If soccer in this country had a holy site – if we cared enough, collectively, to preserve just one stadium 'til the end of time – it would be RFK Stadium.
It has seen it all: iteration after iteration of top-flight club soccer from the 1960s to today. US men's and women's national team matches. A World Cup. The Olympics. It has seen Pelé, Johann Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, David Beckham, Ronaldinho. It has seen Zlatan. It is the birthplace of perhaps the US' first large-scale supporters’ culture, too, a place where in MLS' infancy, a legion of dedicated fans created an atmosphere that blew away anything else in the league.
Johan Cruyff playing for the Washington Diplomats (the "Dips") in 1980. PHOTO BY: Tony Quinn
On Sunday, during Decision Day presented by AT&T, RFK's soccer history will largely come to an end when D.C. United host the New York Red Bulls (4 pm ET, MLS LIVE). An exciting new chapter awaits DCU at Audi Field, set to open three miles to the southwest next summer. But our hearts hurt when we think of what will become of the old lady on East Capitol Street. Its appointment with the wrecking ball hasn’t been booked just yet, but it’s not far off.
– Pablo Maurer
So much of modern sports revolves around glittering modern venues with plush suites, perfect sight lines, carefully curated food and drink offerings, high-speed wireless and the like. In that regard, RFK is a dinosaur that simply can’t compete. But when it comes to the truly universal soccer experience – packing in alongside friends and strangers alike to chant, cheer and scream your team onward for 90-plus minutes – there are still few places like it in the US or Canada.
RFK Stadium. PHOTO BY: Pablo Maurer
"It just felt so different from going to other stadiums," recalls Washington Post reporter Dan Steinberg, who has lived in the District and has attended matches at RFK as both a spectator and a journalist since 1998. "It felt like a different era of sports – so much like a community, high-school [event]. It felt so non-corporate somehow, so non-shiny ... I used to just wander the concourse during United games and would just try to find the craziest drum circle, or smoke bombs, or the people throwing beer at each other."
Located two miles from the US Capitol, at the confluence of several major streets, highways, and Metro lines, RFK has always been a convenient gathering place. The swooping, towering walls and noise-holding bowl can give a sense of theater to even the most ordinary match feel. And before Toronto, before Cascadia, before "the Blue Hell" in Kansas City, RFK was the place where the hardcores hopped.
District Ultras. PHOTO BY: Pablo Maurer
As a multipurpose venue that’s also hosted baseball, American football, concerts, and myriad other events, the east side of RFK’s lower bowl is a relatively lightweight stand designed to shift from sideline to third-base line depending on the configuration. When United were born, that led to the bouncing, swaying stands of RFK’s "loud side," home to groups like the Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles.
Since the league’s inception, they’ve partied in the legendary Lot 8 pregame tailgates before trooping into RFK with sound and fury at every D.C. game, urging their team on in both English and Spanish. When the home team scores, tradition dictates that you throw your beer into the sky. At halftime and postgame, the show usually moves into the corridors for drum circles and more singing.
At RFK, the fans have always set the tone, and early on D.C. United made the visionary decision to let them lead the way. The place’s worn condition – it was already 35 years old when the club moved in – has allowed, and perhaps even encouraged those levels of noise and debauchery. Dusty, decaying but proud, full of ghosts and character, it’s been called the CBGB of American soccer, and with good reason.
RFK Stadium's iconic facade. PHOTO BY: Pablo Maurer
"It’s almost like RFK is the place for people who you can’t have at other sporting events. You can’t bring these people to other things, you have to bring them to RFK, it’s the only place," says Jason Anderson, a Maryland native and DCU fan since year one who writes for BlackandRedUnited.com. "Like taking them to a dive bar – if you take them to a place where they have to wear a jacket, it’s going to be a mess."
Along the way, those fans inspired the Black-and-Red to 12 championship trophies – no one in MLS owns more hardware – and played their part in some big USMNT games, too, providing the backdrop to some incredible moments.
– Charles Boehm
I sometimes wonder what will become of the wildlife, which has become the butt of so many jokes, but is just another thing that makes the place so otherworldly. Stray cats once took up residence under the "loud side" stands. One even got caught in the netting of practice goal, losing a leg to the stadium. A team employee rescued it and got it adopted.
Its new owners named it "RFK" – what else?
