RFK Stadium, that wavy mass of chipped concrete and rusting steel stuck between East Capitol Street and the Anacostia, crackled back to life Tuesday night.
Left for dead when D.C. United bolted for Audi Field after the 2017 MLS season, an old friend reopened its crusty eyes and heavy arms to soccer for a friendly between the Peruvian and Salvadoran national teams. (El Salvador was a surprising 2-0 winner.)
Lot 8 was a swirl of Salvadoran blue and Peruvian red. Fans flowed from the Metro station again. Vendors sold horns, hats and churros. Tailgating was back in lots typically reserved these days for festivals and buses.
Ticket windows were stacked a dozen deep. Gridlocked traffic circled the gray hulk, a mix of rush-hour freedom-seekers and futbol aficionados in a fender-bending weave. In fading light, it was modern art.
The Peruvians were no match for the traffic; running late, the players and coaches exited the team bus and walked the final few hundred feet to the stadium entrance.
Inside, the sweet smell of pupusas on the grill wafted along the lower concourse.
Washington’s vibrant soccer community has moved on from RFK, which for decades, was the only venue in town — and one of the best for the sport in the country.
FedEx Field came along in 1997, luring big-ticket events, such as the Real Madrid-Arsenal match this summer.
Then came Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County for small acts, such as United’s U.S. Open Cup dates and women’s pro teams. Last summer, Audi Field, a long-awaited home for United, entered the mix and, beginning this year, is arranging soccer of all kinds (not to mention lacrosse this summer and XFL games next year).
This summer, United will open another stadium, a 5,000-seater in Leesburg for its second-division squad, Loudoun United, and various other events.
RFK is old, old school; there have never been any frills and, nearing its 58th birthday, the stadium has little left to offer, except an uncomfortable orange seat, a cacophonous setting and a two-hour journey into yesteryear.
The billboards are free advertising for companies that no longer need to pay. Most of the field was rich green, but portions were a pre-spring yellowish green.
At some point, the structure will come down, making room for perhaps a Redskins stadium. For now, a faint heartbeat pulsates.
United continues to lease space at RFK for its training base, using the same locker room as it always did and venturing to the training grounds outside the stadium on most mornings for workouts. A new center will open next year in Leesburg. The club has abandoned the upper office space for shiny digs at Buzzard Point.
RFK continues to seek clients. Last summer, South Africa and Wales played a rugby match. A few months later, three high school football games were stacked end to end one autumn afternoon.
And Tuesday, a high-powered Peruvian squad arrived from the New York metro area, where it had defeated Paraguay, 1-0, in a friendly Friday. El Salvador had beaten visiting Jamaica, 2-0, on Saturday in a Concacaf Nations League qualifier.
The Salvadoran team is a regular in Washington, where promoters have tapped into the vast immigrant community.
A Peruvian fan paraded with a replica World Cup trophy, a nod to his country ending a 36-year drought by qualifying for the Russian-hosted tournament last year. A group of Salvadorans wore “503 Nation” sweatshirts, homage to the country code. Others brought brass instruments.
The match transpired in an expected way: Peru in control of possession, El Salvador seeking to counterattack. Salvadoran goalkeeper Henry Hernandez performed well under steady duress.
Fans traded chants: “El, Sal-va-DOR!” and “Peh-roo!”
Sixteen minutes into the second half, El Salvador went ahead on an own goal by Miguel Trauco. Peru pressed for an equalizer, failed, then conceded another goal in stoppage time. On the counter, Oscar Ceren accelerated into the clear and scored on a searing shot.
The Salvadorans on the field and in the stands celebrated as if they had qualified for the World Cup, something they have failed to do in several decades. RFK danced like the old days, the upper deck dipping and rising.
The “Ole” roar raised the volume. Organizers did not immediately announce attendance, but it was probably 15,000-20,000 — a turnout that, in the semi-enclosed facility, sounded like 50,000.
Well after the match ended, Salvadoran fans were still causing a noisy ruckus on the ramps and in the parking lots.
For sure, the place has enjoyed much better days. But on this night, perhaps one of the last to salute soccer, RFK in some ways never looked and sounded better.