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Photo: Courtesy of Red Bull
Photo: Courtesy of Red Bull

Red Bull Brings Esports Tournament Final to District

Thousands of electronic gaming enthusiasts will descend on the new, state-of-the-art St. Elizabeths East Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southeast DC this month for four days of ferocious fighting.

The November 16-18 battles won’t put flesh-and-blood fighters in a ring or a cage but rather virtual brawlers projected on massive video screens, as the nation’s best efighters square off in the Red Bull Conquest National Final. The event is expected to draw spectators from around the nation as fighters from 15 different regions vie for prizes and bragging rights as the ultimate competitors in “Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition,” “Tekken 7” and “Guilty Gear Xrd REV 2.”

It’s a moment city officials hope will put DC on the map as fertile ground for the rapidly blossoming – and potentially hugely lucrative – esports industry. In fact, the new $65 million arena in Congress Heights, which will also serve as the home court of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and Wizards’ G League affiliate Capital City Go-Go, was designed in part with esports competitions in mind.

Jimmy Nguyen, national competition director for Red Bull Conquest, tells On Tap that the nation’s capital does not yet have the egaming reputation of California, New York or Texas, but it is rapidly earning its place on the map. He also says DC has a natural appeal for major showcases because it’s an attractive draw for tourists.

“It could be the next area that could flourish and become a stage where we do all of our big events,” Nguyen says. “What we’re trying to do is create opportunities and grow together, and see where we can take this for years to come.”

Events DC, the convention and sports authority for the District, has been angling to get the city involved in the esports realm for years, and finally scored big when it landed the Red Bull Conquest.

Max Brown, chairman of the Events DC board of directors, says the new arena is a natural fit for the virtual sports competition and was built to accommodate such events.

“The arena was built with extreme Wi-Fi and the fastest ethernet to be able to create memorable experiences that are ideal for esports tournaments and its fans,” Brown says. “Tech is shaping the future of entertainment and with the cutting-edge capabilities of the new arena, esports is just another opportunity for us to showcase DC on a global stage – and attract even more events and visitors to the city, similar to Red Bull’s Conquest Final.”

Earlier this year, Events DC also partnered with industry leader NRG Esports to establish a new training home for elite egamers based in DC.

Nguyen says while Red Bull is famous primarily for its wildly popular energy drinks and sponsorship of extreme sports competitions, it has been aggressively moving into the esports realm for the past two years.

“The next big thing is esports and gaming,” he says. “It’s something that we see as viable to the culture.”

Nguyen also rejects the notion that esports are strictly for kids or “computer nerds.” He says that mode of thinking is seriously outdated.

“Back in the day, it was easy to say this a little hobby that nerds and geeks do, but now we’re all geeks and nerds. The more mainstream it gets, it’s hard to say gaming doesn’t matter anymore. We recognize that, and we want to give everybody the opportunity to get involved.”

In the realm of DC-based egaming, perhaps no figure looms larger than Austin “Boo” Painter – star player for the Wizards District Gaming, a virtual NBA team that just completed its first successful season in the burgeoning NBA 2K League. The 24-year-old former State Department security specialist from Luray, Virginia quit his job last year to become a professional egamer with Wizards 2K.

Painter is among roughly 100 paid players in the new league chosen from among 72,000 contestants nationwide. The league pays for his housing and provides a salary that he says allows him to “live healthy” doing what he loves, which includes playing live ebasketball that is streamed to thousands of fans weekly.

“I wake up every day and play [NBA] 2K,” he says, hardly seeming to believe it himself. “When I have kids, I’m never going to tell them to get off the video games because this could happen to them. Esports are growing, and now every little kid looks at video gamers like they want to do this all day too.”

The Red Bull National Conquest Final takes place Friday, November 16 to Sunday, November 18. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit www.redbull.com/us-en/events/conquest. For more information about the Wizards District Gaming, visit http://wizardsdg.nba.com.

St. Elizabeths East Entertainment & Sports Arena: 1100 Oak Dr. SE, DC; www.esaontherise.com

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: John Wall #2 and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards pose for a portrait during media day at the Entertainment and Sports Arena at St. Elizabeth's on September 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: John Wall #2 and Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards pose for a portrait during media day at the Entertainment and Sports Arena at St. Elizabeth's on September 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Wizards Hope New Additions Will Help Shake Slow Start

The Washington Wizards should be reminding themselves it’s early, because it is. Even though our hometown team has started slowly out of the gate, the nucleus of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. are undeniably talented. And in an Eastern Conference that’s more top-heavy than deep, these three athletes should be more than enough to get the team into the playoffs.

And as the Wizards’ new additions get acclimated in head coach Scott Brooks’ system playing with the aforementioned stalwarts, the squad should play better as the 2018-2019 season continues.

Fresh faces include future Hall of Fame center Dwight Howard, combo guard Austin Rivers and veteran Jeff Green. Each player brings a skill set missing from the Wizards roster in past seasons, as the team often sputtered due to its lack of depth.

