New United Investors Win Trust

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 30, 2005

COLUMBUS, Ohio, July 29 -- Major League Soccer will celebrate its 10th all-star game Saturday at Columbus Crew Stadium, where a league squad will face English club Fulham and its two American players, Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra.

Of greater significance to MLS's future, however, was what developed 48 hours earlier.

Commissioner Don Garber began the day Thursday meeting with executives in Toronto, where the league hopes to place an expansion team in 2007. Later, he arrived in Washington following the announcement that a local group had purchased the operating rights to D.C. United for a league-record $26 million, a deal that could lead to a new stadium for the club in Anacostia.

Thursday evening, he watched United earn respect for the fledgling league by staying with defending English champion Chelsea before dropping a 2-1 decision in front of more than 31,000 at FedEx Field.

Garber discussed a wide range of issues upon his arrival here Friday, but the most topical involved events unfolding in Washington. United's new investors, led by current team president Kevin Payne and backed by real estate developers Willi Lauterbach and Tim Kissler, are planning to move forward with plans to build a medium-sized stadium at Poplar Point.

"The strongest likelihood for us getting a deal done in that market are with people who understand real estate, who have the wherewithal to be able to fund a public-private partnership and who have the political experience to work there," Garber said in an interview following his state of the league address at a downtown hotel.

"That's something we have not had in the past. I'm very confident that with Willi, Kevin and Tim driving the process, they'll be able to work through the politics of Poplar Point. We're optimistic about a new stadium, more optimistic than ever before."

United is sharing RFK Stadium with the Washington Nationals -- an arrangement that, at times, has tested both teams' patience as they've each pursued their respective new stadium plans.

"It's not perfect, but each party is working together in a situation that both wish didn't exist," Garber said of the RFK situation. "I will always be disappointed that we spent 10 years maintaining that building and giving it some profile and then we're forced to be a secondary tenant. But the situation is what it is, and if we end up in all this with a new stadium, it will have been worth the whole process."

Garber met with Lauterbach, who is the majority shareholder in the United group, as well as Payne and Kissler during the D.C.-Chelsea match.

"I never thought we'd get anything like Thursday night," Garber said. "I never thought we would sell that many tickets, I never thought we'd get that kind of crowd. Washington is our best market, by far. It's the most authentic, the most passionate."

MLS Notes : Toronto has emerged as the front-runner for one of two expansion teams, Garber said. Houston, Cleveland, St. Louis and Milwaukee are also among the finalists, but others have expressed interest. The league hopes to make a decision by MLS Cup in mid-November. . . . For the third time in four years, the all-star game will involve an MLS squad facing an established team. This year it's Fulham, which finished tied for 13th in the 20-team Premier League last season. Two years ago, MLS defeated Chivas of Mexico, 3-1, at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., and in 2002 a league squad edged the U.S. national team, 3-2, at RFK. . . . United teenager Freddy Adu wasn't selected to the all-star team, but he's in Columbus anyway. Adu is scheduled to make appearances on behalf of the game's primary sponsor, Sierra Mist. Argentine midfielder Christian Gomez is the only United player participating in the match.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company