On the Road, United Is Right at Home
Team Takes a Much-Enjoyed Break at Owner Anschutz's Deluxe Colorado Ranch
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2004; Page D01
DENVER -- Late Saturday night, about an hour after another excruciating defeat, D.C. United piled back onto the team bus inside Invesco Field. Gear had been loaded into the belly of the bus, players had attached headphones and the coaches had cracked open a deck of cards -- a routine that will be repeated at least 15 times this season.
But on this evening, the bus's destination was not another lonely chain hotel or gray airport terminal. United embarked on a 90-minute ride into the darkness of Colorado's high plains, from city streets to arrow-straight interstate, to two-lane state highway and finally a gravel county road.
Awaiting the traveling party, nestled in a leafy oasis of cottonwoods and aspens near the meandering South Platte River, was the 45,000-acre Eagles Nest Ranch, owned by the league's primary investor, billionaire Phil Anschutz.
Over the next 36 hours, players and staff shot clay pigeons at the skeet range, rode horses, played a nine-hole golf course, went fly-fishing and wheeled around on mountain bikes. They stayed in a western-style lodge named after a pretty fair writer named Hemingway who, legend has it, hunted on this land for 20 years.
They ate together at a dining room table that accommodates 34, devouring steaks from cattle raised on the ranch and drinking wine from the Anschutz vineyard in Texas. They had the run of a clubhouse with pool, foosball and television. They had the option of holding practice on a clearing behind the lodge that is part driving range, part soccer pitch.
It is the ultimate perk of being associated with one of five MLS teams operated by Anschutz in a nine-year-old league he keeps afloat.
"It's amazing," rookie goalkeeper Troy Perkins said, looking out over a putting green and a shallow stream fed by cascading water from gentle, man-made waterfalls. "I don't want to leave."
While an invitation gets you here, it doesn't guarantee a meeting with American soccer's most important benefactor, who shuns the spotlight and hasn't done an interview in 26 years. Associates are mindful of Anschutz's privacy and are careful what they say publicly about him. The media rarely is able to photograph him, and a company logo is used in place of the traditional owner's pose in his teams' media guides.
Anschutz, 65, attended United's match Saturday -- a 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rapids, dropping D.C.'s record to 2-4-3 -- and had planned to greet the team later that night or early Sunday at the ranch. But business took him away, and one of America's wealthiest -- and elusive -- figures slipped out of sight again.
"I actually met him at the all-star game a couple years ago," defender Mike Petke said. "I introduced myself, and he knew who I was. I mean, really, who am I? Here's this guy who is so powerful, has so much going on, and he knows about a player on one of his teams. I couldn't believe it."
Anschutz's passion for soccer is believed to have been stoked at the U.S.-hosted 1994 World Cup. Two years later, Anschutz Entertainment Group became an investor in the upstart MLS and was given the operating rights to the Rapids. In 1998, AEG took on the expansion Chicago Fire and later purchased the rights to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Three years later, as MLS struggled to attract new investors and lost a few original ones, Anschutz grabbed United, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and the San Jose Earthquakes. Last fall he yielded control of the Rapids when Stan Kroenke, owner of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche, became an MLS investor.
"He told me once that he was involved in the sport because he thought it deserved a chance to succeed in America," said Kevin Payne, United's president and CEO who oversaw AEG's soccer operations from 2001 until early this year. "Certainly if it does succeed at the level we hope it will, a lot of credit will go to Phil. . . .
"He believes that it's going to be a viable business opportunity and that ultimately to be in on the ground floor will be a wise business decision."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company