The team shifted from longtime starting center Marcin Gortat to Howard, a player who’s undoubtedly been one of the greatest at his position for the past decade. Though he’s only 32 years old, he’s been playing in the NBA since the 2004-2005 season so he has some mileage on his legs, which could be a cause for concern later in the season.

He’s averaged nearly 18 points and 13 rebounds per game during his career, providing a consistent presence on the boards and in the paint on both sides of the court. Because of early injuries, Howard has missed much of the team’s lackluster start to the season; however, he should make his triumphant return in early November.

Meanwhile Rivers can play the point and off-ball, and is a capable scorer who averaged 15 points per game last season for the Los Angeles Clippers. His flexibility gives the team a reliable third guard, a piece they’ve been searching for since signing Wall and Beal to big extensions in the past few years.

As of late October, the team is 1-5 with several noticeable areas they could improve. Their rebound rate is dead last in the league with a paltry 42.9 percent. Considering the Wizards play with the third-highest pace, they’re leaving ample rebounds unaccounted for, giving other teams opportunities to get second and third shot attempts.

Howard should help with this significantly upon his return, as the team has been forced to go small and play undersized guys like natural power forwards Markieff Morris and Green at center for extended minutes.

Green is another newcomer who should help the Wizards down the stretch of the season. The power forward provides shooting and athleticism off the bench, and always has the potential to score 20-30 points in any game. The knock on his game throughout his career is the inconsistency of these flashes, because as exciting as they are when they’re happening, it can be maddening to watch when they’re not.

Returning players rounding out the team are Morris at forward, small forward Kelly Oubre Jr., center Ian Mahinmi, guard Tomas Satoransky and center Jason Smith.

Wing Troy Brown Jr., the team’s first-round pick of the 2018 NBA draft, should also provide punch off the bench as he gets more comfortable playing in the league. At 6-foot-7, his length will help on the defensive side of the ball against Eastern Conference teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors.

So yes, the Wizards have gotten off to a slow start, fielding a bottom-10 offensive (104.9) and defensive (114.5) rating so far this season. But with the talent of the roster and most of the season still ahead of them, it’s not time to panic yet. The new additions will help, but Wall, Beal and Porter Jr. will be relied on heavily to steady the ship as the calendar progresses – something they did two years ago.

For more information about the Washington Wizards and to purchase home game tickets, visit www.nba.com/wizards. If you want to hear more basketball opinions from Trent Johnson and a few of his friends, check out his podcast Trolling the Paint on Spotify, iTunes or Anchor.

Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; 202-628-3200; www.capitalonearena.com

Photo: Courtesy of Washington Capitals
Photo: Courtesy of Washington Capitals

Capitals’ New Head Coach Todd Reirden Enters Unique Situation

Championship teams are hard to keep together. Whether it’s players leaving for bigger contracts, veterans retiring or staffers jetting for more lucrative opportunities, the likelihood of a carbon copy from year to year is nearly impossible.

An obvious cog for any sports team is the head coach, and though it’s unusual for a championship organization to hire a new leader months after tasting absolute victory, the Capitals are now in the midst of this transition.

Out is Barry Trotz, the man who directed the team to last year’s Stanley Cup championship, as he resigned shortly after hoisting the trophy earlier this summer. While the team could have rocked the boat and brought in an outside candidate, the front office instead opted for continuity, promoting former assistant coach Todd Reirden. The 47-year-old was given a unique set of circumstances surrounding his first National Hockey League head coaching gig.

“This is an extremely unique one,” Reirden tells me in his office adorned with more Capitals gear than a stadium gift shop. “More often than not, you see an assistant coach take over because it went poorly. In this situation where you’ve won the ultimate prize in your sport, it’s obviously different. I had no ill will or misgivings to Barry. It was his choice not to return. It had nothing to do with my situation.”

Officially hired on June 29, Reirden touched base with Trotz to thank him for the opportunity. Four years ago, Trotz hired him as the assistant coach, bringing him into the organization where he’s now charged to lead.

“It’s been a real comfortable situation thus far,” he says. “Two years ago, I ran the training camp. So this is not new to me as far as where we’re at right now – only thoughts of excitement and opportunity for this group, who for the most part is returning.”

Those returning include legend and Stanley Cup MVP Alex Ovechkin, forward T.J. Oshie and defenseman John Carlson, to name a few.

“Every season is a little bit different, so it’s tough to totally forecast where your team is going to have success or [what they’ll] struggle with,” Reirden says. “[Because of] what we were able to do last year, there won’t be a lot of changes. We’re just trying to emphasize the speed with some of our young players.”

One group of people happy to see him instituted as head coach was the players, who had firsthand experience as he helped guide the team to a championship last season. Though he has a different role, the team believes he can help them achieve a title repeat.

“First of all, he’s very smart,” says veteran center Nicklas Backstrom. “He’s very good at adjusting during the game and making sure you’re screwing with the other team a bit, which I think is positive. People don’t notice that. He’s alert. He’s on top of his game, every game. That’s what you need in this league.”

