For United, the Grass Looks Greener

Workers put in a section of new turf at RFK Stadium, which has been made into a soccer venue again since the Nationals played their final game there.
Workers put in a section of new turf at RFK Stadium, which has been made into a soccer venue again since the Nationals played their final game there. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 13, 2007

The retractable pitcher's mound has been unearthed, and the infield clay donated to Wilson High School. The backstop netting and support cables have been tossed into storage, and the big, old clock on the south wall has a new soccer motif. The outline of the baseball diamond on the north end is but a memory, and the entire grass surface has been replaced with a thick layer of rye.

The only significant remnants from three years of baseball are the yellow foul poles, which will disappear this winter.

After hosting both D.C. United and the Washington Nationals, an awkward arrangement that necessitated 73 field conversions since spring 2005 and prompted grumbling from players of both sports, RFK Stadium is a soccer venue again.

"It's nice to just have a place all to our own," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "It's nice to have the old RFK back."

United will test its new field (sans infield seams) and put its 12-game unbeaten streak in league play on the line tonight against the Chicago Fire, which is battling for one of the final MLS playoff berths.

With a victory or tie, United (16-6-6) would clinch first place in the Eastern Conference and guarantee home-field advantage if it reaches the conference final. A win would also move the club to the brink of securing the Supporters Shield, which is awarded to the team with the most overall points in MLS and carries with it a spot in an international tournament next spring.

United is hoping the changes at RFK will not disrupt its home success. It has not lost a league match at home since the season debut against Kansas City in April and is 13-1-4 in all competitions.

Coach Tom Soehn believes a smoother surface will benefit his club.

"If it's a good field, it's obviously going to be a lot cleaner, especially for a team like us, who tries to possess the ball," he said. "A good field goes a long way."

United shared RFK with the Redskins in 1996, but when the NFL team moved to FedEx Field the following year, the MLS club had the stadium to itself for eight seasons. That all changed in 2005 when the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington and needed a place to play until a new ballpark was built in Southeast. With that facility nearing completion, the Nationals played their final game at RFK three weeks ago.

United played two games on the old surface last month, but with no matches for two weeks, the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission went to work. At a cost of just less than $200,000, the old surface was removed and the new field installed. The players practiced on it for the first time yesterday and gave it high marks. Mostly, they were glad to say goodbye to the previous turf.

"There were gaps everywhere, and it wasn't safe," goalkeeper Troy Perkins said. "No one got seriously hurt, but there could have been some bad ones. There were times I was walking around and when you stepped, your ankle would just roll."

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