- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

D.C. United’s plan to move into a new soccer stadium in Prince George’s County has been met with a mixture of excitement, disappointment and skepticism by fans.

There is broad support for the move from RFK Stadium into a modern, soccer-specific facility, but some fans question whether the new location would be convenient for supporters living or working in the District, Northern Virginia or the western suburbs of Maryland.

“My hope, and the hope of many fans, was that they’d stay in D.C.,” said Joe Obi of Shirlington. “It would have been a perfect location whether they’re coming from the District, Virginia or Maryland. So the initial reaction was one of disappointment. But now I’m actually kind of ecstatic about it. It’s good for the team, good for the league. It’ll bring new fans. I can’t wait to go.”

D.C. United officials long had preferred to remain in the District, but talks for a stadium at Poplar Point, a large tract of land in Southeast, broke down last year. The team said it is working to identify a site in Prince George’s County within the next month and will push the Maryland General Assembly to vote on a stadium financing bill before the legislative session ends April 13.

Team officials acknowledged that as they work to get the stadium approved they must address concerns from fans who have grown accustomed to attending games at RFK Stadium.

“We’ve heard from some fans in Virginia and Montgomery [County] expressing their desire for the team to remain in the city,” said Doug Hicks, the club’s vice president of communications. “But once we speak to them I think that, for the most part, they understand this is the only move that will allow us to have a stadium that they so much want.”

D.C. United officials stress that the new stadium likely will be located within a short drive or Metro ride from RFK Stadium. Any locations near a Metro stop likely would be on the Blue or Orange lines, just like RFK Stadium.

“We’re not looking to change or shift the paradigm here,” Hicks said. “If things move forward and we end up building in Prince George’s County, we’ll be working with our fan base to provide information about various modes of transportation and see that the [trip] is not substantially different than going to where RFK is. And we realize that we may be attracting people who didn’t think that RFK was particularly convenient.”

United and Major League Soccer have sought a new soccer-only facility for years, arguing that the team cannot be profitable in aging RFK Stadium. Seven MLS teams play in their own stadiums, and three others expect to open new facilities by 2011.

Team president Kevin Payne acknowledged last week that some fans in the far Virginia suburbs might not be receptive to the move, but he said those fans might be replaced by new fans in Anne Arundel County, Howard County or the Baltimore area.

Some fans weren’t convinced.

“All of this is ignoring the fact that we will lose fans,” one fan from Richmond posted on a message board at Bigsoccer.com. “This isn’t debatable in my mind. The idea that we’re all the sudden going to gain fans from Baltimore and the rest of [Maryland] that we didn’t already have is hard for me to grasp since it’s geographically easier for them to get to the games in the first place.”

Members of La Barra Brava, an independent fan group known for its enthusiastic presence at RFK Stadium, were disappointed that the team could not work out a deal to remain in the District but said they still will attend every game.

“We really don’t care where the team goes,” said Oscar Zambrana, Barra Brava’s founder. “We’re going to find out who the loyal people are to the team. It’s only going to be 15 or 20 minutes from where they are now. We’re excited that we’re going to have our own stadium.”

In the coming months, United is expected to work with groups like La Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles in determining aspects of the stadium’s design. Both fans and the team said they would like to see dedicated areas for fans to gather and tailgate and may even explore the idea of a special entrance for certain fan groups. Much of those plans already were discussed during the team’s effort to build a stadium at Poplar Point and could be used at the new facility.

“One of the good things about having such a drawn-out process is we’ve gone through a lot of these aspects,” Hicks said. “We’re going to sort of relook at all of the information we’ve gathered to date.”

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