When David Ousted stepped outside the team’s hotel in Toronto, he wasn’t sure what city he was in. It was simply another hotel after arriving in a new place for yet another road game. That’s been the story of D.C. United’s season since it began four months ago.
So far this year, the players and staff have bounced from city to city around the league, with some keeping up with their D.C.-based families and children from afar. Including preseason games, United’s travel since the year began totals roughly 40,000 miles, which is farther than one-and-a-half trips around the world.
United’s game against Vancouver on Saturday marks a few welcome changes, ones the players hope could help their last-place club find better results. The matchup has the ingredients needed to make a game meaningful — the opening of the city’s new, soccer-specific stadium, Audi Field; the likely debut of English soccer star Wayne Rooney; and the start of the long-anticipated, home-game-heavy half of the season.
“We were waiting for this kind of moment,” United defender Frederic Brillant said.
Since May, the club has played in Utah, Massachusetts, Seattle, Toronto and California. In that time, United’s 350-mile trip to Canada was the team’s closest MLS game. The travel, Brilliant said, is taxing physically but even more difficult mentally. D.C. United has started the season 2-5-7 with a league-low 11 points.
In the first half of the year, United had two makeshift home games — a draw versus Houston at Maryland SoccerPlex and a win against Columbus at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. Still, those matches didn’t feel like home games, Brillant said.
Now, thanks to the opening of Audi Field, United suddenly gets to play in its own stadium. Fifteen of its final 20 games will be played at home. The new stadium in Southwest D.C. has features, such as how the seats are positioned at a steep incline and close to the field, that players expect will create an intimate environment. The club has practiced in the stadium twice, trying to make it feel a bit more like home.
“Going in there the first game and making it a fortress where people don’t want to come in and play, that’s going to be important,” said Ousted, the club’s 33-year-old goalkeeper.
The players want to ensure their objectives don’t get lost in the fanfare that surrounds the new venue and their newest teammate. Ousted said the team has to remember to see Saturday for what it is: a game D.C. United needs to win.
“We kind of knew the whole way that the first half of the year was going to be hard,” Ousted said. “We were hoping for a little more points than we have, but we’ve also been realistic in what we were going in for. This has always been the plan. Now we’re coming home, and now we need to show the strength of this team.”
D.C. United ranks last in its 11-team conference and is 13 points back from a top-six spot needed to make the playoffs. But United has played 14 games this season while its Eastern Conference peers have all played at least 17. A few teams have played as many as 20 matches. United isn’t quite as far back as the table shows, but it would need a significant turnaround to start to climb closer to playoff contention.
Ousted doesn’t pay much attention to the standings, but he said he knows the team isn’t where it needs to be. This next half of the season, he said, is the club’s chance to change that.
“I think everyone’s ready for this,” United Coach Ben Olsen said last week. “It’s due time. The facility aspect, whether it’s the stadium or the training facility next year, the pocketbook’s opening up a little bit. I think we’ve all been waiting for it . . . It’s time to take this club to the next level.”
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