There are less cuddly animals that inhabit the place, too. The wasps that nest just above the press box can sometimes be a distraction when you're trying to file a gamer. One night, I was treated to the sight of a red-tailed hawk circling the place, looking for prey. It perched a few sections down from me and kept me company late into the night.
A falcon (lower left) perches on the railing in Section 432. PHOTO BY: Pablo Maurer
RFK’s location on the banks of the Anacostia River has connected it to the local ecosystem in strange ways. Weeds and saplings grow in the upper deck, pushing their way through cracks in the concrete. The same birds that dropped those seeds will sometimes deposit a dead fish or two in the stadium, leaving a surreal surprise for any fan who might later arrive to find that a dead perch has already taken their seat.
And the raccoon. The raccoon which has become so deeply ingrained in the club's lore that I almost don't believe it even existed. I really wouldn't believe it, had I not heard from so many players and coaches who locked eyes with it in the stadium's underbelly, or an employee at the team store who had to chuck an entire case of jerseys after he discovered that the club's unofficial mascot had been using them as a personal toilet.
"Ronnie The Raccoon" plush toy (mlsstore.com). PHOTO BY: D.C. United
– Pablo Maurer
I’ll always remember the night David Beckham made his MLS debut in 2007, coming off the bench for the LA Galaxy in front of a bumper crowd that lit up the muggy summer air with flashbulbs as he took the field, forever changing the course of the league’s history:
In 2004, D.C. and the New England Revolution met in the Eastern Conference final, back then a one-off game, not a series, and produced what some consider the best game in MLS history: a 3-3 thriller that had to be decided by a penalty-kick shootout, ending with future US men's national teamers Clint Dempsey and Nick Rimando facing off. The game remains one of Ben Olsen's favorite RFK Stadium memories:
Going back a decade further, RFK witnessed Saeed Al Owairan scoring one of the greatest goals in FIFA World Cup history as Saudi Arabia upset Belgium at USA 1994:
Dwayne De Rosario produced another stunning solo performance in 2011, bagging a hat trick – his second of the year – in nine first-half minutes to demolish Real Salt Lake and confirm his MLS MVP credentials:
Many of us in the RFK press box really thought the old house might crumble during that year’s Gold Cup, when a sellout crowd saw El Salvador – whose national team has made the stadium their second home on account of the region’s large expatriate population – duel Panama in a breathless quarterfinal clash. The passion, noise and well, vibration was palpable as the game went to PKs:
In 2012, Englishman Lewis Neal scored the game-winning goal in a D.C. victory over Columbus that clinched a playoff spot for United, ending a painful five-year postseason drought and sparking a particularly visceral reaction from the home faithful:
The US men's national team has also made hay at RFK, their most successful home venue of all time. They packed the place for a fun friendly with Germany to commemorate the US Soccer Federation’s centennial in 2013:
They also capped the 2010 World Cup qualifying cycle with highly dramatic draw vs. Costa Rica, just after Charlie Davies’ nearly deadly car crash. Despite Bryan Ruiz’s virtuoso display, Jonathan Bornstein’s late header snatched qualification out of the Ticos’ hands and gave it to Honduras instead:
Many USMNT fans want one more game at RFK before it’s torn down. Here’s hoping it happens.
– Charles Boehm
Really, soccer is sometimes the last thing I think of when I think of RFK Stadium. Mostly, I think about the people, and the building itself. I think about how the place has aged over the years, how the paint has flaked away, how its cracks have started to show.
A few years back, I lost a loved one. She was in her 90s and spent her final years in bed. I visited her when I could – I remember looking at her face and noticing, for the first time, how beautiful her blue eyes were, framed by her skin, which looked like parchment paper.
Buildings are like that, too. There is beauty there sometimes even in their decay, and RFK has over the years gone from a modern marvel to damn near a hole in the ground. But it's a beautiful pile of rubble, and I've sort of enjoyed watching it fall apart over the years.
500-level seats at RFK Stadium. PHOTO BY: Pablo Maurer
This place gleamed for long enough, and it's been nice to watch rust push through paint, to watch the cracks in the concrete get a little longer every day. In its old age, it let its guard down a bit, loosened its grip on things, started to fall back to nature.
And that's a beautiful thing, one we won't be able to enjoy for much longer.
– Pablo Maurer
RFK Stadium. PHOTO BY: Pablo Maurer