For the first time since the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down large gatherings, a sporting event with spectators in attendance was staged in the capital region.
Not a lot of fans, mind you.
Under Phase 3 of the reopening guidelines set by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, sports venues are allowed to operate at 50 percent occupancy or with 1,000 patrons, whichever figure is lower. Segra Field holds 5,000, and with a 1,000 limit, the crowd for the second-division soccer match between Loudoun United and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds numbered 452.
But after months of dark stadiums and postponed seasons, of bubbles in Florida and TV-only viewing, fans in the metro area had the opportunity to buy a ticket, grab a beer and take a seat at a sports venue.
Fans are not permitted at, among other area venues, Nationals Park and Audi Field.
“Something about watching sports live makes all the difference,” said Doug Jones, 59, from Ashburn. “I’m ecstatic.”
Loudoun United — which is owned by D.C. United and serves as a developmental squad for the MLS organization — has been playing in front of crowds on the road for more than a month. Last weekend, attendance in Louisville was 4,850.
The Richmond Kickers, a third-flight soccer team, welcomed crowds of 822 and 634 this month.
Wednesday’s match was Loudoun’s home opener at the tidy stadium cut into a county park. Five additional USL Championship matches are scheduled there over the next six weeks.
“Just to have people in the stands, whether it was loved ones or locals who just wanted to get out of the house, it’s exciting,” Loudoun Coach Ryan Martin said after the 2-0 defeat dropped his team’s record to 1-4-1. “It’s a sign of hopefully getting back and making progress.”
Loudoun team officials worked with county officials in ensuring proper protocols were in place. All spectators were required to wear masks. Security, though, had to warn some who removed theirs, and announcements provided reminders.
The team set entry times, in 15-minute intervals, depending on the seating section. Food and drinks were ordered on an app and collected at kiosks and trucks. No cash exchanged hands.
Hand sanitizer and washing stations were available. Small groups were spaced throughout the 14 sideline sections and in the VIP area behind the north goal. (The indoor VIP area was off-limits, except to get a beverage.)
Some fans attended out of family loyalty. Midfielder Nelson Martinez’s father, mother and sister arrived from Woodbridge. Their 19-year-old son is a second-year pro.
“We are a little bit worried about [covid-19] because we have grandparents in our house,” said the elder Martinez, who wore a Loudoun jersey with the family name on the back. “We are being careful, and everybody here is being respectful about distancing and wearing a mask.”
Members of the Stampede, the team’s official supporters’ group, were not allowed to cluster behind the south goal as they normally do. The collective chanting, drumming and flag-waving that accompany soccer at all levels were conspicuously absent.
Nonetheless, supporting the team in person for the first time since last fall felt good.
“We all miss going to a game or to a diner and hearing laughter,” said Stampede member Adam Davis, 30, from Ashburn. “You see all this leagues around the world without fans, and there’s no home-field advantage anymore. It’s thrilling to see this, even at a smaller capacity.”
The Stampede had about 120 members for the 2019 inaugural season. That number has dropped significantly this year as many fans deferred season tickets to next season. Other season ticket holders are skipping this season as well, team officials said.
Last year, Loudoun United averaged 1,670 fans for 12 matches at Segra Field. Given the weeknight game and health issues, there was no concerns Wednesday about having to turn people away. A larger turnout is expected for the first weekend match (Aug. 29).
“A couple months ago, we weren’t even sure we would have any games here, with or without fans,” said Sam Zweifach, the team’s finance and special projects director. “So this is a win.”