The grand opening of Audi Field wasn’t all that grand. It was simple, understated. Some might say tasteful. Others might say underwhelming. Instead of presenting D.C. United’s first game at its $400 million stadium like a visit to a spiffy new theme park — complete with a novel Wayne Rooney-in-MLS attraction — the franchise simply used Saturday night as a chance for a sellout crowd of 20,504 to get used to watching soccer in a nice venue made for soccer. There were no frills, no illusions, no empty promises.
For the most part, it was better this way. It was honest this way. D.C. United can’t sell magic because there is nothing magical about a team that had a 2-7-5 record and last-place status entering this match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. The stadium is a jolt, not a cure-all. Rooney is a star-in-training with his new team, not a savior. He didn’t start during his debut. He didn’t play until the 58th minute of D.C. United’s 3-1 victory. If you thought he would take the microphone before the match, make his own introduction, sing the national anthem and score a couple of goals, well, that was a silly expectation.
On this night, every hello had to be mellow.
This wasn’t a night for hype. It felt more like the franchise made a vow in a posh setting. These digs represent an investment to be better, to pursue greatness again. The stripped-down unveiling hinted at the humility of a team that requires vast improvement and an organization in the initial stages of maximizing its fabulous home.
Of the strange and sporadic energy in the stadium, D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen could only say about the vibe: “It got there. The energy got there.”
Ultimately, an atmosphere must be created. It can’t be built. If United does its part, this place should be loud and intimidating. It is an intimate setting for 20,000 seats. At times, it should feel as if the fans are on the pitch with the players. But the team must inspire that kind of energy.
“It’s a great stadium,” said Rooney, who contributed an assist during his 30 minutes of playing time. “At the end of the day, we have to create the atmosphere on the pitch. We have to excite the fans.”
There is work to do, so much work. You felt how new this place was, and that wasn’t always a good thing. As WJLA was first to report, a railing hit sideline reporter Lindsay Simpson before the match, and medical staff had to treat her. She missed the broadcast but seemed to avoid serious injury, however. Stadium workers responded by using duct tape to reinforce several railings in the stadium.
There were less dangerous glitches and issues, too: unwrapped paper towel dispensers in bathrooms; lost fans roaming; sweaty patrons taking long walks to get into a stadium without much parking near it; uneven concession lines; missteps and stumbles as people get accustomed to navigating Audi Field.
In the press box, reporters complained about the WiFi not working. In fact, I am thumbing these words right now on my smartphone just to make deadline. Even if I wanted to exaggerate how special the night was, I couldn’t because I lack the finger strength to be so effusive.
So, yeah, work to do.
Consider this merely the start of the relaunching of D.C. United. As Saturday night showed, it will be a significant process.
But there is hope and momentum now.
“Our challenge is going to be consistency,” Olsen said. “We have to find a more consistent high level throughout games.”
For the remainder of the season, D.C. United figures to entertain curiosity. Sure, the stadium is a reward for die-hard fans who stuck with the team through good and bizarre times at RFK Stadium. But it’s also an opportunity to grow the fan base, to tap into a changing D.C. and provide an entertainment option at a more comfortable establishment. On Saturday, a curious crowd saw the home team play close to its best. The stadium was electric on two occasions: when Rooney replaced Darren Mattocks (at 9:25 p.m., for those documenting history) and before that, when Yamil Asad scored in the 27th minute, kicking a laser from outside the box into the right corner of the net over leaping goalkeeper Brian Rowe for Audi Field’s first goal. It was 8:34 p.m., and it’s safe to say no 8:34 has ever felt better here.
“Great way to open the building,” Olsen said. “Great first goal.”
I’m not sure this event convinced hordes of folks to buy season tickets, but despite the glitches, it ended up being entertaining. D.C. United might have convinced some of the casual observers to return for another look. It also might have inspired another wave of interested people to visit the stadium. For a while, the stadium will ensure the players get ample opportunity to audition for more support.
Before the match, two men in black and red United gear walked toward the stadium wondering what they were about to see.
“Who is D.C. United playing tonight?” one man asked.
“Vancouver,” his friend replied.
“Are they any good, or are they like us?” the man then asked.
“I have no idea,” his friend replied.
The soccer didn’t make you want to ignore the France-Croatia World Cup final. But for a franchise trying to make a comeback, this was a start. It was a low-key start, an imperfect start and a dangerous start for Simpson. But overall, it was a good start.
The question now is what D.C. United will do with the momentum. Rooney will answer some of that as he improves his fitness level and prepares to make an impact during the second half of the MLS season. You saw what he can do in glimpses, particularly with the clean way he handles the ball and the accuracy of his passing. He has a flashy history, but he can play a simple, beautiful style, too. His vision, poise and decision-making already are making the team better. He wants to add leadership to those positive traits as well.
“I want to win,” Rooney said. “I’m vocal on and off the pitch. I’m vocal with the coach. I’m vocal with my teammates.”
That’s fine, as long as it comes with patience. During his debut, he hid his grin as faint chants of “We want Rooney!” broke out on several occasions. Then after entering to roars, he made a quiet impact.
Rooney is here. Audi Field is open. The energy? Well, it’s getting there. No pretense. Back to work.