installed him as head coach. 

“It was a strange way to get a head coaching job,” Olsen says. “In some ways, it was my first job. I was swimming for a couple years. Going from [being] a player, that doesn’t prep you to be a coach. Of course, you get knowledge about how you want the game to be played, but you’re not prepped to manage and deal with a group of 30 men and their emotions.”

Fast forward to today, Olsen is still leading the D.C. United team on the field. Though a lot has changed since taking over as the interim head coach, Olsen has led talented teams and underachieving ones and seen years of great investment and their leaner counterparts. The 41-year-old has amassed more than 100 wins and counting throughout his 14-year tenure, the longest of any D.C. United head coach.

“It’s rare to have been at a club this long – not only from a coaching standpoint but piggybacking on a great career. It’s been a huge part of my life. I’m humbled and burdened with this responsibility to get these fans a championship. That’s the goal, and that would be a success, to get these fans that have been great to me a championship.”

Few iterations of this team have been as strong as this season’s unit, featuring the legendary Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta and Júnior Moreno. The team raced off of to a hot start, winning three of its first four games and capitalizing on the momentum from last year’s late season run.

“We were hoping we could pick up where we left off, and we were able to do that for the first month of the season [by] having the same group return,” Olsen says. “The relationships were there. Preseason, we pushed the group a little bit further toward our identity and how we wanted to start winning games. Sometimes early in the season, you can catch teams that aren’t really who they are yet. Now we’re at a tough spot where you have injuries and suspensions, and you have to rely on your depth.”

As Olsen mentioned, the team has come back down to earth since their blistering opening month. The team had a record of four wins, two losses and two draws as of late April.

“We’re on track,” Olsen says the day after a 0-2 defeat to New York City FC. “The parity in the East is very strong [and] to get caught up in how we’re doing in the standings is a bit silly. You’d rather start this way and have some wins under your belt, but things change quickly in this league. You try to stay level and just get better by tactically figuring out how the group can be at its best.”

This season also marks the first full slate of home games at the team’s new Audi Field. Playing his entire career at the historic RFK Stadium, Olsen notes the differences in a number of areas from players to staff – and how much the entire organization has evolved for the better.

“Audi Field was the first step of D.C. United taking a step [toward] becoming an elite MLS team. That’s the catalyst of this resurgence. With that comes Wayne Rooney and some of the younger players. I’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs and now to come out of some of those lean years, you have to enjoy the moment because things change.”

D.C. United returns to Audi Field on Wednesday, May 15 versus Toronto FC and on Saturday, May 18 versus the Houston Dynamo. For more information on Olsen and the team, visit www.dcunited.com.

Audi Field: 100 Potomac Ave. SW, DC; 202-587-5000; www.dcunited.com

Photo: Jennifer Pottheiser / NBAE via Getty Images

Dribbling The District: Mystics’ Kristi Toliver Goes In-Depth On Coaching Wizards

The NBA has included famous females on coaching staffs such as Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs), Jenny Boucek (Dallas Mavericks) and now Lindsey Harding (Philadelphia 76ers). Women assistant coaches are slowly gaining residence in men’s sports, including Washington Mystics point guard Kristi Toliver, who is now the first active WNBA player on an NBA coaching staff as an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards.

“I think it’s cool, special and important,” Toliver says. “I’d like to see more options or openings if women want to coach college basketball. Just the idea of them being open to the idea – we should be past that. It’s just about who can do that job the best. It’s good men are finally realizing that women can bring a whole lot to the table, including a new perspective and mentality they haven’t been exposed to before.”

Fresh off the Mystics’ championship loss to the Seattle Storm in the 2018 WNBA finals and hungry for more basketball, Toliver (a former champion herself) spent her summer assisting the Wizards’ coaching staff during summer league and training camp. Toliver was drafted to the WNBA in 2009 by Chicago, enjoyed a stint in Los Angeles and finally joined the Mystics in 2017 during free agency. Continuing her storied basketball journey, her coaching role with the District’s men’s team while active carries great significance.