Along with his mind for the game, Reirden is a great communicator, which is something he’s using to help the Capitals avoid
a title hangover.

“My strengths are in communication and developing relationships with the players,” he says. “I was in constant contact with them and let them know a clear vision of what I expected the camp to look like. They’ve all come back in excellent shape and ready to work. The response from the veteran players and everyone right through is a high energy level and an even higher conditional level than in the past. You have to communicate with the players, you have to talk to them, you have to connect with them. They have to be able to come to you about good things, bad things, whatever it is, and you have to have them trust you and believe in you.”

With a new coach comes new philosophies and tendencies, which carries the possibility of a slow start. However, with Reirden being on staff for the past few years, players aren’t worried about the prospect.

“Potentially,” right defenseman Matt Niskanen says of Reirden’s coaching style. “You get used to a coach’s tendencies – his feel for how he runs the bench, runs your scheme, your practices. So far in camp, there’s been the same types of drills just to get people moving again because everyone’s familiar with them. But we’re going to start filtering new stuff, tweaking the system and details as we go. It should be a pretty seamless transition.”

Though it’s early, everything out of Capitals camp sounds so far, so good. And as the season opener against the Boston Bruins on October 3 approaches, all Reirden and the team can do is put their heads down, get to work and enjoy the journey.

“My goal doesn’t have anything to do with a set number of wins or losses, or this or that,” Reirden says. “I want to create an environment that’s challenging for our players. I want them to enjoy coming to work every day. They need to enjoy coming to the rink and being challenged that way to get back to what we accomplished last year.”

Don’t miss the Caps’ home opener on Wednesday, October 3 at 7:30 p.m. against the Bruins. For more information on the team and their 2018-2019 season, visit www.nhl.com/capitals.

Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; www.nhl.com/capitals

Photo: Courtesy of PFL
Photo: Courtesy of PFL

PFL 10: An Event to Watch for Fight Fans

Mixed martial arts (MMA) holds an interesting spot when it comes to the DC sports hierarchy. Known as a fight town, DMV residents tend to sway more toward boxing as the DC area has historically offered the squared circle a true home for locally bred talent and big events.

Globally, MMA as a whole is maybe at its most profitable point and the Professional Fighters League (PFL) is looking to capitalize on the potentially fertile fandom in DC with an event on October 20 in the brand new St. Elizabeths East Entertainment and Sports Arena. This marks the organization’s third DC card, after PFL Fight Night in November 2017 and PFL 3 this past July.

The PFL separates itself from other MMA promotions by instituting a tournament system between the top eight fighters in each of its six divisions. The PFL 2018 season will conclude on December 31, with six championship fights back-to-back and a $10 million prize pool.

PFL 10 offers a boon for fight fans who have followed the sport over the past decade, with veterans like former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) vets Rick Story and John Howard, and other talents such as Abubakar Nurmagomedov and Louis Taylor.

Fights at the top of the card include Shields vs. Ray Cooper III (who square off in a rematch after Cooper bested the veteran by technical knockout), Eddie Gordon vs. Andre Lobato, and Howard vs. Shamil Gamzatov – to name a few.

“There is an appetite for the very, very high end of fighting, whether it’s [boxing’s] Pacquiao and Mayweather or [MMA’s] Conor McGregor,” says MMA journalist Luke Thomas. “But the midlevel has been harder to cultivate [here in DC]. The PFL is trying to tap into that, and even though some of the guys aren’t the best of the best anymore, it’s good fighting. It’s a big test, it’s critical. But the question is how difficult is [getting people to the event].”

Thomas, of MMA Fighting and SiriusXM’s The Luke Thomas Show, is   a DC native and says there has been a general interest for the sport dating back to the days of DC promotion Ultimate Warrior Challenge. The promotion featured early bouts of eventual UFC standouts John Dodson, Brendan Schaub and Mike Easton. But because of commission issues in DC and big markets like New York City only a few hours up the highway, big MMA fights have largely eluded the city.

“Part of this is DC hasn’t had a DC fighter breakthrough,” Thomas says. “It’s a newer fight community, and I don’t think they know enough about the sport. There’s a fight community, but it leans more toward boxing, and this new audience doesn’t know all the practices.”

Despite this, Thomas and I are in agreement regarding the talent on PFL 10. More high-level fights in the District could further the sport’s exposure, perhaps making way for breakthrough stars and additional can’t-miss fight cards.

“The PFL will bring many talents that are pretty damn good,” he continues. “A lot of these guys have been floating just outside the UFC ranks. There are definitely some fights to look out for, and you have an undercard with good veterans. These are all legitimate fighters.”

The fight card will represent one of the first large-scale events to take place at the city’s new venue. In addition to featuring touring sports like the PFL, e-sports and concerts, the 4,200-seat arena will also house the Washington Mystics and the Wizards’ new NBA G-League team, the Capital City Go-Go. The completion of the 118,000-square-foot St. Elizabeths East is the culmination of a year-long construction process that cost the city about $69 million.

