With RFK Stadium being transformed into a baseball stadium for at least the next three years to house the former Montreal Expos, tonight’s World Cup qualifier between Panama and the United States most likely will be the last chance area fans will get to see international soccer for some time.
U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who lives in Fairfax, acknowledged that he is not going to bring his talented team to town and play on a baseball infield, regardless of whether sod is laid over the dirt.
“It’s likely in the current scenario that this may be our last game with the national team at RFK,” Arena said. “It’s been a good venue for us, no question about it. It’s a shame there is a chance that we’ll be losing it.”
RFK has been one of U.S. Soccer’s favorite destinations over the years. Since 1991, the U.S. team has gone 9-3-3 there with an average attendance of 31,923. The 43-year-old stadium served as a site for the 1994 World Cup, the 1996 Olympic soccer tournament and last year’s Women’s World Cup.
The atmosphere RFK offers for soccer games is virtually unsurpassed by any other U.S. facility. However, with soccer-specific stadiums around the country nearing completion, RFK’s days as a premier soccer mecca were numbered even without baseball’s help.
A soccer-specific stadium is expected to open next year in Frisco, Texas, and others in Denver and Chicago in 2006.
“If they put a baseball field in there, obviously we don’t want to play in there. Who wants to play on that?” said U.S. defender Eddie Pope, who played in RFK for seven seasons (1996-2002) with D.C. United. “I think it’s bad, but maybe that will push D.C. United to get a stadium a little quicker. A lot of other teams are going to have stadiums around this country, so there will be places to play.”
There is talk of building a soccer-specific stadium along the Anacostia River on Poplar Point in Southeast, but those talks are in the preliminary stages.
For now, United plans to stay at RFK and share the field with the Expos. It’s unclear how RFK’s grounds crew plans to cover the infield and mound, either by laying sod or putting down a grid system of grass squares.
“I’ve actually played on a softball field at DePaul University,” U.S. veteran forward Brian McBride said. “We [lay sod] in Seattle, and it wasn’t very good. We did it in San Diego and it was real nice. It’s just a matter of how you do it. One of the benefits that RFK would have is that it’s bermuda grass and tends to lay pretty quickly. If they do it right, it shouldn’t be a big issue.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. team can advance to next year’s six-team final qualifying round with a win over Panama tonight. The United States (2-0-2) is in first place in Group1 with eight points and is riding an 11-game unbeaten streak, the longest in team history. The top 31/2 teams — CONCACAF’s fourth-place finisher is guaranteed a play-in game against Asia’s No.4 team — will qualify for the World Cup in Germany in 2006.
Panama almost undoubtedly will play for a tie and try to stay even with Jamaica for second place in the group. The U.S. is going for the win and to secure a spot in the final round with one more semifinal qualifier against Jamaica left.
“When you do advance early, you get guys more experience — that’s the good thing,” U.S. midfielder Bobby Convey said. “The guys [based] in Europe don’t have to come back, [it gives] the guys here in the U.S. a chance to get a game in.”