At first, I didn’t think a whole lot of it because from my perspective, I was just pursuing two things that I’m passionate about and love to do,” she says. 

It wasn’t until head coaches started approaching her and telling her about the impact she was making, especially on their daughters, that it dawned on her this was something big.

“It gave me a new perspective. I’m proud of what I’m doing, but I’m also a person pursuing what I love and that’s the biggest message for other people: there are no limits. I don’t believe in limits. I think you’re capable of anything as long as you’re passionate and care about it and put in the work.”

Toliver’s 10-year career in the WNBA has prepared her for how to handle the highs and lows. Though no one truly gets over a championship loss, Toliver stayed open to learning and growing from the 2018 WNBA finals in the offseason.

“I think that playing overseas and for a championship helps [to get over it], but for me being on the sidelines in an assistant coach position, all I could think about every day was getting back to the finals and wishing we had those three games back against Seattle,” she says. “It’s been my motivation throughout: preparing and getting myself better in different ways because I know you have to be better than you were the year before [to succeed].”

Coaching is something that’s always been in the back of Toliver’s mind – it’s her way of staying in the sport even after her playing career ends.

“Basketball is my passion. I enjoy teaching. I love talking about the game and preparing for games, game planning and other things like that. It kind of just naturally happened and I was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I wanted to see if I enjoyed it and wanted to get my feet wet.”

Last summer, a familiar face that Toliver knew from her four-year college career at the University of Maryland, Ryan Richman, asked her to be his assistant for the NBA G League Capital City Go-Go. It was a perfect fit for Toliver because she knew she was taking a year off from playing overseas.

However, inside the Wizards organization, assistant coaching positions became available, vaulting Richman to a position at the front of the bench. Toliver was able to talk with head coach Scott Brooks and nab an assistant spot with the Wizards after prepping the team for summer league and joining them in Vegas.

“We had a nice conversation and things just kind of developed from there,” she says. “He asked what I wanted, what my vision was, if I could have anything, what would it be? I went through my checklist and [we] talked through it. Timing is everything; it’s wild how it all turned out.”

During Wizards training camp in September 2018, Toliver was addressed more and more as “Coach,” replacing the normal “Panda,” which is what her Mystics teammates call her.

“It’s funny. All I’ve head for the past eight, nine months was ‘Coach.’ It was different, but I embraced it. [Panda] is the nickname I had from my team in L.A. and here [in DC], we already had a KT on the team, so I just brought Panda over from the West Coast to the East Coast.”

Though she’s known some of the Wizards’ players for a long time, Toliver has embraced the guys on the team and vice versa. She’s been able to learn and gain experience in ways she might not have without this coaching opportunity.

“I don’t know if I’m lucky, but I’ve just been around a great group of guys from top to bottom – guys we still have, guys that were traded away. And [my] relationships with John Wall and Brad Beal, those are two of the guys I’ve been around that my position. All these guys have taught me a whole lot just about the game itself. They’re not only extremely talented in what they do, but also in how they prepare and [in] their leadership qualities – things that I can do better for my team this summer.”

Something new Toliver was charged with as an assistant coach was presenting the scouting report to the team and coaching staff, which turned out to be one of her most memorable moments from the season because it’s a big responsibility.

“That’s what I knew I was going to love the most about coaching – just the preparation aspect and getting the guys ready and presenting to them with my voice and them engaging with me. It’s a little nerve-wracking and the way they responded made me feel comfortable. They gave me positive feedback, and it just shows the kind of guys that they are.”

Coming off her 2018 season averaging 13.9 points and 4.4 assists, Toliver plans to stay linked with her Wizards’ players during the Mystics’ season so you’ll probably see Beal and Wall cheer her on from the stands at  the Entertainment and Sports Arena at St. Elizabeths East.

“It’s going to be cool. They’re going to watch us play and stay connected with what we’re doing because they’ve been around me for so many months now, so we do have that connection and that relationship.”

As for the upcoming WNBA season, you can expect Toliver and the Mystics to keep the same mentality they displayed last year with new faces and even stronger team comraderies.

