Saturday night marked the dawning of a new era for professional soccer here in the Washington, DC area. DC United, after a seeming eternity playing in the decaying husk of RFK Stadium, finally arrived in a home befitting of a team that dominated Major League Soccer in the early years of the league. Due to the economics of playing in RFK combined with the introduction of incredibly deep-pocketed ownership elsewhere around the league, DC United have floundered for years. Between a poor in-stadium experience, insufficient funds to acquire and retain talent, and TV coverage reflective of the first two points it has been extremely difficult to support DC United no matter how much joy they gave me in the mid-90s and early 2000s.
Onto this backdrop Saturday night introduced two game-changing facets for the Red and Black - the opening of Audi Field in a downtown neighborhood that was already booming after the building of Nationals Park (baseball) and the arrival of Wayne Rooney as the club's first international level superstar. I was on hand to experience both and neither disappointed.
I have now been to enough soccer stadiums both here in the States and abroad to feel like I can provide some solid analysis of the fan experience across a few facets. I've seen home matches in Atlanta, Kansas City, Philadelphia, New England, and Salt Lake City and either league or international matches in Germany, Holland, England and Argentina. There are certainly people who have broader experiences that I have but it feels sufficient to make some reasonable comparisons to strong MLS experiences and then to contrast that with places where soccer is far more deeply ingrained in the local consciousness than MLS is to this point in its development.
In light of the above, I'd give my first Audi Field experience a solid B. Perhaps part of my tepid reaction was experiences I've had elsewhere with new MLS stadiums and part of it is the years and years of waiting for United's new home.
If you wait long enough and want something badly enough, it's almost impossible for it to live up to your expectations. As any long-time DC United supporter will tell you, this has been a long and painful wait. Against that backdrop, my expectations were for nothing less than a soccer-specific palace befitting the club's glory days and presaging a new era of success. As it turns out, it is just a pretty nice stadium. I don't have anything bad to say about it at all. The site lines are great. The food and drink options are interesting and not too outrageously expensive (at least not by sports stadium standards). Getting in and out of the stadium via Metro was easy.
The only real complaint about the fan experience that left me wanting was the relative lack of excitement among the supporters coming to the stadium and once they arrived. I can hardly blame this on the stadium itsellf, a stadium can't chant on the metro or while the match is happening. I remember a time when, even at crumbling RFK Stadium, that DC United supporters were incredibly loud despite small numbers and a massive stadium to fill with sound. Now, in a smaller venue, it felt quiet for such a big occasion. Maybe the "real fans" weren't there because opening night prices were too high. Maybe the new stadium doesn't hold sound particularly well. Maybe the years of losing and feeling like there was no end in sight sapped the club of a generation of potentially rabid supporters. Whatever the reason, it left me wanting more when I compared it to my experiences in Atlanta earlier this summer and Kansas City last season where both places were electric with both noise and excitement.
Hopefully, with the promise of investment in a competitive club and the realization that the experience is worth the investment of emotion the passion will return. The venue is certainly worthy of a rabid fan base and the early returns on the big signing were also very promising. Which brings us to...
Following the Premier League as deeply as I do, I have to say I was extremely skeptical of Rooney being the centerpiece of any potential DC United revival. Yes, his name is sufficiently big to put butts in seats and signal that the club is entering a new era of spending. The question that I, and many others, were reasonably asking with whether he has enough left in the tank to actually justify a massive salary after a career putting hard miles on his legs in the Premier League, Champions League, and for England.
DC United have quietly built a very credible midfield but it has been clear since last season that they lacked a forward of sufficient quality to orchestrate and organize a reliable attack. I certainly wouldn't want to be counting on getting the all-action Wayne Rooney who managed to simultaneously be a box-to-box midfielder and a forward all at the same time. You can't keep doing that into your 30s and even less so on hot, humid August days in the swamp that is downtown Washington, DC. The question going into the match was whether he could transform himself into a version of Arsene Wenger's long-sought-after "Fox in the Box" who could operate successfully in a small space and both create chances for himself as well as creating space for others.
With Rooney starting the match on the substitute's bench we would have to wait longer than we wanted to for the answer but it was a resounding "yes" once he was finally on the pitch. Rooney entered with the Red and Black already up a goal but it didn't take him long to contribute to a goal even though he neither scored nor assisted it directly. In the build-up to the goal Rooney received the ball near the top of the box to the goalkeeper's right and, while quickly moving it on, he drew more than his share of defensive attention as the worried about a potential dribble move and shot from distance from the former Manchester United captain. The defensive movement caused a massive gap in the center of the defensive area. One pass after Rooney's quick release fo the ball Zoltan Steiber played Paul Arriola into a shockingly wide open center of the box. Arriola made no mistake and the match was effectively over from there.
Rooney contributed an assist of his own on Arriola's second and DC United's third of the match. He also helped create a couple other chances for teammates both with his passing and the space he created. Finally, he nearly got on the scoresheet himself with a snap header that was well-saved by the Vancouver goalkeeper, Brian Rowe. It was a strong debut against a credible, if not spectacular, MLS opponent.
