The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

American soccer made its home at aging, funky RFK Stadium

The scene at RFK for a World Cup qualifier between the United States and Honduras, Sept. 1, 2001. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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We don’t have a national soccer stadium, and because of our country’s size and diversity, frankly we don’t need one. The pulse of the sport, performed at the highest levels, reverberates across time zones, from the South Ward at Red Bull Arena to The Cauldron in Kansas City and to the madhouses in the Pacific Northwest.

To designate one plot of emerald-green grass and tight white lines for our biggest matches marginalizes the rest of a rich soccer nation.

American soccer, however, has had an unofficial home for decades — and we didn’t need to stage every national team match and MLS Cup there to prove it.

RFK and its sports teams: A brief history in photos

Washington’s RFK Stadium wasn’t built for soccer; it opened in 1961 as D.C. Stadium for baseball, football and concerts. But over the past 30-plus years, through multiple leagues and shared seasons with other local pro outfits, through D.C. United’s final home game on Sunday before relocating to a new stadium next season, soccer took root on East Capitol Street.

In that time, RFK gained a mystique. It came from not only longevity and quantity but the fact that, despite physical flaws acquired late in life, RFK had a heartbeat, a soul. It breathes (and belches).

The enclosed design retained sound, turning the volume of 20,000 into the fury of 80,000. The east-side stands bounced under the weight and passion of the Screaming Eagles, Barra Brava and District Ultras. How many other stadiums can make such a claim?

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Navigating the concrete ramps, walking through the claustrophobic concourse and crossing the catwalks into the upper reaches was a journey into yesteryear.

“The soul is real,” said D.C. United’s Ben Olsen, who played at RFK for 12 years and has coached there for eight, totaling half his life. “This building still has more character than any place in the country. There’s a feeling here at night that’s different. I don’t know if it’s the lights. There’s just a different aura — the color, the glow, the feel is different than all of the new parks.”

That aura illuminated the most-prized competitions. RFK is the only U.S. facility to have hosted all of the following: NASL’s Soccer Bowl (1980), the World Cup (1994), an Olympic group stage (1996), the MLS Cup (three times) and the Women’s World Cup (2003).

The U.S. men’s national team played at RFK more than any other venue. The Rose Bowl is the only other stadium in its original form with a comparable soccer portfolio.

And RFK was at MLS’s service when U.S. soccer needed stadiums to launch a new league in 1996. At the end of its 22nd campaign, United will play its 347th and final regular season match there Sunday against the hated New York Red Bulls. (Between 1961 and 1996, the team best known for inhabiting the facility, the NFL’s Redskins, made 266 regular season appearances.)

Next summer, United is scheduled to christen Audi Field. RFK will remain open for business. United isn’t completely done with RFK, though. Until the club builds a training facility, it will continue practicing on the outer fields and leasing the locker rooms and basement space. Only the front office will permanently move into the new digs next spring.

United’s top 20 memorable moments at RFK

Non-MLS activities will continue popping up in the old stadium, as well, until the 180-acre campus is redeveloped.

Before moving forward, soccer must pause to look back. Memories, after all, stack like boards in a lumberyard.

RFK was home to Dutch legend Johan Cruyff with the Washington Diplomats in 1980-81 and to Mia Hamm in her Washington Freedom days, to Bruce Arena’s first pro coaching job, Freddy Adu’s debut at age 14 and David Beckham’s first MLS regular season match.

One of the greatest goals in World Cup history was scored there: Saeed Al-Owairan for Saudi Arabia vs. Belgium.

Long before MLS, there was the NASL with the Whips, Dips and Team America. To less fanfare, the Diplomats were resurrected in the late 1980s as part of the ASL and APSL.

Summer tours featured Ronaldinho in his Barcelona debut and Zlatan Ibrahimovic doing the same (and scoring a thunderous goal) for Paris Saint-Germain. The Salvadoran national team made RFK its home away from home for countless friendlies, plus a 2010 World Cup qualifier vs. Anguilla.

There was the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, Giants Cup, Gold Cup and Champions League. Long live SuperLiga! Three U.S. Open Cup finals. Two MLS All-Star Games. Several charity matches and friendlies involving luminaries of the international game.

There were waterlogged pitches, floodlight failures, grease fires, stray cats, a shy raccoon and a sloshed cockroach.

From early 2011: “Yesterday, I come to work, first day, a new year, optimism, I walk in, and who greets me in the hallway?” Olsen said. “A cockroach, the biggest one I’ve ever seen. He looked me dead in the eyes and was like, ‘Look, I am not moving.’

“So I said, ‘Good morning, Happy New Year,’ and walked by. He tipped his hat to me. He was hung over from New Year’s. He had the little horn in his mouth and the party hat.”

Hall of Famer Alexi Lalas, who played at RFK for visiting MLS teams and the national team, remembers the labyrinth of subterranean hallways and, like the band in “This Is Spinal Tap,” getting lost backstage. He compared the basement tunnels to something out of “The Silence of the Lambs.”

“We know it’s dirty and disgusting and ugly, but it’s ours,” Lalas said. “It never compared to stadiums with all of the luxuries, but it was something authentic and organic.”

Landon Donovan, the retired MLS and U.S. national team star, appreciated the sophistication of a D.C. crowd.

“It’s a fan base that understands the game and was one of the first in this country to really get it,” he said. “They understood the nuances. They chanted and cheered the whole time. They appreciated a good pass, just like a good goal.”

RFK also offered two powerfully emotional moments in 2009: Santino Quaranta’s goal-scoring return to the national team at the Gold Cup after recovering from drug addiction and, later that year, a heartfelt tribute to Charlie Davies, who clung to life after a car accident one day before a World Cup qualifier.

“He was my roommate with the national team,” retired midfielder Stuart Holden said of Davies. “It’s the ninth minute, everyone is holding up a number 9 sign for Charlie. I’m on the field crying, or close to crying.”

More than a few tears may be shed Sunday as we bid farewell to an old, dear friend who stood silent and tall for decades, her wavy roof and rusty exterior caressing and cradling soccer into adulthood.

“The magic of this place is coming here every day,” Olsen said. “It was constant — the floods and the animals, the leaks — but it was all beautiful.”

More on RFK Stadium: 

Svrluga: As RFK Stadium loses its final tenant, let’s remember the richness it housed

From 2007: Thomas Boswell’s farewell to baseball at RFK

From 1996: The scene at the Redskins’ final game at RFK

From 1971: Shirley Povich on the Senators’ chaotic last game in D.C.