While there’s currently no boxing cards scheduled for the arena, there’s little doubt DC’s newest building will host bouts in the future. Fight fans in the District yearning for high-level combat sooner will be treated to the PFL 10 and a collection of MMA talent from around the world.

“I guarantee that when the card is over, we’ll have been treated to quality MMA,” Thomas says.

Don’t miss the PFL 10 on Saturday, October 20 at the new St. Elizabeths East arena. Visit www.pflmma.com for more information and to purchase tickets.

St. Elizabeths East Entertainment and Sports Arena: 1100 Oak Dr. SE, DC; www.esaontherise.com

Photo: Courtesy of Professional Bull Riders
Photo: Courtesy of Professional Bull Riders

Not Your Average Rodeo: PBR Rolls Through NoVA

You may have seen the slogan on the Metro buses taking you in and out of the city lately. The large sign reads, “And You Thought This Town Couldn’t Handle Any More Bulls#*t,” and with the most recent political developments, it seems like the marketing ploy couldn’t be more timely.

However, the bull advertised isn’t the kind peddled by politicians or reported in news stories. It’s real and it involves actual bulls, riders and extensive pyrotechnics. The Professional Bull Riders (PBR) tour is here, and it’s time to take notice.

“You can expect there to be a lot of action,” PBR rider Cody Nance says. “It’s a ton of fun and it’s funny. If you like exciting things, you’re coming to the right place. You see the top guys in the world against the best bulls in the world.”

The PBR rolls through Northern Virginia on September 22 and 23 for the U.S. Border Patrol Invitational at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia. The stadium where George Mason athletics take place will be completely transformed into what sounds like a rodeo atmosphere on steroids.

“For years we said, ‘It’s not a rodeo, but a one and only PBR,’” production manager Jim White says. “We’re a full entertainment package, and even have bands on occasion. We have the same sound systems as most rock ‘n’ roll bands, and our lighting is a lot like those concerts as well. It’s bull riding. It’s Americana. Anyone can enjoy it. It’s two-and-a-half hours of nonstop action.”

Though the spectacle is not a rodeo, it does mirror more than a few of the same aesthetics including 300 tons of dirt stretched over 40 yards, loads of steel for pins and barriers, and of course, gigantic athletes weighing in at nearly 2,000 pounds each.

“They’re just like any other kind of athlete,” PBR stock provider Mike Miller says about the bulls. “It’s about diet and exercise. We feed them twice a day: low fat and high protein. We try to get them as much exercise as possible to build their lung capacity and muscles up.”

Miller says that much like the riders who train to be flexible and durable for the strenuous task of riding atop a bull, the bulls themselves are bred to be athletes – part of the spectacle.

“We look for intensity – how high they jump in the front and how hard they kick in the back,” Miller says of identifying the best bulls. “I guess if you’re in the business, you can notice [the difference between them] a little easier, and that’s your job to kind of know what the bull is and what the best bulls look like.”

According to the PBR website, a bull ride in the league is an “eight-second contest of strength, balance, endurance and effort between the world’s best bull rides and the world’s best bucking bulls.” In order to score, riders must have one hand on the bull rope and one in the air, and if he makes it for eight seconds, he’ll receive a score up to 100 total points with a possible 50 points awarded to each the bull and the rider.

“Most people think we’re crazy,” Nance says. “But once you explain what it’s about, they understand. It’s just a cowboy thing. A lot of people don’t understand how much goes into raising a bull. To be able to compete with a bull at that level is like playing in the [NFL] Pro Bowl.”

Nance was the fifth ranked PBR rider in the world standings and the top ranked American as of August. Despite his unusual career path, he says it was one he yearned for from an early age as his stepdad rode bulls and served as a judge after he gave up the trade.

“I got on bulls through high school at different levels, but couldn’t join the PBR until I turned 18,” Nance says. “In 10 years of riding, a lot can change. You get the heck beat out of you. Sometimes it’s a little more physically challenging, but mentally you go about it the same way.”

Miller says that while the bulls themselves may not be aware they’re competing with one another, each has a unique personality. So temperamental bulls may be more challenging than others.

“They’re like me, you or your friends,” Miller says. “Some are nice to be around, and some are really ignorant to be around.”

So, if you’re into lights, music and cowboys riding atop giant, potentially annoyed animals, the PBR is right up your alley. And we promise we’re not just saying that, because frankly, that would be bulls#*t.

“The newcomers in Virginia, they’re going to see Western lifestyle in a way that they’ve never seen it before,” White says. “It’s like a rock show with meat.”

Don’t miss PBR’s U.S. Border Patrol Invitational at EagleBank Arena on Saturday, September 22 at 6:45 p.m. and Sunday, September 23 at 1:45 p.m. Tickets start at $71. Learn more about Professional Bull Riding at www.pbr.com.

EagleBank Arena: 4500 Patriot Circle, Fairfax, VA; 703-993-3000; www.eaglebankarena.com

Photo: Rich Kessler
Photo: Rich Kessler

D.C. Gets United

When Wayne Rooney trotted onto Audi Field for the first time in D.C. United’s home opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps on July 14, a sold-out crowd of 20,504 erupted in raucous cheers.

