DC United prepare for emotions, ceremony of final match at RFK Stadium

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With D.C. United long out of the playoff picture and the New York Red Bulls locked into their sixth seed in the East in the 2017 Audi MLS Cup playoffs, the ceremony of Sunday’s final MLS game at RFK Stadium could overshadow the competition.

Just don’t tell that to D.C.’s Nick DeLeon.

“I honestly think we’ve got to go out with a bang,” the sixth-year Black-and-Red regular said Wednesday. “For the fans, for ourselves. Go out there, leave everything on the field and come out with a win. And that’s the only option really in my mind.”

It’s the least DeLeon says he and his teammates could do for supporters who have remained through the club’s long and winding search for a new home that will finally culminate next season at Audi Field, as well as a trying 2017 campaign that began with such hope.

United entered the year with aims of recapturing the furious form they showed at the end of 2016, losing just once in 14 matches to finish fourth and host a home Knockout Round game. They end it trying to avoid setting a new league record for most most matches played without scoring (they currently sit on 17), after becoming the first East team to be eliminated from postseason play.

“I’m sentimental about the place. I’m a romantic, as I’ve always said, about this club and all that it encompasses,” coach Ben Olsen said. “But I’m also disappointed, right? It’s the end of the season, and there’s nothing to play for. So there’s this kind of strange mix of feelings.”

And despite some improvement after making several additions at the end of the secondary transfer window, the club face some uncertainty as they prepare for their move. Most notably, longest-tenured D.C. player Bill Hamid plans to depart at the end of the season, according to the Washington Post.

But the truth is the final MLS matchday at the league’s most historic venue belongs to more than just D.C. United, or even the rival Red Bulls who will be making their 51st visit to East Capitol Street between regular season and playoff contests.

Just about every established face in U.S. Soccer has at least one moment of import at RFK.

Take D.C. goalkeeper coach Zach Thornton. The Maryland native and six-time MLS All-Star lost an MLS Cup Final at RFK Stadium in 2000. Three years before that, he shined for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in one of his first league starts, in front of then D.C. assistant Bob Bradley. In the process, he left enough of an impression that Bradley drafted Thornton as a bedrock of the 1998 expansion Chicago Fire side that won the double.

“I was a visitor coming here,” Thornton said. “But I always had family and friends. And I knew the drive here from the house I grew up in. It was kind of home for me. I was a visitor, but I never felt too out of place.”

There’s hundreds of stories like those to be told by the dozens of D.C. veterans who will descend upon East Capitol Street this weekend. That's one reason why Olsen insists he’s going to try to enjoy the week as much as possible, including playing in the legends game that will precede RFK’s final Atlantic Cup fixture.

“I’ve still got a couple guys I want to get a piece of,” he quipped.

DeLeon just desperately wants to give his supporters one last show at a venue whose legacy goes far beyond soccer to the NFL, Major League Baseball and countless concerts. And who better to do it against than the other half of MLS’s original derby.

“It’s pretty mind blowing that we’re going to be the ones that close it down,” he said. “And I don’t see them closing down RFK in any other way besides playing the Red Bulls. I love the matchup, and I love how it’s going to be them that we get to go up against.”

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