“Our team will look different in our make-up, but we’ll continue to get better every single day and grow with one another and build on that team chemistry that we had last year. We’re looking forward to getting back to the finals, just getting over that hump. It’s not easy and we understand the challenges that are ahead of us.”

Coaching instead of playing this past offseason hasn’t hindered Toliver’s mindset and game plan for her third season with the Mystics – it’s only made her more focused and hungrier.

“I didn’t know before I did this whether I’d actually enjoy it or if it was something I’d be passionate about. It clicked right away, and I’m really thankful that I was given that opportunity.”

The Washington Mystics will tip off for the 2019 WNBA season on Saturday, May 25, opening the season on the road versus the Connecticut Sun. Their first game in DC is on Saturday, June 1 versus the Atlanta Dream. For more information about their upcoming season, visit https://mystics.wnba.com.

Game Day Fare: Fried Chicken, Local Brews and More

Capitol Riverfront caters to some of the city’s most passionate sports fans, with the Washington Nationals and D.C. United playing home games just blocks apart. That’s a lot of hungry and thirsty people to satiate before and after games. Fortunately, the options have grown considerably in the past few years, with plenty of bars and restaurants opening for business. Whether you’re looking for a sit-down meal from an acclaimed chef, a quick bite, a locally made beer or a strong cocktail, there’s a spot to match your culinary mood all within a short walk of both stadiums.

QUICK & EASY

The Big Stick
Sausages, burgers and sandwiches are the draw at this sports pub. Satisfy hunger in true DC style with the Half Street half smoke or a Maryland crab cake sandwich. The bar offers a good amount of draft and canned craft beers from DC and around the world, in addition to wine and cocktails. 20 M St. SE, DC; www.thebigstick.com

Bonchon
Orders of Korean-style fried chicken come in all shapes and sizes here, making it well-suited to a game day meal with friends. Heat seekers shouldn’t miss the blazingly spicy drumsticks, wings or strips. Sides of rice and pickled radish are there to tame the flames. The traditional soy garlic sauce is addictive as well – but without the tears. Chicken is certainly the signature, but the menu doesn’t stop there. “We also offer traditional Korean dishes along with Asian fusion items for those looking for a more adventurous time,” general manager Jeff Chang says. “I’d wash it all down with an ice-cold beer from a local brewery like Hellbender or DC Brau.”

Happy hour is offered two hours before game time until the start for both baseball and soccer. The restaurant also offers a $13 game-day pack filled with your choice of fried chicken, side, bottled beverage and box of Cracker Jacks to go. 1015 Half St. SE, DC; www.bonchon.com

Philly Wing Fry
Located inside Whole Foods, this counter from Top Chef star Kwame Onwuachi takes game day food to another level. Fill up on decadent, dry-aged beef cheesesteak, confit chicken wings and berbere-spiced waffle fries. Vegetarians can dig into a spicy mushroom sandwich with herbed lebne, smoked provolone and pickled Fresno chilis. 101 H St. SE, DC; www.phillywingfry.com

TaKorean
This fast-casual Korean eatery serves build-your-own tacos and bowls with a focus on fresh and healthy ingredients. Proteins like sweet chili-marinated chicken, bulgogi steak and hoisin tofu can be topped with variety of slaws, crunchy toppings and sauces. A small selection of local beers is available as well. 1212 4th St. SE, DC; www.takorean.com

BAR VIBES

Bluejacket Brewery
Nats fans pack this homegrown brewery during home games, sipping pints from the bar’s extensive tap list. Choose from a rotating selection of more than 20 beers – including several cask selections – and fill up on food ranging from pretzels and fries to a half rotisserie chicken or double-patty burger. 300 Tingey St. SE, DC; www.bluejacketdc.com

Due South
Laidback Southern vibes course through this riverfront eatery. Fortify with a bourbon Shoo-fly Punch with ginger liqueur, mint, orange bitters and ginger beer, or a pour of the bar’s hand-selected Knob Creek bourbon. Food includes comforting favorites like shrimp and grits, buttermilk fried chicken, and a bacon pimento cheeseburger. 301 Water St. SE, DC; www.duesouthdc.com

