Ben Olsen addresses reporters after D.C. United's plans for a new stadium were approved on Dec. 17, 2014.
Pablo Maurer / MLSsoccer.com

DC United celebrate stadium approval after years of negotiations, close calls

WASHINGTON – Fans of D.C. United eager to watch their team play in a soccer-specific home of their own have long lived by a cynical mantra.

Jaded by a pair of stalled stadium deals, they have watched as a host of other teams in Major League Soccer have built stadiums of their own, all the while meeting every bit of United-related stadium news with the same familiar adage: “I’ll believe it when there are shovels in the ground.”

As it turns out, that day will come soon.

On Wednesday morning, in front of a packed D.C. Council chambers awash with their black and red colorway, United’s near decade-long struggle to find a modern home of their own finally came to an end. The D.C. Council passed legislation unanimously approving construction of a soccer stadium for United, paving the way for construction of a soccer-specific stadium, expected to seat between 20,000 and 25,000 fans, on Buzzard Point in Southwest D.C.

"I would say that we’re thrilled with the outcome here today, deeply humbled and appreciative of the City Council, mayor-elect, current mayor Gray, Allen Lew in the city administrator’s office. This was a collective team effort between the club, city and fans who led this charge,” said D.C. United Managing General Partner Jason Levien, who led the club's efforts in the stadium push. "The club has been at this for more than a decade, and today is a terrific moment for soccer in the United States.”

The triumph caps off a two-and-a-half year long process that saw its fair share of twists and turns. Though the basic details of the pact between the city and team have always remained the same – the city would handle the infrastructure associated with the stadium, while the team would pay for the building itself – the specifics became the subject of much debate.

At the center of it all was a series of "land swaps.” The biggest of them saw the District of Columbia trading the Reeves Center – a government building in D.C.’s bustling U Street corridor – to private developer Akridge for much of the land needed to build the stadium. Several members of the council expressed concern with the complicated nature of the deal and wondered whether that particular swap was the best way for the city to invest its funds. An independent study confirmed some of these fears, suggesting that the District would emerge on the losing end of that trade. For a moment, the deal seemed destined for the scrap heap. Even Levien himself confessed on Wednesday that he felt the doubt creeping in.

“There were many [moments of doubt,]" Levien said with a chuckle. “We’ve been at this for 29 months. I felt a real confidence when we first took over the club. You could sense that the city and current mayor were committed to this. There have been a lot of hills and valleys, though, in the last 29 months, and there were moments where we weren’t as optimistic as we’d like to be, but you stick with it. It’s a testament to the work that we did that we got a unanimous vote on this."

Insisting that the deal would not pass in its current form, Mayor-Elect and Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser put her stamp on the deal, removing the largest of the land swaps entirely while leaving several smaller ones intact. The District will instead borrow $62 million and spend $37 million in existing funds to make up the difference and complete their anticipated $139 million contribution to the deal.

Current D.C. Mayor Vince Gray – an ardent supporter of keeping United in the District since the deal’s inception – initially balked at the revised plan, expressing concern that sending a supplemental budget to the council would open the deal up to additional, unrelated expenses. But the deal passed the council's initial vote on Dec. 2 unanimously, and those concerns were worked out within a week, setting up Wednesday’s climax.

“We congratulate D.C. United ownership, Erick Thohir, Jason Levien and Will Chang, and the District government for creating an innovative partnership to bring a world-class soccer stadium to Washington, D.C.,” Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber said in a statement after the bill’s passage. “This is a historic moment for Major League Soccer, as D.C. United, one of our charter clubs, will soon have a terrific venue to celebrate the beautiful game in one of America's most passionate soccer markets."

United, of course, currently play their home games at RFK Stadium, a 53-year-old venue high on charm but short on amenities. The size and age of the venue – and the terms of the club's lease there – have contributed heavily to United's financial losses; according to the same study that cast a shadow on the land swap, the new stadium deal, as it stands, will eventually take United out of the red and into the black.

There remains just one sticking point, though it is not one that would keep the stadium from becoming a reality: Akridge – the private developer who stood to gain from the land swap removed from the deal – has yet to agree upon a price for the plot of land. The deal passed on Wednesday authorizes the city to use eminent domain if necessary to acquire the land, and city administrator Allen Lew suggested last week that he believes the city will still come in under their $150 million “cap,” even if Akridge puts up a fight.

On Wednesday, there was little worry about that. The mood was jubilant, thanks in no small part to the United fans who filled council chambers with the same energy and positivity they’ve brought to RFK for years. There was one attendee in particular who seemed particularly eager to shed the decade-old mantra of his fanbase: former United star and current United head coach Ben Olsen.

"I've got my work boots, I've got my work gloves, somebody give me a shovel," said Olsen. "I'm ready to start digging."

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