Talk of building a permanent home for D.C. United has surrounded the club since Ben Olsen broke through as a frenetic rookie in 1998. For nearly two decades, the player-turned-coach has witnessed a number of promising leads on the stadium front. With each key victory inevitably came a frustrating setback.
So it was with an aura of disbelief that the 39-year-old coach found himself at Buzzard Point in Southwest earlier this week, shovel in hand, taking part in the groundbreaking at Audi Field — United’s 20,000-seat venue set to open in June 2018.
“I’m just absolutely thrilled that we’re actually standing on this site and I’m seeing some tractors and some digging,” Olsen said Monday. “It’s a reality — for the first time, it truly is a reality. That’s special for the soccer community here in the District.”
For all of the enthusiasm surrounding the club’s long-awaited move to a soccer-specific stadium, United has one more season to play at RFK Stadium. That campaign kicks off Saturday, when United welcomes Sporting Kansas City for 2016’s home opener — the team’s final home opener on East Capitol Street.
“The focus for me isn’t next year,” Olsen said Monday. “It’s to enjoy this moment and get back to work this week to try to win a ballgame this weekend.”
United is carrying optimism into the 2017 season after ending last year with a 6-2-4 spurt, scoring a league-best 31 goals in that span and making the postseason for the third straight year. While the campaign ended with an abrupt playoff loss to the Montreal Impact, there is faith in continuity as United returns its top 15 players in minutes played last season.
“It’s all about continuing that growth that we had in the latter stages of the season,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “Obviously it didn’t end as well as we wanted, but that’s in the past now. The positive is that you could tell that we were really finding our groove and we really had a good chemistry about us in the latter part of the season, so it’s going to be very important to build off of that.”
United kicks off 2017 after a fairly quiet offseason. A product of the club’s youth academy, highly touted rookie Ian Harkes is the most notable acquisition. United bolstered its attacking depth by adding Costa Rican striker Jose Guillermo Ortiz and MLS journeyman Sebastien Le Toux. Chris Odoi-Atsem, the club’s first-round pick out of Maryland, is a promising prospect at right back.
But the United front office achieved its biggest offseason goal by locking in Olsen’s core. On loan from Argentine club Boca Juniors last season, midfielder Luciano Acosta signed a permanent deal this winter. The club also inked defender Steve Birnbaum and striker Patrick Mullins to new contracts.
Although United won’t open Audi Field for some 15 months, the roster already is reaping the venue’s rewards. After years of hemorrhaging money at archaic RFK Stadium, ownership is beginning to splash the cash as a more lucrative era at Audi Field awaits.
“It’s been critical for us to have this home, to have a top, world-class facility,” co-owner Jason Levien said. “In order to take the next step forward, we needed this — we needed a real shot in the arm.”
Having hosted more than 300 MLS matches at RFK Stadium since 1996, United now finds itself down to the final 17 — plus any playoff contests.
While the stadium has developed into a punch line in recent years, mocked for its crumbling concourses and well-publicized vermin problems, it remains a significant site in soccer circles. United has enjoyed a decorated history, winning four MLS Cup titles while calling the venue home, and no venue has hosted more U.S. men’s national team matches than RFK Stadium.
“You hear the fans out here and the stories of being at games in ‘96, and it makes you want to end on a high note there,” Mullins said. “I want to do something special for the fans this season.”