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D.C. United stadium approval improves its playing field in MLS in many ways

D.C. United’s new stadium at Buzzard Point will deliver the game-day experience that most other MLS venues offer. It will provide modern amenities lacking at archaic RFK Stadium, improved sightlines and a proper backdrop for one of the league’s most sophisticated and avid fan bases.

The 20,000-seat dwelling, unanimously approved by the D.C. Council on Wednesday after a decade of false hope and crushing setbacks, will also bring United up to financial speed with the rest of the league and provide the resources to invest in the type of marquee players previously out of budgetary reach.

[Related: D.C. Council passes legislation for United stadium deal.]

United will not christen the new stadium until the middle of 2017, at the earliest. But before the shovels crack ground next year at the forgotten plot in Southwest Washington, four blocks from Nationals Park and a corner kick from the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, United will begin broadening its search in the international marketplace.

“If we have more tools and resources at our disposal,” managing general partner Jason Levien said, “we are certainly going to want to utilize them.”

With a stadium under its control, United will have the ability to, among other things, sell naming rights and corporate suites, and collect a much larger share of concessions than it does at RFK, which United has leased since MLS’s founding in 1996.

The team is also banking on a new venue appealing to a broader audience, which, in turn, will increase ticket demand. United will continue playing at 45,000-seat RFK, built in 1961, until the new stadium opens.

Will Chang, the club’s longest-serving investor, said he expects United’s board of directors — himself, Levien and Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir — to raise the roster-spending topic at upcoming meetings.

“No doubt, the stadium will improve our ability to put better players on the field and improve the product,” he said. “The stadium brings a comfort in pursuing players.”

Chang and others in the organization cautioned that United does not plan to immediately acquire two designated players, the term coined by the league to categorize high-end stars who do not count fully against the salary cap. (The club employed one last season, forward Eddie Johnson, but on the low end of the DP scale.)

With training camp six weeks away, United plans to keep together a squad that finished first in the Eastern Conference regular season this year.

“The core is good,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “The character is right with this group.”

Some teams housed in new stadiums have resisted the urge to splurge on players and remained competitive. Despite playing in modern arenas, 2013 MLS Cup finalists Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake are in the bottom half of league payroll. (United was 11th of 19 clubs at the start of the 2014 season.)

Conversely, Toronto’s league-high spending spree last winter was a catastrophic bust.

Nonetheless, the promise of an improved economic status will provide United with the flexibility to pursue costlier players during the international signing periods every summer and winter.

“There is going to be an opportunity for us to do more, certainly,” said Levien, who owns a share of the club’s rights and spearheaded stadium negotiations. “We are an ownership group that is committed to investing in a team to be successful.”

For years, with financial losses mounting and revenue streams parched at RFK, United has taken a thrifty approach to roster-building. This, despite Thohir’s enormous wealth. He also owns a majority stake in Italian club Inter Milan and has myriad assets in Asia.

While the league grew, United remained largely stagnant — held back, many employees grumbled, by cash flow issues tied to stalled stadium efforts.

MLS’s implementation of the designated player rule — an initiative to raise the profile and quality of the league after years of incremental growth – took hold in 2007 when David Beckham arrived in Los Angeles. United was left behind.

Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill paired in New York. Robbie Keane joined Beckham. Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley returned after years abroad. Brazil’s Kaka, England’s Frank Lampard and Spain’s David Villa, all global names, have signed up with MLS expansion teams launching next season.

United’s technical staff, headed by Olsen and General Manager Dave Kasper, made the best of the tight budget in both 2012 and ’14, finishing with the league’s third-best point total.

Last winter, in the aftermath of a 3-24-7 campaign in 2013, Kasper and Olsen practiced a form of Moneyball, baseball’s tenet of identifying undervalued and affordable players, to augment their core of emerging young talent. There were no superstars. United executed the greatest one-year turnaround in league history before losing in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

However, “there is a thin line for us,” Chang said. “Two or three injuries and the whole plan goes out the window. In order to put out a competitive team consistently, we will have to acquire better players.”

Chang also cited the need for a stronger roster in order to compete on the international stage. United will play in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals before the MLS season commences and it has qualified for the 2015-16 competition, which begins in August. No MLS team has won the title under the competition’s current format.

United has had six designated players – among them, Argentine midfielder Marcelo Gallardo was a one-year flop, Dwayne De Rosario won an MLS MVP award and  Johnson was recruited this year – but none garnered enormous wages and packed influential punch both on the field and at the box office.

At $600,000, Johnson is United’s highest-paid player. Keane’s base salary was $4.5 million. Next on the Galaxy payroll was U.S. legend Landon Donovan at $4.25 million. Omar Gonzalez’s take with L.A. was $1 million. This month the Galaxy won its third title in four years.

The Galaxy and Toronto play in medium-size stadiums built for their purposes, while the Sounders are MLS’s outliers, drawing more than double the league attendance average (43,734 to 19,147) at CenturyLink Field, an NFL facility.

Along with the new stadium, United will pursue plans for a nicer training facility to help attract players. United currently practices on a scrubby field beyond RFK’s gates. The adjoining artificial turf field is in disrepair.

Levien said he is exploring several potential sites in the area but prefers to remain in the city. Staying at the current location with significant upgrades is also under consideration.

The size of the Buzzard Point venue remains undetermined. For the time being, United has been using 20,000 as the working number. However, Levien said “we want the opportunity to expand it as some point. We are going to figure out the right number for Day 1 and the right number for Year 5.”

For now, the new stadium, and the revenue that comes with it, is all that matters.

“There is a path to having more resources at our disposal,” Levien said. “And that is important for our team, for our fans and for the league, quite honestly. For the league to grow, it needs teams like D.C. United to have a financially viable business where it can spend more.”