Making his American Major League Soccer debut, the 32-year-old British soccer legend looked sharp, drilling crisp, efficient passes and notching an assist to Paul Arriola, who scored two goals in the home team’s 3-1 victory.

Afterward, a smiling Rooney sat before a throng of reporters in the club’s gleaming new interview room and declared himself proud of his new club and the new stadium. But he also laid down a challenge to his D.C. United teammates for the weeks and months ahead.

“It was a great atmosphere,” said Rooney, who knows a thing or two about atmosphere after representing England in three World Cups and claiming five Premier League championships with the fabled Manchester United club. “It’s a great stadium that’s built for atmosphere, but we have to create the atmosphere on the pitch. We can’t expect the fans to come in and make noise if we’re not exciting them. It’s our job to excite them.

“For the fans and the players, it was a big game,” Rooney added. “Now, we’ll enjoy tonight’s victory and get ready for the next game.”

The Audi Field home opener at Buzzard Point, just a stone’s throw from Nationals Park, represented a new chapter in D.C. United’s storied history, which includes 13 titles, four MLS cups and a long wait for a home of their own.

The soccer club contended with a grueling, four-month road schedule as it awaited the opening of the stadium in July. According to D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen, it was worth the wait. Olsen took a quiet walk around the stadium before the home opener to soak up the significance of the moment.

“This is one of the great nights in D.C. United history, and we’ve had some good ones,” Olsen said after the game. “After four months on the road, to play the way we played, score goals and be entertaining was just a great night for the organization.”

The new stadium, which cost nearly half a billion dollars, delighted enthusiastic D.C. United fans who have endured years of subpar soccer conditions at RFK Stadium, a crumbling relic built for American football – not soccer. Audi Field’s sleek and modern design, stellar sightlines, and upscale concessions put it among the very best venues for soccer in the United States and perhaps the world.

Arriola, a small but speedy 23-year-old forward for D.C. United, had a hint of awe in his eyes as he described what it was like to play in the new stadium.

“It was awesome,” he told On Tap. “To look up and see the fans right on top of you – you can look up and stare them right in the eyes. The fans obviously deserve this place, to come to a beautiful field and stadium, and it gives us confidence to go out there and perform.”

Aside from Audi Field’s opening, D.C. United’s biggest move this season was the acquisition of Rooney. The father of four and global soccer legend signed a reported $13 million contract for two-and-a-half years, with D.C. United holding an option for an additional year.

Rooney is the only player to score 200 goals and provide 100 assists in the British Premier League, and is now the highest paid player in MLS history. After the home opener, Olsen reinforced what a great decision the big contract was for his team.

“We saw what Wayne is: a high-quality, elite soccer player,” Olsen said. “He didn’t lose possession, made some key passes and got on the end of a few balls in the box. This is what he’s going to do for us. With his character, he’s here to help the team get better on and off the field.”

Olsen added that to put it simply, he just makes the right plays.

“There’s a lot of value in that, making the right play in the moment. We’re still a young team, so he can help with the soccer aspect and the mentality he brings with his experience. That’s the exciting part about this. We’re lucky to have him.”

Arriola said Rooney immediately makes D.C. United a better team with his leadership on the field and in the locker room.

“He’s a very humble guy on and off the field,” Arriola said. “But on the field, you can see his quality. The way he plays really suits a lot of our players. We’re still trying to get the chemistry together and it will take time, but he just wants to get in here and work and win. That’s the type of player we need right now.”

For his part, Rooney said he’s ready to write the next chapter in his storied career.

“I have said this since I committed to the club: I want to win, and I am vocal on and off the pitch,” Rooney said. “I’m vocal with the coach, vocal with my teammates and we speak [about] which we think is the best way to win a football match. I think the most important thing is communication, not just for myself but for the players, and the players know that.”

Rooney acknowledged that some of his younger, less experienced teammates may be a bit intimidated by his success on the global soccer stage, but he stressed that he is now one of them.

“I am a D.C. United player,” he said. “I am exactly the same as these players and I want to win. What I can bring is my desire to win, and that’s every day on the training pitch and every game.”

Learn more about D.C. United’s 2018 season at www.dcunited.com.

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

Photo: Erich Morse
Photo: Erich Morse

World Cup Spots: Best Soccer Bars to Catch Games

The tables have turned – the bar tables, that is. From June 14 to July 15, local sports bars will be playing footage recorded live from Russia: the 2018 FIFA World Cup. And there are no secrets here. We caught up with eight of the DC area’s best soccer bars about their food and drink specials and programming, so you can pick and choose where to watch the games and grab some grub.

Across the Pond Restaurant & Pub

This will be Across the Pond’s first full summer open in Dupont Circle, and the restaurant and pub is quickly establishing itself as the go-to for watching soccer. Catch the early games with their $10.99 breakfast special: scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage, home fries, toast, and tea or coffee. Add a Heineken with your meal for $5 or enjoy a $4 pilsner, $4 Bloody Mary or $4 mimosa. Beyond the fried favorites, expand your palate with the pub’s chicken pot pie, cottage pie or chicken curry – all popular dishes on the menu.

