U.S. Team Gladly Returns to RFK

Members of the U.S. national team stretch before Monday's practice. The team will play its first match at RFK Stadium in four years on Saturday against Cuba.
Members of the U.S. national team stretch before Monday's practice. The team will play its first match at RFK Stadium in four years on Saturday against Cuba. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

For more than a dozen years, the U.S. men's national soccer team was a regular visitor to RFK Stadium, an ungracefully aging venue that offered a soulful touch akin to European and Latin American settings.

But in 2005, when baseball returned to Washington, the national team headed elsewhere. Soccer would still be played at RFK -- D.C. United shared the place with the Nationals for three trying summers -- but a once-perfect field became a patchwork surface and the number of open dates on the calendar disappeared.

While glossy, new soccer stadiums sprouted in suburbs around the country, the sport had lost its gritty, urban stage.

With the opening of the Nationals' ballpark this year, however, RFK regained its soccer identity, and on Saturday evening, the U.S. team will mark its return to Washington with a World Cup qualifier against Cuba. The Americans' last appearance here was four years ago, capping a 16-game run over a 13-year stretch.

"My main memory is just that it always feels like a real soccer facility," said U.S. Coach Bob Bradley, a United assistant in 1996-97 who also visited RFK as head coach of three MLS teams the following nine years. "There is always an excellent crowd, there is passion in the stadium. Those few years where there was baseball stuff, I chose to throw that out and remember the other days."

RFK has served as a backdrop for some of the U.S. team's greatest triumphs (victories over Ireland, Mexico and Argentina) and one of its most gutting setbacks (a loss to Honduras in a World Cup qualifier). The Americans are 10-3-3 in Washington since 1991 and have attracted an average of 31,000 spectators, a figure unlikely to be matched Saturday because of a weak opponent and high ticket prices (between $28 and $95).

With a victory, the United States (3-0) would clinch a berth in next year's final round of regional qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Cuba (0-3) has only a remote chance of beating out Guatemala or Trinidad and Tobago (both 1-1-1) for the group's final slot.

The Americans were in the same situation the last time they played in Washington. In October 2004, needing a win to wrap up its semifinal-round group for the 2006 World Cup, they rolled to a 6-0 victory over Panama.

Though the United States is making its first appearance at RFK since baseball's departure, several international matches have been played here this year. El Salvador's national team, which has considerable support in Washington's burgeoning Latino community, has already appeared three times and will face Bolivia on Oct. 22. Bolivia also played Guatemala here in August.

Assuming advancement, the U.S. team might return to Washington next year for one of the five home games in the final round of qualifying.

"It's a savvy, knowledgeable crowd," said forward Landon Donovan, who in 2001 at age 19 made his qualifying debut at RFK in the 3-2 loss to Honduras -- the last time the Americans lost at home to an opponent from North and Central America or the Caribbean.

"When you drive up, there are always so many people around the stadium -- big flags, tailgating, a lot of atmosphere. There is a different vibe."

As a star with the Los Angeles Galaxy, Donovan is accustomed to being the visiting villain.

"They don't like me much, but it's all fun," he said. "They are clever and creative. Coming with the U.S. team is obviously a better experience."

For midfielder Sacha Kljestan, 23, the qualifier will serve as his first national team experience at RFK. However, having played here for Chivas USA against United in front of 28,145 on Saturday, he knows what to expect.

"The first MLS away game I ever played was here" in 2006, he said. "We were getting crushed and I remember looking up into the crowd and everyone in the supporters' sections was bouncing. It looked like the stands were just going to collapse. It was crazy, but it's a fun place to play. The fan support is always great here and hopefully those D.C. fans are U.S. fans as well."

U.S. Notes: With many players en route to Washington from Europe, the opening of training camp yesterday was uneventful. Everyone on the 23-man roster is scheduled to participate in workouts today, except forward Charlie Davies, who is traveling from Sweden following a league match yesterday. Eighteen players will be in uniform Saturday. . . . Cuba is tentatively scheduled to arrive in Washington on Thursday.

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