D.C. United will move into a new stadium next season, but because of MLS’s concerns about scheduling complications and competitive advantage late in the year, the club will have to play between two and four home matches at alternate locations before Audi Field opens, The Washington Post has learned.
The 20,000-capacity venue in Southwest D.C. is slated to open on time in late June, almost four months into the season. United had hoped to play all 17 home games there by front-loading the schedule with away matches and squeezing the entire home slate into the last four months of the league calendar.
But with MLS balking at that plan, United is preparing to play multiple early-season home games elsewhere in the area, such as Annapolis, Baltimore or Richmond. Depending on how many matches are involved, United could play all of them at a single location or spread them out.
The most likely number of off-site home games is three, according to two sources, who did not want to go on the record because the matter is unresolved. United officials did not want to comment specifically about the schedule. MLS deferred questions to the team.
Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (34,000 seats, 30 miles east of Washington) would seem to make the most sense. “We have had discussions about a game or two, but nothing has been finalized,” Navy spokesman Scott Strasemeier said.
Richmond’s City Stadium, home to United’s second-division affiliate, has 22,000 seats (9,000 are used for Kickers’ matches) and, unlike the Annapolis venue, has a natural-grass playing surface. However, the 110-mile distance on heavily traveled Interstate 95 would probably dissuade many season-ticket holders from attending.
Baltimore has two primary venues, both problematic: Oriole Park at Camden Yards has a baseball configuration and possible scheduling conflicts with the Orioles, while the 71,000-seat capacity at M&T Bank Stadium, an NFL venue, is too large for United’s purposes.
One source said United is unlikely to consider FedEx Field, Nationals Park or RFK Stadium, the club’s antiquated home for 22 seasons. The University of Maryland’s facilities — Maryland Stadium (54,000 seats and artificial turf) and Ludwig Field (8,000 and no locker rooms) — are well-situated but imperfect, and the Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County is too small (5,200).
MLS is aiming to unveil all of its 2018 home openers before Christmas and the complete schedule in mid-January. Last winter, those announcements came Dec. 21 and Jan. 12, respectively.
In the past, MLS has accommodated teams moving into new or renovated stadiums deep into the season: In 2011, Sporting Kansas City played 10 consecutive away matches — a league record — before christening Livestrong Sporting Park (now Children’s Mercy Park) on June 9. In 2016, Toronto FC played eight in a row on the road while BMO Field underwent expansion; it reopened May 7.
United’s schedule will probably end up looking like the Philadelphia Union’s in 2010. With PPL Park (now Talen Energy Stadium) under construction, the expansion team played twice at Lincoln Financial Field (home to the NFL’s Eagles) amid eight away games before debuting at the new venue in Chester, Pa., on June 27.
Without any home games at alternate locations, United would probably have 12 road matches before opening Audi Field. Complicating the schedule next year is the possibility of MLS taking its usual break during the group stage of the World Cup, June 14-28. Because the U.S. national team failed to qualify, the league could end up shortening that break.
MLS sees logistical problems in scheduling a full home schedule between late June and late October, sources said, and is also wary of allowing United to play almost every league match down the stretch at home. The counterargument is United’s heavy away schedule early in the year would offset any advantage late in the season.
United has apparently found enough open dates for 17 home games in four months, identifying weekends and several weeknights when the Nationals are away. Because the stadiums are three blocks apart, they will rarely, if ever, play on the same day because of parking and other transportation conflicts.
With United playing at alternate sites, the team would not charge season-ticket holders if they did not want to attend those matches, United spokeswoman Lindsay Simpson said. They would have first priority to purchase seats to those games.
“We’re committed to remaining fan-focused throughout the transition leading to Audi Field,” she said. “We won’t know the schedule until probably early January. When we have more information, we’ll share it with our fans.”
There is also the possibility of season-ticket holders applying their seats toward a proposed four-team tournament at Audi Field, a summer event featuring United and clubs from Europe, Latin America and perhaps Asia. If MLS isn’t going to fill available dates at Audi Field with regular season matches, one source said, United would fill them with a tournament and try to reclaim revenue lost by having to play regular season matches in the alternate venues.