- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

It doesn’t get much worse than being bad, boring and irrelevant. D.C. United has been all three since 2001, stumbling through three straight sub-.500 Major League Soccer seasons before steadily dwindling crowds at RFK Stadium.

All that appears in the past, however. Team officials insist United is poised for a broad organizational rebirth to rival its late 1990s heyday. At once, United is enjoying the arrival of teen phenom Freddy Adu, a revamped roster and new coach in Peter Nowak, increased corporate support and heightened television coverage. And after sliding last season to the second-lowest attendance in franchise history, an upward spike at the turnstiles this season is a lock.

“None of us are satisfied with our performance the last few years,” United president Kevin Payne said. “This year will be much more like the first four years [when United won three MLS titles]. We finally feel like we’ve got a lot of topspin going back in our direction.”

The causes for United’s long malaise were many and varied, ranging from the departure of original coach Bruce Arena to a frenetic series of ill-fated player acquisitions. Just the same, United’s emerging turnaround also owes to several factors, including Payne’s return to full-time team president after a stint as managing director of Anschutz Entertainment Group’s U.S. soccer operations. AEG controls United and four other MLS clubs.

“It has really been enjoyable and invigorating to be back working in a competition mode with this team,” Payne said. “I’m still helping with the other [AEG] clubs, but this was something I had missed.”

But United’s true X-factor is, of course, the 14-year-old Adu. United has brought in several child prodigies before, notably Bobby Convey and Santino Quaranta. But it is Adu’s skill, youth and apparent poise that have caused a national stir. Adu already has been on “Late Show With David Letterman” and MTV and holds a $1million endorsement deal with Nike. He is the reason United will have a league-high nine national TV appearances, including the April4 season opener against defending MLS champion San Jose on ABC. And Adu is the primary reason United has sold nearly all 50 of its new field-level “fantasy seats” at $1,000 each for the season and also is doing brisk business on its club and VIP seats.

Payne refused to specify an attendance target for the 2004 campaign, citing a similar and incorrect prediction made by former league commissioner Doug Logan that helped cost him his job. But Payne said the turnstile count will increase this season. Season ticket sales stand at about 4,200, well on target to surpass the 7,000 mark reached by midseason last year. And regardless of how many people flock to see Adu, the expansive upper bowl at RFK Stadium will not be opened.

“We need to build up some scarcity,” said Stephen Zack, United senior vice president. “That’s been our problem. There’s no sense of urgency. Our stadium is so big that people assume they can buy tickets whenever, and then some don’t ever make a move. We’ll sell out the season opener, and hopefully that will help convince people that they’ll now need to buy sooner than before.”

Adu, for his part, has been everything advertised to date and then some. Much older teammates stand genuinely impressed with his skill. And Adu’s calm, steady demeanor belies his young age.

“All this attention around me right now, it sort of takes you aback, but it’s part of everything we have to do,” Adu said. “It comes along with everything else. But I simply have to keep focused on my job and let some of the rest of this [hoopla] fall into place.”

Perhaps most critical to United’s long-term survival, both Payne and District officials believe an oft-troubled three-year negotiation toward a new soccer-specific stadium in the city is finally registering true progress. While both sides have long sought the project to become reality — mirroring similar stadiums in Columbus and Los Angeles and the one under construction in Dallas — the local effort is not much further along than it was when AEG purchased United’s operating rights three years ago.

During those three years, greater Washington has pursued the Super Bowl, the 2012 Summer Olympics, Major League Baseball and numerous other major sporting events. Each time, those big-ticket pursuits have pushed United’s stadium cause to the back burner. Also complicating the soccer stadium talks was the political turmoil surrounding Bobby Goldwater, the former executive director of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. Goldwater resigned last fall after a long battle with the D.C. Council.

Several potential stadium sites remain under discussion. Most recently, D.C. Council member David Catania opined in favor of placing the stadium, which would seat about 25,000, at Southeast’s Anacostia River Park. But the leading candidate remains the current parking lot8 at RFK Stadium.

“This time, I really do feel strongly that people in this city are really behind this project, the mayor’s office, the sports commission,” Payne said. “I think we’re finally getting close to really pushing toward getting the home we deserve.”

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