For more than 10 years, D.C. United has visited MLS cities with aching envy. From Toronto to Los Angeles, new soccer stadiums have sprouted all over the league — midsize venues blending traditional features and modern comforts to showcase the sport on a proper platform and bolster the bottom line.
United, meantime, has remained stuck at deteriorating RFK Stadium, a half-century-old structure with heart and soul but too many seats and not enough amenities. Proposals for a replacement have come and gone. Business has suffered.
But with United and Mayor Vincent C. Gray striking a preliminary deal to construct a stadium with at least 20,000 seats at Buzzard Point in Southwest Washington, MLS’s most decorated club might soon have its wish.
It’s a complicated proposal requiring land swaps and the City Council’s blessings. In the best circumstances, United would not christen the venue until 2016 — 17 years after the first soccer-specific MLS stadium was introduced in Columbus, Ohio.
But after failed efforts at Poplar Point in Southeast and Prince George’s County, flirtations with Baltimore, exploration in Montgomery County and Virginia, even the fear the team would have to leave the area, United is willing to wait a little longer to complete the most promising proposal since this arduous and frustrating search began.
“We need a new stadium, we need a new home and we’ve been laser-focused on it,” said United managing partner Jason Levien, who, with counsel David Mincberg, has worked closely with City Administrator Allen Y. Lew to formulate the project.
The property sits near the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, a few blocks southwest of Nationals Park, which opened in 2008 and helped revitalize the South Capitol Street corridor. “America’s pastime,” Levien said of the stadiums’ proximity, “and the international pastime.”
Backed by Indonesian media magnate Erick Thohir and San Francisco-based executive Will Chang, United has pledged to spend $150 million on the structure. The city would fund land acquisition and infrastructure improvements, also estimated at $150 million. (Verizon Center was built with a similar financial model. Nationals Park was publicly funded.)
United first targeted Buzzard Point three years ago. In reflecting on early conversations with the team, led by then president Kevin Payne, Lew smacked his fists together.
Fortunes began to turn last summer, when Thohir and Levien joined Chang, who, at the time, was the lone investor. “We see a pathway,” Levien said at the group’s introductory news conference, “and we also know we are going to have to use our machete to get there.”
United, unofficially, became FC Machete. The Barra Brava supporters’ group presented Levien with an actual blade. Stadium talks simmered and chilled. At one point, in fear negotiations would stall for good, United revisited options in Maryland.
“Fortunately,” Levien said, “Allen has the biggest machete.”
Getting out of RFK Stadium, where United has been housed since its 1996 inception, is about more than aesthetics. It’s about revenue streams. Without them at RFK (the team does not control concessions and leasing of private suites, for instance), United has lost several million dollars annually, club officials said. They did not give an exact figure.
The organization has also been hurt by declining attendance. While performance has turned off potential patrons — with the league’s worst record, United is all but certain to miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six years this fall — the club has found it increasingly difficult to market the game-day experience at antiquated RFK.
The first priority of the new investment team was to slow the financial losses until a stadium deal was reached. Austerity measures, though, have affected almost every facet of team operations: front office cuts, limited spending on player acquisitions (United has not signed a high-profile player from overseas in years) and deterioration of the practice facilities (the artificial turf field is in disrepair and no longer used by the first team).
Meantime, almost all of the other 18 MLS teams now play in new or renovated stadiums and, consequently, are on firmer financial footing than United. Next year, when the San Jose Earthquakes move into a contemporary arena, only United and the New England Revolution will play in inadequate facilities.
The Revolution share Gillette Stadium with the NFL’s Patriots. The Kraft family operates both teams and is in no hurry to build a soccer stadium. (The Seattle Sounders also play in a stadium designed for pro football, but the large capacity is necessary to accommodate the team’s league-best ticket demand.)
If the Buzzard Point deal is finalized, United will play in one of the most urban settings in the league, accessible by public transportation and close to commercial development.
Set by Payne a decade ago, the team’s vision is to incorporate itself into its cosmopolitan surroundings and remain in the hub of the metro area. Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Houston and Toronto also play in or near their downtowns, while some teams selected suburban locations.
Buzzard Point does have drawbacks. The walk from the Waterfront and Navy Yard Metro stations is three-quarters of a mile, considerably farther than the distance between Stadium-Armory station and RFK. The venue’s tight footprint leaves little room for parking, although lots utilized by the Nationals would be available when baseball is idle. (The city plans to have streetcars running through the area in the future.)
Those, though, are the least of United’s concerns. There are the many moving parts to the deal. There is the City Council, which features three members who are running for mayor. There are residents bruised by the baseball stadium ordeal.
United has taken the field with its strongest lineup yet. Whether it scores is another matter.