If you feel as if soccer is everywhere this summer, you’re not alone.
Most Washington-area sports fans have at least a passing familiarity with D.C. United, the four-time MLS champions. Their past two seasons have been up and down performance-wise, but the team has been attracting new fans, thanks to the modern new Audi Field, which opened at Buzzard Point last summer, and the scoring exploits of MLS all-star Wayne Rooney, the most talismanic player to don a D.C. United shirt in recent memory. Rooney announced this week that he’s returning to England at the end of this season, lending a new urgency to the team’s final four home MLS games.
But for the first time in years, D.C. United isn’t the only top-flight attraction for fans of the beautiful game.
The Washington Spirit is riding a wave of interest on the back of the Women’s World Cup, thanks to U.S. stars Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh. The team, which sold out its most recent match at the Maryland SoccerPlex, is looking forward to two high-profile appearances in the coming weeks at Audi Field.
Loudoun United, a D.C. United affiliate that plays in the second-division USL Championship, is set to move into Leesburg’s Segra Field this weekend, and four more home matches follow this month.
The University of Maryland’s men’s team is the defending NCAA Division I national champion, and the team’s early-season schedule includes a title game rematch against Akron at College Park’s Ludwig Field, and a Sept. 2 clash against longtime rivals Virginia at Audi Field dubbed “the Battle for the District.”
And far away from Washington, European leagues are about to kick off their seasons, and fans of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Liverpool are getting ready to spend weekend mornings cheering for some of the world’s greatest players.
Here’s how to fully embrace the sport around the Washington area.
After the Women’s World Cup smashed viewership records and the team was feted at a ticker-tape parade down New York City’s Canyon of Heroes, soccer observers began to wonder what the U.S. victory would mean for the future of the National Women’s Soccer League. If you were at the Washington Spirit’s match against the Houston Dash on July 20, seeing young girls and boys alike wearing Mallory Pugh and Alex Morgan’s jerseys or chasing balls around the gently sloping grassy bank that serves as general admission seating behind one goal, you’d think the future was bright.
The Spirit has played at Maureen Hendricks Field, the centerpiece of a sprawling multisport complex in Boyds, since 2013. The field has the intimacy of a college stadium, with metal bleachers so close to the touchlines that fans can hear players shouting directions at each other.
Before (and sometimes during) matches, the wide concourses are filled with families buying shaved ice, smoothies and pizza by the slice; playing games, such as kicking soccer balls at an oversize dart board; and browsing a tent of replica jerseys. Silver Spring’s Denizens Brewing Co. has two booths with local craft beer on tap. Once the match kicks off, the Spirit Squadron provides a steady soundtrack of drums and chanting on the general-admission side of the field.
If there’s a downside to watching the Spirit play, it’s actually going to watch the Spirit play. While “Washington” is in the team name, the SoccerPlex is located north of Gaithersburg, or around an hour’s drive from downtown Washington. (There’s no way to get there on public transportation.)
Interest in the team has spiked since the Women’s World Cup: It’s not a surprise that the Spirit’s first capacity crowd of the season came during that July 20 match — the “welcome home match” for World Cup winners Lavelle and Pugh. The Spirit sold 5,500 tickets for that match, compared with 5,800 for the previous two home matches combined. (The team’s average attendance this year is 3,300.)
The bump arrives at the perfect time for the Spirit, which faces Alex Morgan and the Orlando Pride at Audi Field on Aug. 24, followed by Megan Rapinoe and Reign FC on Sept. 14. Last year’s lone match at Audi Field against Tobin Heath’s Portland Thorns drew 7,976 fans, a record for a home Spirit match. And though they’ll be some distance from Boyds, the Spirit Squadron will be doing everything in its power to make United’s field feel like home. Details are being finalized, but plans include pre-match meetups at Bardo before carrying the drums, rally towels and song sheets to Section 137.
Upcoming matches: Saturday at 7 p.m. vs. the Chicago Red Stars and Aug. 21 at 7:30 p.m. vs. the Utah Royals at Maureen Hendricks Field at the Maryland SoccerPlex, 18031 Central Park Cir., Boyds. Tickets $20-$90.
Aug. 24 at 7:30 p.m. vs. Orlando Pride and Sept. 14 at 7:30 p.m. vs. Reign FC at Audi Field, 100 Potomac Ave. SW. Tickets $31-$158. washingtonspirit.com.
Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with Loudoun United FC. The team was founded just over a year ago and played its first-ever competitive match in March.
Loudoun United is D.C. United’s affiliate in the United Soccer League, a professional league one rung below Major League Soccer, where rivals include Bethlehem Steel FC, the affiliate of the Philadelphia Union, and the self-explanatory New York Red Bulls II. Loudoun’s roster is made up of a mix of D.C. United draft picks and academy players and USL veterans. Think of them as United’s minor league team: Defender Donovan Pines and forward Griffin Yow are now both with the senior side after beginning the season with Loudoun.
For the first half of its inaugural season, Loudoun United FC has played far from its namesake suburb, drawing between 550 to 650 supporters per match to the spacious confines of Audi Field. That all changes this weekend, when Segra Field opens inside Philip A. Bolen Park, a multisport facility in Leesburg.
