On a paved lot between Nationals Park and Fort McNair, a mayor, a sports commissioner, a mascot and a machete gathered under a white tent in a gritty industrial nook of the District on Monday.
After 13 years of surefire plans, shifting locations and shattered hopes, D.C. United hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for a new stadium at Buzzard Point in Southwest Washington.
“I’m just glad it’s here. It’s been a long time coming,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said at an event attended by city officials and black-and-red-clad fans. “I’m glad we’re finally going to get this thing going.”
As officials posed with shiny shovels in front of a trough of dirt, orange excavators rumbled in the distance as actual work on 20,000-capacity Audi Field steamed ahead.
Construction crews began clearing the 14 acres last spring. They’ll begin laying foundation in a few weeks, erect steel in May and set the precast interior in September. The $300 million venue is scheduled to open in June 2018, furnishing United with a true home after 22 seasons in dingy RFK Stadium.
One of MLS’s founding members in 1996, United will become one of the last of the current 22 teams to move into a modern or renovated facility. The city committed $150 million toward land acquisition and infrastructure costs. United is prepared to spend more than $150 million on the complex, which sits within view of the nine-year-old baseball park across South Capitol Street.
The city transferred the land to United in October, and the D.C. Zoning Commission approved the plan two weeks ago.
Currently framed by a cement plant, a business supply warehouse and Pepco substation, the project promises to transform an undeveloped section of the city between the blossoming Navy Yard and Maine Avenue waterfront. Commercial development and housing will follow.
“It’s a huge catalyst for what we’re going to see in this neighborhood,” said Charles Allen, a council member from Ward 6, which includes Buzzard Point.
It took quite a while for United’s plans to reach fruition. Over the years, proposals to build at Poplar Point in Anacostia and in Prince George’s County fell through. Without adequate stadium revenue to sustain United’s business, there were legitimate fears the club would have to relocate to Baltimore or beyond.
“This team could not have stayed here, regardless of its historical significance to our league and even to professional sports in the District,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said.
The arrival of new investors in 2012 rekindled efforts to build in the city.
“There’s not a better time in our nation’s capital to build a cathedral, a mosque, a house of worship for the game of soccer,” said Jason Levien, United’s managing general partner and point man on the stadium project. Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir is the primary investor in United’s ownership group.
As he spoke, Levien raised a 22-inch machete — a symbol since his arrival of cutting through political red tape and numerous other obstacles in gaining stadium approval. United fans had presented him the blade in 2012.
“What I didn’t know,” he said, “was that I would need a dozen machetes.”
Levien was joined on the stage by, among others, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, a stadium proponent since her days on the D.C. Council. She ended her speech Monday by pumping her fist and yelling, “Vamos United!” (Let’s go, United.) Talon, United’s eagle mascot, flapped his wings.
The ceremony also brought Garber from MLS headquarters in New York. In charge since 1999, Garber had grown increasingly frustrated over the years as United’s plans stalled time and again.
“This team has needed a stadium for over 20 years,” he said in a post-ceremony interview. “I’d have to say, after all the groundbreakings and all of what seemed at the time to be favorite moments [involving stadium projects around the league], I think this one probably is the most special for me because this team always represented what we wanted professional soccer in America to be.
“It was a very authentic brand, it was a winning club, it really was focused on its fans and created the supporter movement — and never had a soccer stadium that they could call its own. To finally celebrate the new future for soccer in the District was actually a real emotional moment.”
United Coach Ben Olsen, whose association with the club dates from 1998 as a rookie midfielder, shared in the celebration but reminded the gathered masses that a new season at an old venue will begin Saturday night.
“I hope to see you all at good ‘ol RFK,” he said. “Good chicken tenders, empanadas. We’ve got one more year.”