When the Washington Redskins packed their gear and left RFK Stadium for the final time in late 1996, D.C. United had the old place to itself. No yard lines scarring the field, no scheduling conflicts, no worn-out turf. RFK, site of so many baseball and football games since it opened in 1961, had become a full-fledged soccer stadium.
It has remained that way for the past eight years as United enjoys almost exclusive use of the 55,000-seat venue. But starting next spring, the MLS club will be asked to share its turf with the migrating Expos.
"Obviously, from our own selfish point of view, we would prefer to have it for ourselves forever," United President Kevin Payne said this week. "But we certainly realize baseball is an important issue for a lot of people, and we'll make the best of it."
The Expos plan to play at RFK for three seasons as they await the construction of a ballpark along the Anacostia River. United also has plans for a new stadium, a proposed 24,000-seat facility at Poplar Point across the river from the baseball stadium. Until those structures become reality, however, baseball and soccer will have to coexist.
Payne said he has not had any formal discussions with officials from other stadiums that could accommodate soccer for a couple of years, such as FedEx Field in Landover, Byrd Stadium in College Park or Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. United would prefer to stay in the city, he said, until its new stadium opens.
United's lease, signed this year, guarantees it two weekends per month to host games, which is consistent with the team's schedule over the years. The MLS season runs concurrent to baseball's (April to October) and most games are played on weekends.
Payne said the club has the right to keep a permanent locker room and to remain in its offices on the fourth floor, leaving the Expos' front office to find space elsewhere in the building, move into the adjacent D.C. Armory "or operate from Montreal, I don't know," he said.
The biggest issues are with the configuration of the grandstands and the playing surface.
The stands on the east end run along the sideline of the soccer field, but they would have to be shifted to accommodate a major league outfield. Those are prime seats for United fans and the place where the club's biggest supporters' groups, La Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles, have congregated since MLS was launched in 1996. "Many of our best seats will be displaced," Payne said. "We will be impacted economically."
As for the addition of a dirt infield, "we made it very, very clear to the [D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission] that we will not play across the dirt," Payne said. "It's not acceptable, and they understand that. . . . I hope there's a solution."
Payne said he has yet to discuss specifics about the field with the sports commission, but among the solutions is the use of portable grass trays to cover the dirt when United is playing.
"We've been told that every effort will be made to accommodate our needs," Payne said, "and we take them at their word."
Sports commission officials have said they will do whatever is necessary to keep United at RFK.
United has averaged about 17,000 fans per game over nine seasons. RFK has also hosted MLS's championship game and all-star game twice each, and was home to Mia Hamm and the Washington Freedom women's team from 2001 through 2003. The U.S. men's national team makes regular appearances at RFK, and will host Panama in a 2006 World Cup qualifier on Oct. 13.
All the while, the stadium has gained a reputation as one of the finest soccer venues in the country -- in part because, unlike most U.S. stadiums, there hasn't been any baseball or football played there. However, that will now change.
"It's hard not to feel a little slighted," Payne said. "We've kept this building alive, but I understand a lot of sports fans want baseball in D.C. and we applaud their perseverance."