Gordon Biersch
This spacious pub has plenty of room to meet up before or after a game, including outdoor seating. Beers are brewed in everything from German styles like pilsners and hefeweizens to hoppy American ales. 100 M St. SE, DC; www.gordonbiersch.com

Mission
Mission’s Capitol Riverfront location includes 20 big-screen TVs, a dining room and four bars – including a balcony. That means low wait times for drinks as well as lots of room to gather. “We are always happy to reserve space for groups going to a game or just trying to celebrate,” general manager Fritz Brogan says. Happy hour is available daily, including game days. Weekends include late-night discounts from 10 p.m. to close along with DJs and live music. Earlier in the day, pre-game crowds can take advantage of the bottomless brunch spread featuring items like guacamole, beer and margaritas.

“We believe it’s more fun to eat in a bar than drink in a restaurant.” 1221 Van St. SE, DC; www.missionnavyyard.com

Willie’s Brew & Que
Grab a pile of napkins and settle in with a platter of smoked meats and pint of beer from Willie’s. There are also several burgers and sandwiches to pick from, along with items like mahi mahi tacos and supersized nachos. 300 Tingey St. SE, DC; www.williessportsbardc.com

RELAX & STAY AWHILE

All-Purpose
The Capitol Riverfront location of this popular pizzeria offers riverfront and rooftop views with a side of Italian-inspired dishes – along with beer, wine and cocktails, including a couple of frozen options. It’s also convenient for baseball and soccer fans alike. “We are a two-minute walk from the first base gate of Nationals Park and one of the closest establishments to Audi Field,” general manager Michelle Stewart says.

All-Purpose’s current menu includes both a food and drink special to benefit charity. The first is a pizza created in partnership with D.C. United’s Screaming Eagles fan group; the “L’aquila” (eagle in Italian) pie is topped with tomato, fennel sausage, basil and stracciatella. A dollar from each pizza sold will be donated to Earth Conservation Corps. There’s also the DC Brau Full Count, brewed exclusively for the restaurant with $1 from each sale benefiting local nonprofit DC SCORES. The restaurant will open at 11 a.m. for all 1 p.m. midweek baseball games. Happy hour is daily from 4 to 7 p.m., and Steward says crowds can actually be lighter during games. “It’s like finding a hidden gem in the city,” she says of game day dining. 79 Potomac Ave. SE, DC; www.allpurposedc.com

Chloe
Chef Haidar Karoum’s lively dining room transports guests with flavors of the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and more. Most dishes come as small plates, so sharing with the table is encouraged. Larger entrees can be split as well, such as the spice-roasted chicken or the crispy whole fish. 1331 4th St. SE, DC; www.restaurantchloe.com

CIRCA
Known for its wide-ranging American bistro menu, CIRCA is a crowd-pleasing option for a meal or round of drinks. “It’s a place you can come a couple times a week for a couple different reasons,” says Matt Carlin, president of Metropolian Hospitality Group, which operates CIRCA.

Unlike a sports bar, CIRCA’s kitchen brings more of an upscale approach to its menu. Two of the most-ordered snacks include the bulgogi beef lettuce wraps and the tuna poke nachos. There’s also happy hour from 3 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. The laidback vibe is also great for anyone who wants a night out without buying a ticket to the stadium.

“Even if you’re watching the game on TV, you can enjoy it,” Carlin says. “It’s not a wild place.” 99 M St. SE, DC; www.circabistros.com

Declaration
The menu here is full of Italian and American comforts like burrata, fried meatballs and crispy calamari. Signature pizzas are named for America’s forefathers, from Thomas Jefferson to New Jersey’s John Witherspoon. 1237 1st St. SE, DC; www.declarationrestaurant.com

The Salt Line
This seafood spot takes its cues from New England coastal eateries. Chef Kyle Bailey’s fresh Maine lobster roll, stuffed clams and satisfying smash burger make stadium food an afterthought. Guests can also hang with a cocktail or glass of wine and slurp oysters from the restaurant’s raw bar. 79 Potomac Ave. SE, DC; www.thesaltline.com