WASHINGTON—The occasion had been so long in the making, so elusive, so arduous – at times seemingly impossible – to reach, that it seemed many of the 20,000-plus in attendance didn’t quite believe it was real. Didn’t quite remember it was actually time to scream and shout and seize the moment to the fullest.
Thankfully, D.C. United baptized Audi Field with a goalfest, and no one had to pinch themselves any more, a trio of well-crafted strikes providing the impetus to crank up the volume on this brand-new candy box on the shores of the Anacostia River.
“It got there – they got there! The energy got there,” said D.C. head coach Ben Olsen after his team opened their new home with a 3-1 thumping of Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “It took a couple goals to get that building rocking. But I think both the fans and even our team for the most part were a little nervy in this new building. Maybe we just never thought it was going to be built.
“But it was a great night and I thought the second half was a lot of fun.”
If the crowd was expectant at first, it was euphoric by the final whistle. Some slick second-half passing moves left the Whitecaps chasing shadows and set the stage for Paul Arriola to rifle home two goals – his first career brace as a professional, he said afterwards: “couldn’t have come at a better time” – and keep the Heineken rooftop bar in Audi Field’s northeast corner bumping long after the game’s conclusion.
Even after they turned off the floodlights, in fact.
“Look, we’re here to perform, and to give them a show,” said Arriola. “The first half, the goal by Yamil [Asad] was amazing, it was an awesome goal, and then after that, second half, the game opened up. We got a few chances, put them away and then the place was really booming. I hope everyone leaves with that memory of how it was in the end – everyone on their feet, everyone cheering, everyone excited for us and for the team.
“The fans are on top of you, it’s loud – you find yourself without even energy to yell, because you know no one’s really going to hear you. That’s definitely special. Hopefully for us we keep it going, because we need to make this place our fortress to get a lot of points.”
D.C. Homegrown midfielder Chris Durkin has been a fan of the team since his early childhood – he estimated that 25 or 30 family members were in the house to cheer him and his teammates on – and after his latest assured performance at the base of the United midfield, could only marvel at his role in this historic event.
“It really resonates within me, just how much we needed this stadium. You could see the fans loved it, the atmosphere was awesome – I can’t think of the last time I saw RFK completely packed, and screaming and jumping. We did our best at RFK, but this is our home and it was packed,” he said.
“Walking out of the tunnel, it brought a smile to my face. It was a dream that I had ever since I was a little kid.”
Team administrator Francisco Tobar is another long-serving member of the organization
“Really, it’s a dream come true. I started a long time ago, so many years ago – before I had any gray hairs – we talked about building our stadium, our new stadium, our home,” he said. “We went through so many different trials, so many different difficult moments. And now finally, it’s a reality.
“I’ve been nervous [since] morning because this is a big moment for a lot of people. There’s a lot of people that have come and gone with this club – players, staff, interns, just so many people that have put their sweat for this club to see this come about. So I think of all of them.”
Olsen has been around United since 1998, a star player for more than a decade before joining the coaching staff, where he’s been ever since. He became a local long ago, buying a rowhouse in the District, raising a family and even publicly advocating for D.C. statehood and the full representation in Congress that has been denied its citizens for 200-plus years.
He knows better than anyone the long and winding road that the Black-and-Red have wandered to reach this night, one that everyone on staff was keenly eager to make a special one in every way.
“This was a long day,” Olsen said. “There was a lot of weight on the guys, a lot of weight on the staff to make sure we opened this building in the right way. I’m very pleased that we did it in the fashion we did it."
With a big crowd, an assured, attractive capture of three points – given their place in the Eastern Conference standings, every single one of those is precious for United – and a highly promising debut for newly-arrived superstar Wayne Rooney, all the key boxes were checked.
“This is one of the great nights in D.C. United history, and we’ve had some good ones,” Olsen added.
“With the three-goal lead, your heart rate slows down a little bit there the last five minutes, to take a look around and understand how long, and the struggle this club has gone through to get this building up. To now come back here after four months on the road, and to put a performance on … just a great night, and I’m very proud to be part of this organization.”