The annuls of American football history are littered with memories of matches and moments that took place in stadiums that were built for other sports. Increasingly, the authorities leading the sport in the USA have come to the realisation that football cannot succeed there unless certain cultural, financial and physical factors are in place. Crucial among these are soccer-specific facilities, which have been popping up regularly in Major League Soccer over the last decade or so. Some have played their part in transforming MLS franchises for the better; others have merely provided a more sound financial framework within which clubs can operate. But the clubs without them now have to play catch-up, and it’s possible they won’t all manage.
Gaining control of revenue streams is perhaps the key benefit of building a soccer-specific stadium, along with not having to worry about structural issues or the other myriad problems that can come from playing in an old and inadequate building. One such building is RFK Stadium, the home of Major League Soccer’s most successful club and seemingly the next on the chopping block when it comes to rare franchise moves.
For a club of DC United’s standing, there should be a better way of leaving East Capitol Street. The most recent club from which United should be able to take inspiration is Sporting Kansas City, who’ve made a huge success of the move to a new stadium. A year ago, Kansas City Wizards were playing at CommunityAmerica Ballpark, a horribly inappropriate venue for the beautiful game. At worst, they were a forgotten side, the kind outsiders might annoyingly forget when listing the teams in the league. At best they were the team that played on an unnervingly square-looking pitch and was failing to fulfil its potential.
Today it’s a different situation in Kansas City. The rebranded Sporting Kansas City made it all the way to the Eastern Conference final, a marked improvement on their recent fortunes. They’ve achieved this despite the ten-game road trip that kicked off their season while the finishing touches were being put to Livestrong Sporting Park, their beautiful and atmospheric new home just off the I-435 and I-70 in Kansas City. Just as the lengthy run of away games seemed to be catching up with Peter Vermes’ team, a slew of home games came along and Sporting quickly settled into their new residence. Next season, they will kick off their campaign on the back of a fine 2011, with a good defence and plenty of firepower and a wonderful stadium full of fans on a high. The future of soccer in Kansas City is undeniably bright, and United would do well to follow suit.
Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as following in the footsteps of Sporting or Houston Dynamo, whose new stadium is itself coming along nicely. United have been looking for a solution, and they’ve been looking for some time. Options have been explored and come to nought, and as RFK’s dilapidation continues and money becomes more and more of a factor in the league, time is of the essence for United. For the last few years, whispers of a move to Baltimore have infected the air above the capital.
Those whispers became louder last week, when a league survey began to land on virtual doorsteps that appeared to sound out the idea that Baltimore might be in line for a club. A relocated United is far more likely than another route, bringing into sharp relief the possibility that the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava could soon lose their club, or at least a large part of its identity. The club itself is making no secret of the fact that it’s keeping its options open as regards a move to Baltimore, though nothing is yet set in stone. To the pessimist, the whole thing has a horrible air of inevitability.
Fans have now stepped up their campaign to Keep DC United, with a petition now numbering over 1,600 signatures and a campaign to respectfully lobby DC’s mayor, Vincent Gray, to show support for the club and underline its importance to the local soccer community. The campaign’s favoured stadium location - inside DC, naturally - is at Buzzard Point, an apparently development-ready nine-acre site in the southwest of the city, on the other side of Capitol Hill but relatively close to RFK. All things being equal, Keep DC United’s argument for development at Buzzard Point makes sense: it brings football, commerce, jobs and a high-end facility to the area and, more importantly, keeps it in the capital. It is surely unwise for DC to allow this to go elsewhere if it can be helped.
Unfortunately that argument hasn’t stood particularly strong thus far. There have been other possibilities, all fruitless. A proposal for a stadium at Poplar Point (on the Anacostia riverfront, east of Buzzard Point) collapsed, and the opportunity that then arose in Prince George’s County began to look realistic, along with help financing the stadium, but ultimately came to nothing.
There is a feeling that Buzzard Point represents the last chance saloon for United in DC. Without it, Baltimore seems likely - nobody truly knows the effect that will have on the franchise’s future.
Chris Nee is the author of The Stiles Council, a website about the England national team.