“Our owners have grown up playing and watching soccer on both sides of the pond,” says owner and partner Gerry Feeney. “And while we may have our personal allegiances to Liverpool and Manchester United, we enjoy watching and following the sport.”

Feeney adds that he’s excited to have Soccer & Beer TV, hosted by retired New Zealand player Duncan Oughton, film an upcoming episode at Across the Pond soon.

1732 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.acrosstheponddc.com

Babylon Futbol Cafe

Founded specifically for watching international soccer, Babylon Futbol Cafe Owner Paul Hecton says his bar supports all major sports, but its “heart and soul is world football.” Babylon will offer draft beer specials throughout the World Cup, and dishes ranging from Ethiopian sega tibs (marinated beef with peppers, onions, garlic and tomato) and the best-of-both-worlds option mar y tierra (steak, shrimp and fries), plus familiar comfort foods like burgers and pizza.

After eating, you can have shisha (hookah) while watching the games. Babylon isn’t supporting a specific team since the U.S. didn’t qualify, but Hecton says he has a strong customer base of South American and African supporters.

“European powerhouses always bring a good crowd,” he says. “Babylon wins when there’s good soccer.”
Babylon shows games in various languages, depending on the carrier and the majority of the audience watching in the restaurant.

3501 S. Jefferson St. Falls Church, VA; www.babylonfc.com

Dock FC

After Ari Gejdenson retired from playing soccer professionally, he returned from Europe to his hometown and eventually opened soccer bar Dock FC in Ivy City. For World Cup season, his bar is offering a food and beverage package that’s great for a group that wants to enjoy the spot’s communal-style seating, or for the dedicated solo fan who wants to munch from morning games all the way to late-night. It includes a pitcher of beer, Cholula chicken wings, nachos and churros for $50.

Director of operations Teija Staples says the Dock FC team will be rooting for Argentina during the tournament “because Lionel Messi is a gentleman.” Spanish commentators will be displayed on the bar’s TVs, as well as English, and visitors opting out of the special food and drink package can still choose from a variety of good eats cooked by two adjoining restaurants: La Puerta Verde and Ari’s Diner. Plus, sweet tooths can enjoy all-day breakfast options like the brioche French toast.

1400 Okie St. NE, DC; www.dockfcdc.com

Fadó

This Irish pub has no allegiance to a specific soccer team. The team at Fadó will be rooting for all countries while offering buckets of Bud, Bud Light, or Mich Ultra 16-oz. aluminums (five for $25). Goose Island IPA, Goose Island Summer and Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat 12-oz. bottles, plus buckets of Harp or Guinness Blonde 12-oz. bottles, are also available at five for $25. If you’re not a beerhead, enjoy $4 mimosas or Red Bulls, or a Bloody Mary for $8.

According to assistant general manager Kevin Bernard, the space will be decorated for the World Cup and you’ll be served by a staff that deeply cares about the games. Talk soccer with the servers while ordering dishes inspired by Dublin’s best pubs. For dessert, try their Fadó brownie with Guinness ice cream. It’s big enough to share!

808 7th St. NW, DC; www.fadoirishpub.com

Lucky Bar

Enjoy a Russian breakfast while catching the early soccer tournaments at Lucky Bar. Russian food specials will also be available during lunch, as well as Russian-themed cocktails and beer. The bar is dedicated to the sport year-round and the Lucky Bar team will ensure you’ll be surrounded by staff who are “dedicated to the beautiful game,” whether it’s a relegation battle in the lower division or the World Cup Final, says owner Paul Lusty. When Colombia plays on June 19, there’s a good chance you’ll find some live entertainment via Colombian DJs and musicians who come out to party and dance – win or lose.

“We pride ourselves on bringing every available game that is technologically possible to our screens from every corner of the globe,” Lusty says.

Lucky Bar offers Spanish and English commentary, depending on the matchups on the day. If you’re still fiending for that soccer-loving atmosphere after World Cup, this bar is dedicated to the sport year-round.

1221 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.luckybardc.com

The Pug

This summer will mark the first time that The Pug will be serving food, just in time for the World Cup games. Through a partnership with Toki Underground’s kitchen, bite-sized bar offerings will include watermelon radish crudo with furikake (a Japanese dry seasoning typically used over cooked rice) and lemon. Named after owner Tony Tomelden, you can also try the Uncle Tony’s Lumpia, a fried pork and vegetable egg roll with xie xie sauce.

The H Street spot’s fried chicken or cauliflower steamed buns are other unique dishes packed with Asian flavors like Japanese mayo, sweet chili sauce and Thai basil. Since they’re small plates, you may want to have a hearty dinner beforehand and come by afterward for a drink and to catch the late games with your friends.