For opening night, “we’re trying to make it a big party for everyone in the county,” says team communications manager Emma Carlin. This means a parking-lot tailgate party hosted by the Loudoun Stampede, the official supporters club, with food trucks and beer vendors, and tunes provided by a DJ. Even more local food and drink vendors will be inside the stadium, including stands selling barbecue, Salvadoran and Jamaican cuisine, and a pair of beer gardens with offerings from Solace and other local craft breweries. The first thousand fans through the gates receive commemorative flags.
Segra Field holds 5,000 spectators with seats on all sides of the field. The Stampede and the “louder, rowdier” fans will gather in general admission bleacher seats at the south end of the stadium, where singing, drumming and standing are encouraged. Contrast that with the rows of “Premium All-Inclusive Seats” at midfield — tickets for these padded chairs with cupholders also include unlimited food and drink.
“We understand this is a very family-centric community,” Carlin says, so they’ve planned a dedicated “kids’ zone” that will have pizza, hot dogs and child-friendly foods, as well as games. (And yes, it will be open all match, in case your rambunctious toddler has trouble sitting still for an entire half.)
Fans excited about having a professional soccer team in Virginia’s fastest-growing county will have plenty of chances to cheer for Loudoun United. Because the stadium wasn’t ready for the beginning of the USL season in March, the team’s schedule has been backloaded with home matches. After Friday, there are 11 more matches at Segra Field before the USL season wraps in October.
Upcoming matches: Friday at 7:30 vs. the Charlotte Independence; Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. vs. the Charleston Battery; and Aug. 17 at 7:30 p.m. vs. Ottawa Fury FC at Segra Field, 42095 Loudoun United Dr., Leesburg. Tickets $15-$100. loudoununitedfc.com.
The new stadium, which cost more than $400 million, is just two blocks southwest of Nationals Park, in a heavily industrial neighborhood squeezed between the Anacostia River and Fort McNair. The awkward size of Audi Field’s footprint means the 20,000 supporters sit in steeply banked sections, and even when fans are seated at the top, they don’t feel too far away from the pitch.
The amenities at Audi Field rival what you might find at the luxury apartment buildings springing up near Navy Yard. There’s a rooftop bar behind one goal and, on a sunny weekend, the crowds drinking beer and wine aren’t much different from the ones hanging out on a U Street rooftop, except there’s a soccer match taking place below. Chef José Andrés is the “curator” of United’s food menus, including Mexican-style tacos and Spanish-style grilled cheese. Before United’s recent friendly with France’s Olympique de Marseille, chefs from Andres’s ThinkFoodGroup prepared a 600-person paella on the concourse. (Fans in the pricier club seats get all-inclusive food and drinks, such as summer panzanella salad and creamy garlic and herb polenta.)
Other local favorites, including Arepa Zone and Factoria Maria Pupuseria — a holdover from RFK — are also available.
First-time visitors to United matches are often mesmerized by the groups standing in the supporters sections behind the goal — Barra Brava, District Ultras and Screaming Eagles — who sing, pound drums and wave giant flags for the entire match. (The Ultras call this unceasing support the “90 minute mentality.”) After United scores, the fans literally make it rain beer.
When the team left RFK, it also left the acres of asphalt surrounding the stadium, where supporters groups held legendary tailgate parties. Few parking lots are available near Buzzard Point, but the groups are making due as best they can. Barra Brava had been holding pre-match get-togethers at Walter’s Sports Bar near Nationals Park; Last weekend, the gathering moved to the Sandlot, an outdoor event space a block from Audi Field. The beer is for sale, but the plates of tacos and chicken and rice were free for all comers.
But everything hasn’t been rosy. Audi Field opened with a stringent policy that mandated clear bags and no purses bigger than 6½ inches by 4½ inches. After significant fan blowback, United scrapped those particular policies this year, though bag sizes are still smaller than what’s allowed at Spirit matches. There was friction between United and Barra Brava and District Ultras over ticket access, which led to those groups boycotting the opening of the stadium, though things seem nominally better this season. And although the stadium seems designed with the user experience in mind, the long lines at halftime — for pupusas, beer or the bathroom — mean supporters regularly miss some action.
If there’s one thing missing amid the chanting and the rooftop party vibes, it’s a sense of United’s proud history, as former coach Bruce Arena pointed out last month. You’d hope that championship banners from the team’s four MLS Cup victories would fly high at the stadium entrance, or that supporters would walk past murals of legends Marco Etcheverry and John Harkes on the way to their seats instead of ads for beers and banks. The team’s MLS Cups are on display in the club shop, an unintended metaphor wryly appreciated by longtime fans.
Despite nitpicking, though, D.C. United fans are intensely loyal: So far this season, the stadium has averaged over 86 percent capacity. Even when the team is losing, large sections of the crowd stand, shout and chant. That’s why a trip to Audi Field is a must for any D.C. sports fan.
Upcoming matches: Sunday at 7:30 p.m. vs. LA Galaxy; Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. vs. New York Red Bulls; Sept. 4 at 8 p.m. vs. Club Puebla at Audi Field, 100 Potomac Ave. SW. Tickets, $35-$255. dcunited.com.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the Richmond Kickers are one of Loudoun United’s rivals in the United Soccer League. The Kickers play in USL League One, which is a tier below Loudoun’s league, USL Championship. This version has been updated.