If you are a DC United supporter or even a supporter of MLS overall who wants to see the league with as many competitive, financially viable franchises as possible, then there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful after Saturday night's debut for Wayne Rooney. Are DC United a title contender with this addition? Certainly not this season after the hole they dug themselves and probably not next season unless they add to their big signing. Still, what I saw looked like a potential playoff team over the course of an entire season and that's something that DC United have struggled to resemble consistently in recent years.
Passing of the Torch
One final thing struck me as I thought about the first evening at Audi Field and that is how much it served as a milemarket for the evolution of soccer in the DC area. I moved to Washington, DC in late 1992 and really started integrating into life here in 1993. I started playing co-ed soccer in local recreational leagues that year. The World Cup came to the US the next year. The start of MLS was announced around the same time (my memory of the details and sequencing is foggy) and the amateur soccer social circle of friends I made in my early adulthood transitioned easily from our own games on Saturday mornings to DC United matches in the afternoons or evenings as John Harkes, Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, Jeff Agoos and others became the focal point of multiple championships.
Time marches on and DC United's glory faded, the players who took us to glory retired and the friends who experienced all of it together drifted away from each other if not totally apart as life introduced new responsibilities and paths. I made a last-minute (Friday afternoon) decision to go see the match in person and went by myself thinking that it was an important moment in DC Soccer history to witness. As I arrived on the Metro I ran into a former teammate and walking to the stadium led to meeting up with a bunch of other friends and former teammates. It was like a family reunion.
It was driven home even more when it turned out that my seat was directly behind DC United and USMNT legend John Harkes and his wife. Not only was he there as part of the opening ceremonies of the stadium as a revered former player but in the 84th minute he got to see his son, Ian, come on to the pitch. The match was already over as a contest but it was remarkable to be able to tap him on the shoulder and congratulate him on his son getting to participate in the beginning of the next phase of DC soccer given his role in kicking off the last significant phase in the 90s.
I don't know John Harkes beyond having interviewed him once a long time ago for another site and occasionally running into him while he was playing soccer dad to Ian at the same places I happened to have an adult match after the kids were done playing. What I do know is that sitting there and watching the Harkes' excitement at Ian entering the match that I got a cool inside view into the passing of the torch from one era of DC Soccer history to another. One stadium to the next. One father to one son. In the presence of a bunch of old friends from my soccer past. It got me more than a little fired up for August 12th when my wife and I will take Charlie for his first experience at Audi Field. I can only hope he gets as much from the game (or any interest in his life, really) as I've gotten from soccer overall and in DC specifically.
An MLS Fantasy Note
[NOTE: if you play MLS fantasy, the revelation of the night was probably that DC United's other attackers are now much more valuable than they have been and are potentially big bargains in salary cap games. Rooney is probably too expensive to bring in but Arriola or Asad or Acosta look to be on the rise for reasonable prices.]
Allez Les Bleus
Apparently, they played a match on Sunday as well and France beat Croatia to take possession of a lovely gold trophy. There are takes all over the web and Twitter and you probably don't need me to add too much to the mix so I won't spend much time on the match overall. Over the course of a tournament where the US was not present, I found myself excited more about stories than getting behind any one team.
- I rooted for Messi to show well because he has meant so much to the game and has been treated so poorly in the press as it regards his (lack of) success with Argentina. He didn't.
- I rooted for Egypt to do well to offer up an alternative to the traditional powers of Europe and South America. They didn't.
- I rooted for the Golden Generation of Belgium to take what appears to be a singular opportunity with their attackers firmly in their primes while their defenders head toward the back nine of their international careers. They did well, but ultimately fell short.
- I rooted for England to overcome history and a depressing media culture and get people hopeful about some promising young talent. They succeeded for the most part.
- Finally, I rooted for France because while he may technically be a Bleu of France and a Blue of Chelsea, Olivier Giroud will always be a Gunner and I was happy to see him win something.
As it regards what we do here at Rotoworld covering the Premier League, I can't say I took too much from the event. The proliferation of Premier League players - especially from City, United, Chelsea and Spurs - that played in the late stages of the tournament is going to make early-season results pretty crazy.
A Unique Opportunity
Finally, while the transfer of Christiano Ronaldo doesn't have any direct impact on the Premier League, the reverberations could be fascinating for the right club or clubs. If I ran a club outside of the financial elite (meaning Real, Barcelona, Bayern, Juve, City, and United) my philosophy would be to spend a lot of time tracking transfer opportunities related to inflection points at those clubs. Usually, inflection point, means a change in manager. A new manager comes in and an Alexis Sanchez or Mesut Ozil or Paul Pogba becmoes available. In this case, there are two inflection points. Real Madrid will now have to retool without their talisman and Juventus will have to make some moves to balance the books after splashing out big money for CRon. Throw in that Real Madrid also have a new manager and the opportunity seems inevitable. I don't know who will take advantage but in a season when West Ham is nearing £100m in transfer spend there must be other non-big six clubs in the Premier League able to make a splash on that left in the wake of Ronaldo's change of scenery.