RFK Managers Having a Ball With Soccer
By Justin Gillis
and Ruben Castaneda
Once again those parking lots off the Anacostia River filled with cars, and once again fans streamed through the gates of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. One more time the television cameras pointed toward that storied field of green. As in days of old, the screams of the fans echoed round the bowl in a roar mighty enough to send shivers through the visiting team.
But this was, of course, no typical football game. While the Washington Redskins played Sunday at their new home in suburban Landover, their old haunt played host to the future. On the grounds outside RFK, the strains of salsa mingled with the beat of rock-and-roll. In the wet, chill air, boys dreaming of stardom practiced long kicks with a round ball. Inside the stadium, the superstars on the field weren't wearing helmets or pads they wore soccer shorts.
Twin brothers Neal and Tim Capuchino, 32-year-old soccer fans from Dover, Del., wolfed down sandwiches just before rolling through the turnstiles to watch the national championship of Major League Soccer.
"This is fantastic, amazing!" Neal cried. "The stadium is beautiful. It's the best stadium in the country for soccer."
When the Redskins pulled out this season for fancier digs, many football fans imagined that RFK Stadium was on its last legs. To this day you can hear speculation around town about when it will be torn down. But Jim Dalrymple, the fellow who runs the place, says that if he has anything to do with it, RFK still has a lot of life left in it.
"This is a great stadium," Dalrymple said as he dragged on a Honduran cigar and wheeled around the grounds in a golf cart. "We're not about to go out of business in any way."
To the contrary, RFK is busy transforming itself into one of the premier soccer stadiums in the country. The departure of the Redskins actually has removed some of the shackles that hobbled the stadium's managers. They now are focused on serving as a home for soccer and drawing other events to fill the schedule, and they can do it without having to wait until May every year to see a Redskins schedule.
In a typical season, the Redskins drew 400,000 paying fans to RFK. This year, soccer has drawn 500,000. It's true that the Redskins brought in more fans per game and more money for the stadium-some $3.5 million a year compared with $2 million this year for soccer.
But soccer in the United States, despite its visibility on playgrounds across the land, is in its infancy as a professional sport. Dalrymple is confident that the numbers will rise as young soccer players grow up to become soccer fans. The Nikes and Hondas of the world are placing the same bet. Major corporations have signed on as sponsors for MLS, and their logos were prominent Sunday as ABC's television cameras panned the stadium.
RFK is the home field for D.C. United, the team that has dominated MLS since the league's inception two years ago. With its stellar performance on the field, the team has been building a loyal base of fans.
Just ask John Meginley, 33, of Annandale. He's a big Redskins fan who said he had season tickets Sunday for the National Football League game at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium but also held tickets for the soccer championship.
"I had tickets to both games, but I decided to come here," Meginley said. "I love this. The fans here are more intense for soccer games than they were for Redskins games." He did make one concession to football, bringing a small portable television along to keep up with the Skins.
Dalrymple's assiduous efforts to court soccer have made RFK a mecca for the sport's fans. The largest crowd ever to see a sporting event at RFK 58,012 fans was not for a Redskins game but for an Olympic soccer match last year between the United States national team and Portugal. Sunday's attendance of 57,431 was the second-largest crowd in the history of RFK. With $17 million in the bank, RFK's managers plan not only to keep the stadium up but to improve it.
They're talking about putting in luxury skyboxes and a Jumbotron display screen, the same kinds of amenities that distinguish Cooke Stadium. They expect the old bowl to be as busy as ever in coming seasons.
A soccer crowd is different in many ways from a football crowd, most notably in its international flavor. Soccer is a world sport, and many of the star U.S. players hail from other countries. Fans at RFK waved national flags from El Salvador, Argentina, Bolivia and more throughout Sunday's game to demonstrate their loyalties.
But, as in the days of football, what counted most Sunday at RFK was what happened on the field. D.C. United thrilled its fans once again, beating the Colorado Rapids, 2-1, to win the national championship its second in two years.
As D.C. United's Tony Sanneh scored what would be the winning goal, the crowd erupted in riotous celebration. Chants and drumbeats rang through RFK.
"Goaaaalllllll!" yelled Esteban Gergely, 22, of Arlington. His sister Gabriella and her fiance, Mike Romano, both 26, kissed passionately.
Dalrymple said he hopes to give fans many more happy soccer seasons.
"We've said all along that there's life after the Redskins," he said. "We're proving it. We are building a tradition."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company