WASHINGTON - There have been few constants during D.C. United’s decade-long search for a soccer-specific home of their own.
Club ownership has been shuffled. Rosters have been overhauled. Political figures in the District of Columbia have come and gone.
Yet fans of United — a constant in and of themselves — have come to view one person as a fixture at RFK Stadium, as much a part of the place as its arching roofline or weathered concrete and steel facade: head coach and former player Ben Olsen.
After the D.C. Council hearing on Wednesday morning that finally approved construction of the home United have been pushing for since Olsen was still a tireless winger roaming the pitch at RFK, the D.C. head man took a moment to reflect on what the vote meant to him and his club.
"For this to be a reality for our fans to enjoy is a wonderful thing,” he said. "It’s something we that have been a part of this organization for a while have been dreaming about for a long time.”
Olsen is practically an MLS original, having entered the league in 1998. Since then, the former US national team standout has seen the league grow in leaps and bounds and has seen RFK age, sometimes not so gracefully. As other clubs in MLS moved into homes of their own — soccer-specific jewels like Sporting Park, Red Bull Arena and Rio Tinto Stadium — United continued to ply their trade at the venerable old building on East Capitol Street, putting them at a significant financial disadvantage to most of the rest of the league.
“You'd see all of these other stadiums pop up, and there was a little jealousy," Olsen said. "But [to me], it was more excitement that the league was growing. You knew that eventually, when we got our stadium, it would be one of the truly special atmospheres; it would be one of the best places to play in this country.”
Olsen, of course, weathered the disappointment of a pair of stalled stadium deals: a 2007 pact that would have landed United a home at Poplar Point in D.C. and a 2009 proposal to move the club to Prince George’s County in Maryland. There were often rumblings of finding a home in Virginia - or more recently, in Baltimore. But Olsen remained resolute.
“I never worried about it," Olsen said. "For me, it was always about taking care of business on the field as a player and now as a coach.”
There was no hiding his enthusiasm on Wednesday, though. United had found their new home, a plot of land at Buzzard Point in Southwest D.C., just four miles downriver from RFK.
"Going to Maryland or going to Virginia would have been crushing for this club,” Olsen said. “We can sugarcoat it all we want, but this city needs soccer. It’s as global as you get. It’s our nation’s capital, and soccer needs to be represented in the District of Columbia, and today that’s the reality. It’s just wonderful. It’s a wonderful feeling for us as a club; [it] takes this organization to the next level. It allows our owners now to do things to help the product get to the next level as well."
With a new home on the horizon – United co-owner Jason Levein said he hopes to break ground on the new stadium late next year for a 2017 opening – fans and players alike will likely spend the next couple of years eulogizing RFK, a stadium steeped in more soccer history than any other building in the country.
It may be nearing the end of its useable lifespan, but the place has an undeniable charm, one Olsen spoke of on Wednesday.
"We bash [RFK] all the time, and we can’t wait to get out of there; but it’s a lovely building, and some of my greatest memories in my lifetime have been on that field — so it will be bittersweet,” said Olsen. "I think I’ll get over it, though. The reality is that we’re still there for a little bit. It’s still our lovely home for a few years, and that’s fine. But the optimism moving forward is wonderful.”