Maureen Hendricks Field, the main stadium at the sprawling Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County, offers seats within earshot of the players, an immaculate emerald surface and a grass slope behind one goal for picnic blankets and excitable kids.
It’s also 30 miles from the U.S. Capitol and inaccessible by public transportation.
For almost six full seasons, the “Washington” in Washington Spirit has been in name only, a big-city label without big-city experience or convenience. But with Saturday night’s appearance at Audi Field, D.C. United’s new complex in the city’s southwest quadrant, the National Women’s Soccer League team will expand its horizons and begin to study the idea of playing in the District more often.
As of Thursday, the team said it had sold more than 6,000 tickets and was on track to hit its goal of between 8,000 and 10,000 for the 8 p.m. kickoff against the reigning champion Portland Thorns. The Spirit averages 3,527 at its 5,200-capacity base in Boyds, a quiet community a few miles west of Interstate 270 in the upper portion of the county. Team headquarters and practice facilities are also at SoccerPlex.
“We love SoccerPlex, but for people who don’t come to our games a lot, it’s a great barrier,” Spirit President Chris Hummer said. “A lot of fans — people who might live in the city and don’t have cars — say it’s too far.”
The Spirit could’ve chosen to play on occasion at RFK Stadium — as a women’s pro league predecessor, the Washington Freedom, did full-time from 2001 through 2003 — but United’s dumpy former home on the east side of the city was too large for its needs and not worth the expense.
Audi Field, which opened last month, was a more suitable option. The venue holds 20,000, though given advance attendance projections for this game, the upper level on the east side and some other sections are closed. About half of the 31 suites will be occupied.
Most of the nine NWSL teams average between 2,400 and 5,000 fans. The exceptions are Portland (16,578) and first-year Utah (8,555), which are owned by MLS organizations and use the same stadium as the men’s team. Orlando (4,821), Houston (3,860) and Chicago (4,507) also play in MLS stadiums; the first two are under an MLS team’s control.
The Spirit, owned by Northern Virginia businessman Bill Lynch, is renting the stadium from United for an undisclosed fee. The MLS team spent $250 million to build the complex; the city earmarked another $150 million for land acquisition and infrastructure improvements.
Hummer said the Spirit will not have a problem covering its costs through ticket sales.
Accessibility was a major factor in the Spirit’s decision to test Audi Field. The stadium sits in the hub of the metro area and is located two diagonal blocks from Nationals Park, a 10-15 minute walk from the Navy Yard-Ballpark Metro station. (Unlike SoccerPlex, however, there is no on-site or free parking, forcing drivers to find commercial lots and street spaces.)
In the weeks and months after the D.C. visit, the Spirit organization will gather feedback from attendees in determining whether to return for one or perhaps several of its 12 home matches next year.
“Is it pure novelty or a real fan base?” Hummer said. “That is what we need to find out. We want to play more games there, but we can’t do it at a [financial] loss or risk of losing the fans who have been with us at SoccerPlex.”
A match at a new venue might also help reverse the Spirit’s miserable on-field fortunes: one goal in 18 hours of soccer (12 matches), no victories in 13 consecutive outings and a 2-16-4 overall record. This week, Jim Gabarra was fired as coach and general manager. Assistant Tom Torres will oversee the team through next weekend’s finale against disastrous New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC (0-15-5).
In a bleak season, the opportunity to play at Audi Field has lifted players’ spirits.
“The fact that we are going to be the first women’s team to play here is really special,” forward Mallory Pugh said during a tour last week. “It’s a beautiful stadium and beautiful facilities, so being able to play a game here is amazing.”
Portland Thorns at Washington Spirit
Where: Audi Field.
When: Saturday at 8 p.m.
Records: Thorns 10-6-6, 36 points; Spirit 2-16-4, 10 points.
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