1234 H St. NE, DC; www.thepugdc.com

The Queen Vic

This British pub (supporting England in the World Cup, of course) has specials daily – just check the chalkboard when you walk in. And during the tournament, Queen Vic will offer 20-oz. Carlsbergs for $5 while each game is on.

“We have been a soccer bar since we opened and have watched it grow as a sport in DC over the past seven years,” says co-owner Roneeka Baghotra. “We have a license that allows us to open earlier than a lot of other places throughout the year and will always try to open early or show a match if a guest requests it.”
Share a plate of Ploughman’s Lunch with fellow fans; the appetizer includes grilled bacon, goat cheese-stuffed dates, cheddar, mustard, pickles, apple salad and bread. Or if you want something all to yourself, try the chicken tikka masala – chicken in spiced tomato sauce served with rice and handmade naan.

1206 H St. NE, DC; www.thequeenvicdc.com

Summers

Summers Restaurant is chalk-full of HDTVs that will be streaming the World Cup games all day, every day via satellite. Early games can be viewed during the Courthouse-based sports bar and soccer pub’s weekend breakfast and brunch hours. Breakfast options include pancakes, omelets and a classic British-style breakfast, to name a few.

This soccer-centric bar has no specified World Cup specials, but you can enjoy the Monday burger and fries special all day for $6.49. Summers also has all your favorite guilty pleasures available for dessert – including a molten lava chocolate cake. So head to Arlington and swing by Summers during your weekend bar hop to catch a World Cup game.

1520 N. Courthouse Rd. Arlington, VA; www.summers-restaurant.com

Learn more about the 2018 FIFA World Cup at www.fifa.com.

Photo: Paul Kim/Washington Nationals
Photo: Paul Kim/Washington Nationals

Play-by-Play Voice Charlie Slowes Expects Nats to Heat Up with Weather

Cable television is a luxury for many people these days. That means that Nationals fans who wish to follow their team could have trouble accessing MASN, the Nats’ home broadcasting network. Hence, the importance of radio.

“Sometimes all it takes is a comeback like this to turn your fate around,” an authoritative voice crooned over the airwaves.

That was Charlie Slowes, the play-by-play announcer for the Nationals’ radio affiliate 106.7 FM The Fan, speaking on April 16 during a tight game between the Mets and the Nats. A few pitches later, Michael A. Taylor, who entered the game with a .193 batting average, walked to force in the go-ahead run, and the Nats went on to win 8-6.

Taylor’s go-ahead walk came at a critical juncture early in the season. The Nats lost eight of their previous 11 games entering the series against the Mets, who stormed out of the gates to a 12-2 record. The Nationals ended up taking two of three games in the series to stop their early season skid.

For all 14 seasons that Nats baseball has existed in DC, Slowes has been the voice calling the games, engaging fans through the airwaves. When we got a chance to chat with Slowes off-air, he noted that it’s important not to sound the alarms just because of a slow start.

“You’re talking about a tenth of a season,” Slowes told On Tap the morning after the April 16 game, adding that there’s reason to keep the faith in a reigning first-place team. “I’m always excited at the start of a season. They’ve got Scherzer and Strasburg at the top of the rotation. They’ve got a backend of the bullpen that they didn’t really have last year, with a track record of success. Bryce [Harper] looks like he’s primed for a big, big year.”

Slowes noted that this April was abnormally cold and dismal, hardly the kind of weather that wakes Major League hitters out of their offseason slumbers – even the cherry blossoms stayed in their beds a few weeks longer than expected.

“Hell, let’s see the weather get warm,” Slowes said. “It hasn’t really been baseball weather. But you figure by May, it will be.”

Any baseball fan worth his weight in pine tar knows that warm weather and hitting go together like spaghetti and meatballs. Moreover, key pieces in the Nats’ lineup were missing at the start of the April 16 game. Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy – essential pieces in the Nationals’ batting order – spent time out of the lineup in April because of injury.

The Nationals entered the April 16 game with MLB ranks of 13th in runs scored, 19th in team batting average and 15th in team on-base plus slugging. At the end of 2017, the Nats ranked fifth, fourth and fourth in those categories, respectively. With a fully loaded lineup, one would expect the numbers to more closely resemble last season’s.

But unlike last season, when the Nats finished 20 games ahead of the second-place Marlins, our team has more to worry about than just their own performance. The National League East has vastly improved.

For example, the Mets welcomed back their young pitching phenom Noah “Thor” Syndergaard and potent hitters Michael Conforto and Yoenis Céspedes, all of whom missed significant time in 2017. Meanwhile, the Braves and Phillies have started to reap the benefits of their “rebuilding” phases. For both teams, a talented crop of young prospects has finally begun to arrive at the Major League level.

But maybe a little competition isn’t so bad.

“Maybe that will be a good thing,” Slowes said. “When you are a runaway winner in the division, and you don’t play any meaningful games, then September becomes a little bit more like spring training. Then you’ve got to flip a switch [when the playoffs begin].”

After a shaky performance coming out of this year’s spring training, the Nationals needed to search hard to flip that proverbial switch. If nothing else, the Nats – to invoke another idiom – have gotten a wake-up call to start the season.

