National Writer: Charles Boehm

“Soccer fanatic city”: DC eager to welcome back MLS All-Star Game in 2023

WASHINGTON – So, so much has changed since the MLS All-Star Game presented by Target last visited the United States’ capital city 18 years ago.

Old RFK Stadium has been replaced by Audi Field, whose Buzzard Point neighborhood was back then home to a power plant, a scrap yard and not much else. The District of Columbia’s population has grown by well over 100,000 residents, and the league itself is nearly three times bigger now, approaching 30 member clubs. And the modern All-Star Game is a much different beast than the East vs. West matchup (the last of that format) that unfolded in sweltering midsummer afternoon heat due to an ABC time slot on July 31, 2004.

“The All-Star Game has come a long way from those days,” two-time All-Star, D.C. United icon and former head coach Ben Olsen told on Thursday morning, as the 2023 edition was officially awarded to Audi Field with Washington mayor Muriel Bowser, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, several United legends and other luminaries in attendance.

D.C. remains every bit the soccer hotbed it’s been for decades, though, a culture ready to warmly welcome the events, visitors and attention that accompany the All-Star Game.

“D.C. is one of the biggest soccer fanatic cities in the country, and having the All-Star Game come here is a real treat for everyone,” said Ed Foster-Simeon, president and CEO of the U.S. Soccer Foundation, which is based in downtown Washington. “It provides easy access to the best athletes playing right here in our backyard at Audi Field – a few years ago, this didn't exist, and now we have the opportunity to enjoy this stadium and all that surrounds it.

“The cultural vibe in D.C. is very, very, very cool, and soccer is cool in D.C. – it is the sport here in this area. So having the All-Star Game come here will be beautiful. And it will also help expand the game in some of the underserved communities here, because seeing it here live, seeing the excitement, seeing the celebration, seeing the best players, will then create more excitement.”

All-Star also showcases the stadiums that have been such a central cog in MLS’s dramatic growth. Few of those were more hard-earned victories than Audi Field, a venue nestled in the heart of the city that took nearly two decades to bring to reality and cost somewhere approaching half a billion dollars to construct.

“We’re a sports capital. We love soccer,” said Bowser. “We have built a beautiful stadium for our team – both [teams], now that the [NWSL’s Washington] Spirit are playing here as well. We do big events; people love visiting D.C.”

2023 MLS All-Star Announcement Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser

Garber hailed the role of Bowser, who at the beginning of that process was a member of the city council, in helping shepherd the project towards completion.

“Mayor Bowser, this is very much because of you,” said the Commissioner. “I remember so many years ago talking to you about what we needed to bring this sport to a new level, and how could we take this terrific team and give it a home that they could call their own and be a part of this growing part of this important region. You helped us get that, and we are here because of you and your vision.”

All-Star festivities are also a balm of sorts for a local soccer community still smarting from FIFA’s decision last week to pass over the combined D.C./Baltimore bid for 2026 World Cup hosting status.

“This is a nice announcement coming off the back of a disappointing week,” said Olsen. “I don't know if it basically covers that one up, I think there's still some wounds with that. But this is awesome. I think everybody in the DMV’s going to be pumped and come out to see the best of the best MLS has to offer.

“And there's so many countries that are involved in this, just the nature of the global league and the way it's a diverse area where people can come hopefully see, again, not only the best of the best, but people from their region of the world.”

2023 MLS All-Star Announcement MLS Commissioner Don Garber

While the MLS vs. Liga MX structure of the 2021 and ’22 All-Star Games has been well received, Garber said that the format of the ’23 edition likely won’t be finalized until sometime closer to the end of the current year.

With the home side currently struggling near the bottom of the standings and yet to win an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs match since moving into their new home, he also gave his backing to United’s management team as they plot a course back into the MLS elite.

“I have great faith in Danita [Johnson] and Jason [Levien] and Steve [Kaplan], and I know how passionate they all are on bringing this market back to the glory that it has as one of the great leaders of the sport in our country, not just in MLS, but the sport overall – great soccer history here, the team has got a passionate fan base,” said Garber. “I am very, very confident that with the commitment of ownership and the expertise of Danita and her staff, that they’re going to get this team back to the sort of popularity and success that it’s had for two decades.”