- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

When Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz purchased the operating rights to D.C. United last February, there were the expected jokes and criticisms. United represented Anchutz's fourth Major League Soccer team, and with New York/New Jersey now also under his umbrella, Anschutz operates half the 10-team league. Such centralization of club ownership is unprecedented in any major domestic team sport.
The transfer, however, also gave local soccer fans significant hope because the deal came with the promise of a new, high-end, soccer-specific stadium, likely adjacent to RFK Stadium. After six years of operating under year-to-year, money-losing leases at RFK, United would at last build its own showplace and enjoy all the revenue streams a modern stadium brings.
Thirteen months later, movement toward such a facility remains limited at best. The D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission has met regularly with officials from D.C. United, MLS and Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG). A trip to Europe to scout out stadium designs among major clubs there was planned. But the projected opening date of March 2003 is impossible, and the most optimistic timetable now offered for a stadium agreement among the sports commission, United and Anchutz is by late summer. That, in turn, makes 2004 the earliest possible opening date for the facility.
"That [market] worries me. That is a situation we absolutely need to get going," said Tim Leiweke , AEG president, of Washington. The company recently broke ground for a stadium for the Los Angeles Galaxy, with a similar groundbreaking for the Metrostars in Harrison, N.J., possible within several months.
"We don't want to be an afterthought in [the Washington] market," Leiweke said.
So what is the problem? AEG has pledged a significant financial contribution for the project, which could cost as much as $50 million. Land is available. The idea of a soccer-specific stadium in Washington has been loosely discussed for nearly five years, long preceding Anschutz's arrival.
The leading problem actually may be baseball. As Washington and Northern Virginia continue to press Major League Baseball officials to relocate a team here, soccer has taken on less urgency. On a primary level, that makes perfect sense. A typical MLB franchise dwarfs any MLS team in every meaningful economic indicator. And it's easily in the sports commission's best interest to pursue a team that will bring fans to RFK Stadium, and then to a new city-owned ballpark, 81 times a year.
But what about United, MLS' attendance leader in 2001? If a baseball team is playing in RFK next season, United may be rendered homeless. While professing a still-cordial relationship with the sports commission, the club and MLS have made it very clear they want no part of playing on a field torn up by an infield and spikes and want resolution on the issue soon.
"This team has kept RFK open for five years [since the Redskins left for Landover] and serves a very important constituency," said MLS commissioner Don Garber. "As [D.C.] pursues baseball, I really hope they remember United's contributions."
Kevin Payne, former United team president and now managing director for AEG's soccer division, echoed that sentiment.
"I understand the passion for baseball in this area, and to any degree that can help United, that's great and I am grateful," he said. "But I bridle a little bit that this is tied to baseball. We're already here, and we expect to be treated appropriately."
The sports commission, for its part, insists United and the Washington Freedom, which would share the new stadium, are still high priorities.
"We are absolutely committed to soccer. That hasn't changed one bit," said Bobby Goldwater, commission executive director. "We are very much in the midst of developing an action plan that will turn this [stadium] idea into something tangible. But we do still have a lot to do."
One person who could certainly help settle this debate is MLB commissioner Bud Selig. If he were to put some long-overdue clarity on MLB's amorphous stance on relocation and give Washington some clear answers, such as definitely yes or definitely no for a local team in 2003, the sports commission and United would have more time and an easier path in plotting their futures.
Don't count on that, though. Selig has a history of not involving himself in local stadium debates, and he remains totally opposed to even defining MLB's relocation options until after a new labor deal is struck with the players.
That leaves Washington to settle its own problem and MLS' viability to hang in the balance.
"If we are unable to build these soccer-specific stadiums across the league, we will not succeed," Garber said.


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