WASHINGTON – With mayor Muriel Bowser running a few minutes late to D.C. United’s incomprehensibly long-awaited stadium groundbreaking, TV broadcaster Dave Johnson took the mic and posed a dangerous question.
“We can wait a few more moments, right?” he asked.
“No!” the crowd replied. Then after some knowing glances, everyone laughed.
Almost an hour later, at 4:01 pm on Feb. 27, 2017, actual shovels finally dug into actual dirt, officially beginning construction on D.C.'s Audi Field. And for a club that has spent almost two decades searching for an upgrade from historic but tiring RFK Stadium, it was catharsis as much as celebration.
“I never let myself think about it, because sometimes you daydream and things don’t get done,” said United co-owner Jason Levien. “I had a sense that it was going to be a process and we were going to grit to the end. And we did that. But I didn’t want to envision specifically what today was going to look like because I wanted to just make sure it happened.”
United had previously explored options in suburban Maryland and Virginia, and even up I-95 in Baltimore. But Levien and Erick Thohir had always worked toward a future inside The District since taking primary control of the club four-and-a-half seasons ago.
Levien always saw the global game the perfect fit for one of the nation’s most global cities, and even suggested that the opening of Audi Field would have ideological and cultural implications.
“So many people from different backgrounds come together to unite around this incredible game and passion for the sport,” he said. “Maybe there’s no better time in our nation’s capital to build a cathedral, a mosque, a house of worship for soccer, for all our fans, for everyone in this community. I think it’s very apropos that we’re doing this here, just a few blocks from the White House, a few blocks from the Capitol.”
United struck a preliminary stadium deal with the D.C. government under Bowser’s administration in September 2015, though there were many procedural hurdles to clear.
A few remain, relative to specific building permits, though Levien expressed great confidence that the stadium could be ready in time for June of next season.
“Because of the site, we’re not building so deeply into the ground, we’re building up,” he explained. “So it’s a little bit more in our control in terms of the timing.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber has presided over more than a dozen stadium openings since taking the helm of the league in 1999, but he admitted Audi Field was a special one especially given the lengthy pursuit, beginning well over a decade ago with the efforts of former club president Kevin Payne.
“I think every owner, every executive, every player is smiling today,” Garber said. “This is the one I think we wanted most.”
“After years of fits and starts and pseudo-groundbreakings and press conferences,” continued Garber, “to finally sit up there with the mayor and Jason Levien and with Benny [Olsen, DC head coach] and with our new sponsor, to celebrate the new future for soccer in the District really warms my heart. It’s actually a pretty emotional moment.”
So, too, for Olsen, who has been a part of the club since joining as a rookie player in 1998, and who has coached on a budget in recent seasons while the club awaits the opening of its new home.
When the club held a surprise press event to reveal his contract extension in 2014, Olsen even joked with supporters then that he shared their disappointment that the announcement wasn’t a new stadium deal.
“It will be one of the great joys of my life to watch you make Audi Field into one of the best atmospheres in the country,” Olsen told the crowd Monday.
The club is already looking to a future at Audi Field with the signings of Luciano Acosta, Steve Birnbaum and Patrick Mullins. If the new stadium brings even more big signings, Olsen's colleagues around the league may not be as free with their well wishes.
For now, though, Olsen's enjoying them.
“I feel like the whole nation has been rooting for this stadium.” he said. “I can’t tell you how many texts or emails I got today from people around the country congratulating the club and who have just been extremely excited about one of the original clubs to finally have a home of their own.”