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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