As the opening of Audi Field ushered in a new era for D.C. United, the club’s match Saturday night was a chance for change. But this struggling United team needed more than the fanfare of new scenery and a modern stadium. It needed better results.
United got just that against the Vancouver Whitecaps, making its first night at its new stadium a successful one. Whether the club’s improvement continues seemed irrelevant as United welcomed fans to its new home with a 3-1 win. United, which entered with the fewest points in MLS but now has moved up to second fewest, had not won a league game since May.
“This is one of the great nights in D.C. United history,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “And we’ve had some good ones.”
As part of United’s effort to elevate its roster, it added English star Wayne Rooney last month. Although he has been the focus of the buzz around United over the past couple of weeks, Rooney began Saturday’s match on the bench. He made his D.C. debut in the 58th minute and was greeted with a standing ovation.
United looked sharper once Rooney came on the field, Olsen said, and it scored two of its three goals after he entered.
“I feel I can bring a lot of experience to help [the younger players], which I felt really showed in the last 30 minutes,” Rooney said. “They almost had a bit more freedom. We planned how we wanted to play when I came on through the week, and I thought it really worked well.”
Midfielder Paul Arriola, who notched the club’s final goal in RFK Stadium last year, scored twice — first in the 69th minute and again in the 80th. Rooney picked up the assist on Arriola’s second goal, which extended United’s lead to three and rendered Alphonso Davies’s stoppage-time goal for Vancouver inconsequential.
“They were here to spoil the party,” Arriola said of the Whitecaps. “But sometimes when the cops come, you just let them leave and you keep partying. We just kept partying toward the end.”
Before Rooney entered the game, United midfielder Yamil Asad earned the first roar inside Audi Field in the 27th minute when he rocketed the ball into the top-right corner of the net from outside the box. The hands of 20,504 fans stretched toward the sky in unison under roofs that trapped the noise.
The intimate environment created by stands that are positioned at an angle as steep as 35 degrees and close to the field was quite a contrast from the larger-than-necessary RFK Stadium, which had been the club’s home since MLS debuted in 1996. Thanks to the construction of the new venue in Southwest Washington, D.C. United hadn’t played a true home game through the first four months of this season.
“It was awesome,” Arriola said. “To look up and see the fans right on top of you — you could look at one and stare them right in the eyes. It was very special for us. Our job was to come out here and put a show on for the fans.”
More than two hours before the match, hundreds of fans gathered outside, where former United greats John Harkes and Jaime Moreno signed autographs and posed for photos. A flood of recently purchased Rooney jerseys mixed with others that had names from the past and present, such as Moreno and Nick DeLeon, written on their backs.
Whether they welcomed their club to the new venue by attending the game or simply by sending tweets from afar, many key members of United’s past — a past that includes four MLS Cups — celebrated the team’s future.
Olsen, who spent 12 years with the club as a player, said he got to the stadium early. He walked around to take in the scene by himself. He knew he might not get a moment to appreciate his surroundings once the game began. But as soon as his team had a three-goal lead, he said he had another chance to look around and recognize what it has taken for his club to reach this point.
While the Audi Field opener marked the beginning of a home-heavy second half of the season, United will go on the road next week to face Atlanta United, which is tied for the Eastern Conference lead. But that tough matchup was still a week away. On this night, D.C. United could celebrate a win that it desperately needed — one that helped welcome the team and its fans to a new beginning.