WASHINGTON – First, a confession about my age.
The speed and intensity of Major League Soccer’s growth can be a real challenge to those of us who’ve been watching and writing about the league for any length of time. The rapid evolution of even just the past five years or so has changed things so quickly, and brought so many new fans to the table, that it can sometimes leave our collective memory a little short.
If you’ve arrived at any point during that time, you probably conceptualize D.C. United as ballers on a budget, or something along those lines. With the long, frustrating quest for a new, soccer-specific home of their own bringing on financial constraints relative to their competitors, the Black-and-Red have grown very adept at savvy trades, bargain acquisitions and all sorts of other ways to compete on the field without breaking the bank (although they paid the largest transfer fee in club history, a reported $1.4 million, this past offseason for Lucho Acosta). It’s a strategy that has made them postseason perennials, though MLS Cup has remained elusive for the side with four stars on their chests.
Let me tell you, kids: It wasn’t always this way.
D.C. were an unquestioned flagship of MLS – the LA Galaxy often shared the role, but not always – for the league's first decade-plus. They won more trophies than anyone else, including international ones, and set the standard for supporter culture and gameday atmosphere.
As ancient and oversized as it may seem to you today (and it’s been like that since just about Day One), for quite a long time RFK was quite simply the most authentic, enthralling place to watch a game in this league, from constant noise to bouncing stands to beer showers. And the home team won a lot more than they lost.
A new chapter in United’s history quietly opened last week, however.
It wasn’t a particularly poetic scene in the downtown D.C. office building where the five members of the District of Columbia Zoning Commission voice-voted unanimously in favor of advancing the plans for United’s stadium at Buzzard Point – henceforth to be known as Audi Field – to the construction and permitting phase. But that was the final clearance the Black-and-Red need to start pouring concrete and raising steel at their future home, which will host its first match sometime in early summer 2018.
“Words can’t even express, right?” said United president of business operations Tom Hunt with a ready smile after the zoning meeting. “It’s a fantastic day. But we knew we’d get here.”
To really understand just what this moment meant, and what an achingly long road it took to get here, start by checking out the 13-year headline timeline compiled by the Washington Post’s crack soccer reporter Steve Goff.
It takes some scrolling to read all the way through that list, which gives the reader a taste of the maddening, unending roller coaster D.C. fans have endured. Buzzard Point is the third proposed site for United’s venue, and has finally turned out to be the charm after projects fell through at Poplar Point (in Southeast D.C.) and Prince George’s County in suburban Maryland.
It took a “machete,” a “rich uncle” and the demise of the city’s last metal scrap yard, but the end of United’s two-decade residency at RFK is finally at hand. And that means a new heavyweight is about to rise in the Eastern Conference.
How thrilled are the Black-and-Red? Within minutes of the zoning board’s vote, the club sent out a press release inviting fans and community members to a groundbreaking – in this case it’s more of a cornerstone-laying – ceremony to be attended by luminaries like D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and MLS Commissioner Don Garber on Monday, Feb. 27.
Five days later, United will host Sporting Kansas City in both teams’ 2017 season opener, the last of 22 such occasions at RFK.
“February 27 is going to be phenomenal,” said Hunt. “It’s going to be an amazing lead-up to the home opener on March 4, so we can’t wait to celebrate then and make it a week-long party.
“Join us for [March] 4th, our home opener,” he added, urging D.C. fans to make the most of one last year at a venue that has become a subject of a love-hate relationship for many of them. “We want a packed house – it’s the final season at RFK and it’s very important for us to give it the proper farewell.”
Cosmopolitan, international and wildly diverse, the nation’s capital and its surrounding areas are one of this country’s original soccer hotbeds. Unfortunately for United, the restrictive terms of their tenancy at RFK have for some time handicapped their ability to fully maximize that.
Jason Levien, the club’s managing partner and the owner of the aforementioned machete, has already hinted at a dramatically different future once the Black-and-Red’s revenue streams are revitalized at the new house.
If the current budget-driven model can push them into the MLS Cup Playoffs in four of the past five seasons, imagine what they might achieve once that flagship status is regained.
“They’ve had to be very resourceful. We’re in a good place because of what they’ve done,” Levin told the Post of head coach Ben Olsen and general manager Dave Kasper. “We’ve worked within our reality. It’s been challenging, and we’ve responded to that challenge. But having additional resources will only help us in our mission to win championships. Now we’ll have an opportunity to build on what we’ve already established.”
D.C. finished the 2016 regular season as one of the hottest teams in MLS, and are looking like strong contenders in the year ahead. Due to stadium construction, they might be looking at starting the 2018 season with an extended road streak (Sporting KC holds the record for the longest one with the 10-game trip in 2011 that preceded their opening of Children's Mercy Park). But they would get a massive boost down the stretch with a backloaded home slate after Audi Field opens, much like Toronto FC did following the two-phase renovation of BMO Field in 2016.
So go catch one more game at RFK while you still can. Because the next iteration of D.C. soccer will feel like a different world altogether.