Major League Soccer's Leaking Flagship Strives to Stay Afloat
Twelve, to be exact, nearly double the total accumulated by Major League Soccer's second-most accomplished team (the L.A. Galaxy with seven). But that's only half United's story. Remember that hilarious photo taken when MLS unveiled its 10 franchises in the fall of 1995? Clownish uniforms and childish names, save one. D.C. and President Kevin Payne got it right from the start. A classy brand that would stand the test of time, along with a commitment to attracting fans who create awareness and atmosphere that superseded any misguided devotion to the minivan crowd.
Those trophies, won to the bouncing beat provided by the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava, launched United as the unquestioned flagship of MLS. Now after 14 years, that position is under considerable threat. United's inability to secure a new stadium, combined with some rough performances and rivals' eagerness to follow Payne's winning recipe, has left D.C. in danger of being passed by.
It certainly is a testament to the league's growth. The incredible success stories in Seattle and Toronto, along with new stadiums in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, have stolen their share of the spotlight. Those clubs, along with the new Philadelphia Union, all have taken pages from Payne's playbook. They have worked to create an authentic soccer club offering an authentic soccer experience.
The proof of that progress is evident already, two weeks into the 15th MLS season. Seattle hosted Philly in the nationally televised opener. Toronto was awarded this year's MLS Cup. The spectacular Red Bull Arena opened, inspiring New York to a 2-0-0 start. Rumors circulated that Manchester United might play in this year's All-Star game in Houston and that Montreal is on the verge of joining the league. More MLS clubs and cities are relevant than ever before.
United, meanwhile, has sputtered. It missed the playoffs for the second straight year in 2009 and experienced a relatively dramatic overhaul over the winter. Veteran mainstays Ben Olsen (retired), Luciano Emilio (free agent), Christian Gomez (Miami FC) and Fred (Philadelphia) all departed. Curt Onalfo replaced Tom Soehn on the bench. A page was turned. Relying on captain Jaime Moreno, the return of former goalkeeper Troy Perkins and a lot of youth, D.C. lost its opener 4-0, to Kansas City and was beaten at home by New England, 2-0, last weekend.
United has watched nearly all of its rivals make progress on a new venue as it kicks off a 15th season in cozy but decaying RFK Stadium, from which it derives little comfort and even less revenue. Supposed deals with the D.C. government and neighboring Prince George's County, Md., fell through in succession, leading to the departure of co-owner Victor MacFarlane last year.
Last month, MLS comissioner Don Garber expressed his angst over the state of affairs.
"I am tired of going down for meetings and getting back-slapped, and faux press conferences with mayors and local city officials to have them backtrack because they can't get out of their own way," he fumed. "It is frustrating, and at some point we're going to have to do something about it."
Baltimore United, anyone? The Maryland Stadium Authority is looking into it.
A dozen years after defeating Vasco da Gama and setting a new standard for American professional soccer, United is on thin ice. It has won just a single playoff game since lifting its fourth MLS Cup in 2004, and a third straight season without postseason soccer would match the club record set in 2002. It has not committed to spending the salary cap money freed by the aforementioned departures. Off the field, RFK is a money pit. United will have to move soon. Payne, appropriately, is charged with fixing MLS's most accomplished club.
"I'm not very happy with where we are right now. I hope that our fans and the D.C. market will respond to us. We had two tough years. In each year, we missed the playoffs on the last day. Last year we missed the playoffs in the last 30 seconds [of the season finale in Kansas City]," Payne told FanHouse. "I think our fans are frustrated. The combination of the stalled effort on the stadium and missing the playoffs, we're not one of those sports teams where that's par for the course. Our fans have higher expectations. I think a lot of them believe that the answer to our problems is a new stadium."
The fans did respond last weekend. More than 20,000 turned out for the home opener. But they left disappointed, and it remains to be seen how long their patience will last. There likely was enough goodwill built during a decade-plus of success to carry many supporters through the difficult days ahead, but too many losses both on the field and on the balance sheet will test that resolve. United needs a break. While Onalfo and GM Dave Kasper try to stop the bleeding in the standings, Payne is continuing to press the stadium issue.
"I believe we're going to find a stadium solution in this region that is going to be a good one long term for us and the community," Payne said. "Mayor [Adrian] Fenty is on record on multiple occasions that he wants D.C. United to stay in the city. We need to figure out the right location and the right economic deal ... We're an important asset in the District. I would put our level of engagement with the community alongside anybody's."
If that doesn't work, Payne said he's been having "quiet conversations" with developers regarding sites in Virginia. Baltimore is in play. He acknowledged that "there's not just vacant land sitting around" in D.C. itself. Although there is some. But United won't head out into the hinterlands like some other teams. Much of the club's success is grounded in its urban character and that of its supporters.
"A new stadium has to be in the right location. We've always maintained that we need to be in an urban area near people. Near mass transit, where people can come either by car or Metro. Where we will get a large number of young adults. That's more difficult," he said. "Building out in the middle of an empty field is easier, and I'm not talking about anybody in particular, but that's not necessarily for us."
He did not provide a timetable, but promised that he is "confident that we will get something done."
"I'd rather spend more time and get the right location so 30 years from now this team is thriving," he told FanHouse.
A decade ago, it was impossible to imagine that United wouldn't be. But MLS clearly has become major league in several markets, with more to come, and United has to raise its game. In many ways it is a victim of its own success, conditioning its fan base to celebrate championships while providing a marketing and branding blueprint for its rivals.
Philadelphia clearly is a beneficiary. Its logo is a United-like marriage of traditional American and soccer imagery. Its supporters club, the Sons of Ben, helped drive the expansion effort with the same passion once associated almost solely with D.C.'s supporters' organizations.
Onalfo said following the New England loss that he knows his side will be in for a battle on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Union may draw as many as 30,000 for their inaugural home game.
"They're going to play with tremendous passion," he said. "There are going to be lots of emotions and that's going to be a tough challenge."
The great D.C. United, winless and goalless and cautiously approaching a game against an expansion team that accumulated more cards than shots on goal in its first match. Things surely have changed.