After years of waiting and playing in a venue that has also housed baseball and football, D.C. United finally unveiled its new, soccer-specific stadium.
A couple hundred fans and key figures from Washington, MLS and United gathered at Audi Field for a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday. On Saturday night, United will face the Vancouver Whitecaps in the opener of the new stadium in Southwest D.C. that has a capacity of 20,000.
“Putting Audi Field in the middle of D.C. has shown the growth of Major League Soccer in our country,” United captain Steve Birnbaum said. “But it’s going to hold a special place in our community in soccer and get our kids to grow up playing soccer and have it be on the forefront of the major sports community here in the District.”
The Audi Field opener will also serve as the debut of Wayne Rooney, the English soccer star who recently signed with United. At Monday’s event, Rooney said when he talked with the team’s owners about coming to D.C. to play, he could sense their excitement for Audi Field and the club’s new training grounds. The upgraded facilities, he said, played a role in his decision to come to D.C.
“I wanted to come here to help this team go forward, to win titles, and it’s my job to try to do that,” Rooney said. “And hopefully in the next few years we can climb the table, win titles and create some history in this wonderful stadium.”
The stadium’s red and gray seats are positioned at a sharp incline that creates an intimate environment. Birnbaum said Audi Field will provide a bigger home-field advantage for the team.
“It was just really cool to step in and know that it’s ours,” midfielder Ian Harkes said a few weeks ago after the team visited its new home for the first time. “I think just seeing it filled is going to be huge. Sometimes RFK, it’s so massive that the atmosphere gets a little bit lost.”
Audi Field becomes the 19th soccer-specific stadium in the league, according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who attended Monday’s ceremony. In the next couple of years, he said, the league will be up to 25 soccer stadiums, which will help grow the sport in the United States.
The new stadium is positioned just two diagonal blocks from Nationals Park, and Birnbaum said he hopes the new venue will attract not just soccer fans but casual sports fans in the District.
“Audi Field will be a place where Washingtonians come together for a shared love of this city and a shared love of this great, beautiful game,” United CEO Jason Levien said at the ceremony.
The game this weekend not only marks a new part of D.C. United history but also the next half of United’s season. Because of the construction, D.C.’s road games were concentrated in the first half of this year’s schedule. Fifteen of United’s final 20 matches will take place at Audi Field.
United Coach Ben Olsen called this a “bizarre season” with the way it has been divided into two halves. While in last place in the league, United has played at least three fewer games than every other team in its conference, so Olsen and the players are still hoping to reach the playoffs. Olsen hasn’t done the math for what the team would need to do to climb its way up into the top six spots, but he said the first step is winning the Audi Field opener Saturday.
“This really does feel like the beginning of a new era for United,” Levien said, “the best one yet.”