- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2018

Before the ceremonial ribbon was cut at Washington’s new soccer-specific stadium in Buzzard Point, Charity Blackwell memorialized the moment with a poem..

The spoken word artist, also director of writing at the youth outreach program DC Scores, was the first of many guest speakers Monday afternoon. But her words landed with the most impact.

“Ten years ago I didn’t know where I would be,” Blackwell rapped at the conclusion of her poem, “but right now, I’m in a city that embraces diversity. ‘Cause we live in times where backgrounds, beliefs and politics can be divisive — but D.C., like soccer, is a space where we all can feel United.”

Audi Field, a project in some sense 14 years in the making, will open for business Saturday when D.C. United hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps for a Major League Soccer match at 8 p.m.

“I want to say on behalf of all of us in Major League Soccer,” longtime MLS commissioner Don Garber said Monday, “this was the one stadium that we knew we needed and that we were waiting for for so long.”


PHOTOS: SLIDESHOW: Audi Field preview

Audi Field replaces RFK Stadium as D.C. United’s home field. It is the 19th MLS stadium to open, Garber said, and the latest in a leaguewide trend of clubs constructing 20,000-seat buildings for themselves rather than sharing cavernous NFL arenas.

The first plan to build a soccer stadium in the city can be traced to 2004, when Poplar Point was the proposed location. When the Montreal Expos moved to town and became the Washington Nationals, constructing a baseball stadium jumped ahead on the priority list. Combined with complaints about displacing residents in Poplar Point, the soccer project was scrapped.

United also considered building in Prince George’s County near the Redskins’ FedEx Field, but the county council there opposed the plan.

In the 2010s, shortly after the club was sold to Jason Levien and Erick Thohir, Buzzard Point drew momentum as a real possibility. The club and the District reached an agreement in 2013 and D.C. City Council approved the next year.

The city contributed $150 million for land acquisition, while United spent around $250 million to build.

Audi signed on for naming rights to the stadium in February 2017, the same month the project broke ground. Because the project was not finished in time for the start of the 2018 MLS season, United has been a team of road warriors for most of the season, heading to stadiums in Maryland for just two “home games” so far.

Food and tailgating

When D.C. United left RFK Stadium, it also bid goodbye to the vast expanse of parking lots surrounding the complex. So when the Black and Red play at Audi Field, expect a different dynamic for pregame tailgating.

Gone is the raucous tunnel under Independence Avenue that connected Lot 8 to the stadium, which shepherded most of the loudest fans toward the competition. Instead, there’s a fan plaza at Audi Field that will feature a concert by ‘90s cover band White Ford Bronco before Saturday’s opener.

There are other options surrounding the stadium for pre-and postgame eating or drinking. Bardo Brewing is about a quarter-mile away from Audi Field. Bardo offers an outdoor beer garden in view of Nationals Park and the Anacostia River. Field House DC, another outdoor beer garden, is located about two blocks from the stadium.

The Nationals Park area features a plethora of dining options on the way from the Navy Yard/Ballpark station, such as Chipotle, Gordon Biersch and The Salt Line.

Inside the stadium, D.C. United announced in 2017 that they partnered with Levy and famed D.C. chef José Andrés for all food and beverage arrangements. Levy already operates at Capital One Arena, FedEx Field and Nationals Park.

D.C. United describes on its website the culinary options inside the stadium as “world class”. One food item certain to continue from RFK Stadium to Audi Field is pupusas. Several locations around the concourse at RFK Stadium sold handmade pupusas, and they grew near and dear to fans’ hearts.

Andrés announced in a video on Twitter last year they would be included in the Audi Field cuisine.

“You think I’m going to be taking away a tradition?” Andrés said. “Give me a break. I love you and don’t worry, pupusas will be part of the D.C. United family forever.”

Transportation options

Because Audi Field is just a few blocks away from Nationals Park, the closest Metro stop is Navy Yard/Ballpark. Signage at that station pointing commuters in the direction of the ballpark was recently updated to read “Ballpark and Soccer Stadium.” Navy Yard is only accessible by the Green Line.

For those driving in, Audi Field is situated just off the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. There are 6,500 parking spots near Audi Field, according to its website. However, with the building’s capacity at 20,000 seats, carpooling or taking public transit when possible would be advisable, as with any entertainment venue.

Finally, Audi Field offers bicycle parking outside the southwest corner of the building and complimentary bike valet parking on match days.

On the field

With all that out of the way, let’s not forget the actual product on the field.

United is coupling the debut of Audi Field with the debut of star player Wayne Rooney in Black and Red. The English forward transferred to United from Everton of the English Premier League this summer.

Both at his introductory press conference on July 2 and the ribbon-cutting ceremony last Monday, Rooney made clear that Audi Field and the new era it should entail was a big factor in his decision to join United. General manager Dave Kasper said Audi Field was the first place club officials took Rooney during his first visit with the team.

The all-time leading scorer in the histories of both the English National Team and Manchester United, Rooney is expected to provide offense and star-power even at age 32. In D.C., he joins leading scorer Darren Mattocks, captain Steve Birnbaum and up-and-coming defensive midfielder Chris Durkin, who is 18.

However, United has hung near the bottom of the MLS Eastern Conference standings all season. They stand 2-7-5 entering Saturday’s match, good for just 11 standings points. But United only has been outscored 29 goals to 23 on the season.

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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