For more info on the Nats’ 2018 season, go to www.mlb.com/nationals.

Nationals Park: 1500 South Capitol St. SE, DC; 202-675-6287; www.mlb.com/nationals

Photo: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club
Photo: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club

Breakout Batter: Meet Michael A. Taylor

The “A” has always stood for Anthony. Now, it stands for his performance.

Michael A. Taylor, center fielder for the Washington Nationals, established himself last season as one of the young players to watch in Major League Baseball. He finished among the top three Gold Glove candidates at his position in the National League despite playing in a mere 118 contests. In his injury-abbreviated season – Taylor spent most of July and part of August on the disabled list with a strained right oblique – he swatted 19 home runs and stole 17 bases. Only five other National League players can say the same about their 2017 campaigns.

“I think [one] of the major changes I made [was] my view going into the game, and what I consider successful for me a lot of the time,” Taylor says. “I would get caught up in the result, and baseball is a game of failures day in and out – whether that’s just swinging at good pitches or moving a runner [and] making hard contact.”

Hard contact was something that drew Taylor into the spotlight late in 2017. In September and October of the regular season, he had one of the best stretches of his career in terms of power, notching seven home runs that included an inside-the-park grand slam against the Phillies. Taylor’s power took the national stage in the playoffs, when he hit yet another grand slam, this time to seal a win over the Cubs and force game five of the National League Division Series.

Then, in game five, he hit a three-run bomb into the Cubs bullpen in left, giving the Nationals the lead in what ended as a heartbreaking 9-8 loss. That’s nine home runs in 33 games among September, October and the postseason, for whoever is counting. Taylor isn’t one of them.

“I try not to make too much of statistics,” he says. “I go out there and try to do my best.”

Regarding his unexpected, late-season mash fest, Taylor says he thinks it’s a byproduct of a good approach in his game.

“Home runs will come. When I try to force home runs, I end up putting myself in a bad spot, swinging too hard or swinging at pitches out of the zone.”

Taylor’s approach will be much-scrutinized at the start of 2018. For the first time since 2015, he’s the favorite to start in center field at the beginning of the season. In 2016 and 2017, respectively, trade acquisitions Ben Revere and Adam Eaton filled that role. Thanks to Taylor’s breakout 2017 and his superb defense, Eaton is now moving to left field while Taylor hunkers down as the “field general” in center.

The potential scrutiny doesn’t seem to faze Taylor, who maintains a calm, composed demeanor in on-camera interviews. Part of his confidence stems from a positive relationship with Nationals fans. Even during his first two-plus seasons in the majors, during which Taylor hit a combined .228 and struck out more than once a game, he says fans had his back. In 2017, Taylor returned the favor, lifting his average to .271 with an OPS of .806.

“One thing I can say about fans in DC [is] they’ve been very supportive through my whole career. I’m very grateful for that. Even the years I felt like I didn’t perform as well as I’d like, they still were behind me and very supportive.”

Taylor is also lucky in some respects. In June, then-Nationals Manager Dusty Baker called him “one of the most fortunate dudes” he had ever managed, according to Patrick Reddington of SB Nation’s Federal Baseball blog. For example, although he didn’t start opening day in 2016 and 2017, he did see significant playing time both seasons because of injuries to Revere and Eaton. This year, he also has the benefit of two experienced, talented outfielders – Eaton and Bryce Harper – flanking him in left and right.

“They make it really easy on me,” Taylor says of Eaton and Harper. “Those guys have a lot of experience and are great outfielders. I think we work very well together. We’re all on the same page. They make it easy and encourage me to go out there and take the lead.”

Adding to the rocky beginnings of Taylor’s career is the fact that he’s had three different managers since the beginning of 2015. This season, Dave Martinez takes over, and based on Taylor’s attitude, it’s just another fortuitous turn.

“Davey has been great. [He] communicates with the guys every day. It’s been very laid-back and energetic. I’ve really enjoyed spring training with him, and I’m looking forward to a full season.”

A full season is actually one concern lingering around Taylor, even now that he has established himself as a serious player. In spring training, what the Nationals called “tightness” in his right side – the same side as his oblique strain last season – forced him out of the lineup on March 5. Luckily, he returned to the Nationals’ Grapefruit League lineup on March 17, going one for three with a pair of strikeouts.

So what’s Taylor’s goal for 2018? Play in 162 games? Reach the 20-home-run, 20-stolen-base plateau? Make up for that near miss at a Gold Glove?

“To win a World Series,” he says.

If Taylor, with all of his good fortune, helps the Nationals bring home the World Series trophy, he can go ahead and add “plus” to that “A” in the middle of his name.

The Washington Nationals’ home opener is on Thursday, April 5 at 1:05 p.m., when they will host the New York Mets at Nats Park. For more information on Taylor and the Nats’ 2018 season, visit www.mlb.com/nationals.

Nationals Park: 1500 South Capitol St. SE, DC; 202-675-6287; www.mlb.com/nationals