With Audi Field scheduled to open more than three months into the 2018 campaign, United is working with MLS to determine whether the entire slate of home matches at the new venue in Southwest D.C. can fit into the league calendar.
“We want to get every single match at Audi Field, if we can,” club President Tom Hunt said in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday. “If we can’t, we have some ideas that we think would be a very cool, unique event for our fan base and the expansion of our fan base.”
He declined to elaborate, but his comments suggest United could end up playing elsewhere in the metro area or beyond.
After next month’s regular season finale, United has no plans to play again at RFK Stadium — its weathered home of 22 seasons — even if the league mandates one home match before Audi Field is ready.
“We plan to say a nice goodbye” on Oct. 22 against the New York Red Bulls, Hunt said. “There is no expectation we’ll be back at RFK.”
The team, however, will continue to lease RFK’s practice fields and facilities until it builds a training facility of its own.
The construction of 20,000-capacity Audi Field, three blocks from Nationals Park, is on schedule, Hunt said. The organization broke ground in March and large steel portions have taken shape at Buzzard Point.
It’s still unclear, he added, whether the inaugural match could occur before MLS takes a two-week break during the World Cup group stage, June 14-28. More likely, the game would happen after the pause.
United is prepared to begin next season with about 12 consecutive away matches. The league record is 10, set in 2011 by Sporting Kansas City, which christened Children’s Mercy Park on June 9 of that year and played all 17 home dates there.
Hunt said it’s too early to say whether the league will be able to accommodate every United home match during the last four months on the playing calendar. Among the scheduling issues for MLS: the World Cup break, renovation plans at Portland’s stadium, and an odd number of teams (23) as Los Angeles FC debuts next year.
“It’s a Rubik’s Cube,” Hunt said.
The only time United played a home league game off-site was in June 2014, at FedEx Field in Landover as part of a doubleheader with a Spain-El Salvador friendly. The NFL stadium in Landover is not believed to be in the running for a possible 2018 match.
Any use of an alternative location is “going to take a few months to work through,” Hunt said of the discussions.
MLS typically announces the home opener for every team in late December and the full schedule a few weeks later.
Meanwhile, Hunt said major steelwork at the construction site is set to end in December and emphasis will then turn to interior projects through the winter. The front office is aiming to move into an attached building on the south end in May.
“Everything is on track,” he said, “to deliver for next summer.”
United has sold 24 of the 29 available suites, Hunt said. Two others are set aside for use by the city and visiting team. The season-ticket target is 12,500; United has 9,000 at RFK, Hunt said. Even if it reaches that figure, the club will cap the number in order to offer plentiful single-game tickets and group packages.
Although Audi Field is built for soccer — and run by a soccer team — United plans to book a variety of events: concerts, rugby, college soccer and football, international soccer and perhaps some Washington Spirit women’s games. There’s also been talk of an outdoor college basketball game, Hunt said.
Audi Field is in the mix for the MLS All-Star Game in 2019 or 2020, he added.
Because of the venue’s proximity to Nationals Park, Hunt said, MLS will not schedule matches on the same days as baseball games. In the case of a Nationals makeup game conflicting with a soccer match, the teams will stagger starting times.
With no parking available at Audi Field, United expects 60 percent of ticket holders to arrive via Metro — Navy Yard station is 14 minutes by foot — compared to 50 percent for RFK matches. Fans arriving by car will have access to parking lots around the baseball stadium.
Regarding a new training facility, Hunt said the organization has spoken with George Mason University officials in Fairfax, as well as with representatives in Loudoun County and the District, which is weighing options on how to redevelop the 180-acre RFK campus.
United would like to construct a complex for not only first-team practices but several fields for its youth academy and a 5,000-seat stadium for a second-division team. Several MLS clubs are already operating teams in the blossoming United Soccer League; the prime purpose is to integrate coaching and development strategies and offer competitive playing time to prospects.
Late last year, United applied for a USL expansion team to begin in 2018 or ’19. This week, the club did not want to comment on the effort, but it seems highly unlikely D.C. would have a team in place next year. In that case, United would continue an affiliation with the USL’s Richmond Kickers.
Although United is RFK’s only full-time tenant, the stadium will not lock its doors after the last MLS game next month. Plans to demolish the stadium will coincide with the city’s redevelopment plans in a few years.
“We want to continue [staging events] as long as the building is standing and is capable of hosting people for additional experiences,” said Erik Moses, an executive at Events DC, which manages the RFK property. “Without the team here and the number of dates they needed the field, we have blue ocean.”
RFK aims to attract major concerts and soccer events that require seating capacity greater than what Audi Field offers. “We’ll continue to work with U.S. Soccer,” Moses said. El Salvador is expected to play a friendly against a South American opponent at RFK this November.
For United’s farewell next month, the team will sell tickets in the upper deck, which is otherwise closed for regular season matches. As of last week, about 20,000 tickets had been sold, which just about fills the downsized capacity.
The team will stage a legends game before the MLS match against the Red Bulls and hold a postgame ceremony celebrating 22 seasons at RFK.
Hunt echoed Moses’s comments that the old stadium still has some life, saying, “We’re moving into a new home, but RFK will remain. It’s our farewell to RFK, not the District’s.”
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