D.C. United Shut Out at Ballot Box No candidates are courting the soccer vote this year.

Home Sweet Home: It’s unlikely D.C. United fans will be leaving RFK anytime soon.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

D.C. United reeks of irrelevance. Not just on the field, where through Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Columbus, United had just four wins and 15 goals in 23 games this season, and a choke hold on last place.

Off the, um, pitch, United’s powerlessness also abounds. Time was when political candidates in D.C. reached out to the soccer bloc. No longer. “We’re orphans,” says Nicole Gara. “No candidate wants us.”

Gara’s a Capitol Hill resident who’s been an obsessive follower of United since the team’s inception. She’s a longtime officer with the Screaming Eagles, a supporter’s club. Like most United fans, she can’t forget that night in October 2006 when Adrian Fenty, making his first run for mayor, showed up at RFK Stadium for United’s game against the New York Red Bulls. Fenty appeared on the field, accepted a jersey from United management, and took to the public address system to promise the team and its fans the world. Or at least the new stadium they’d been craving.

Fenty’s words live in infamy, or at least still show up every few days on local soccer blogs. Among them: “It is great to see over 20,000 fans here at RFK supporting D.C. United. It is my hope that [United] fans will soon be coming to your brand new soccer stadium at Poplar Point in Anacostia. World class fans, and a world class team like D.C. United, deserve a world class stadium. And I am going to make it a priority to help you build that stadium.”

United fans couldn’t believe what they’d heard. Fenty, after all, had led the political opposition to a publicly funded stadium when Major League Baseball came calling. “These are multimillionaires who do not need a government subsidy for their business,” Fenty told NPR in late 2004.

About two years later, in the mayoral primary, he defeated Linda Cropp, the pro-stadium council chairman. The Nationals Park boondoggle figured into the campaign.

Fenty knew United’s position: If no stadium was built to replace geezerly RFK, the team would leave D.C., and the 20,000 or so folks who showed up for games back then would be peeved.

Perhaps not coincidentally, just days before Election Day, Fenty forgot how much he hated publicly funded stadiums. Before God and the Barra Brava, he pledged to host a stadium-raising party for the soccer team and its flock.

Clearly, the would-be mayor felt this constituency was worth playing ball with.

Fenty, as we now know, never followed through. No soccer stadium has been built here, and everybody who cares accepts that no stadium will be built here during the next mayoral term, no matter who wins.

Despite polling evidence that he better come up with some votes by next week or he’s out of office, Fenty won’t apologize for not delivering. He won’t even hint that he’ll take up the issue again should he be given a second chance.

“We got down to serious negotiations about doing the stadium at Poplar Point,” says Fenty campaign spokesman Sean Madigan. “But the package that [United’s ownership group was] originally proposing and the package that we could conceivably accept didn’t touch up. Then by the fall of 2008, the recession crashed on everybody, and the last budget had a $500 million budget gap, and included freezing step increases for city employees, cutting programs left and right. So the idea for putting money in a stadium, I don’t think there was the political will for that from anybody. We’d like to see the team definitely stay in the city. But reviving the old deal, I don’t see any chance to revive that.”

Some voters will hold this against him. “I know who I’m voting for,” says Gara. “It’s not Fenty.”

Challenger Vincent Gray isn’t offering any promises, either. The D.C. Council chairman was asked during a recent “social media” Q&A session what he was doing to keep D.C. United. Gray started out by claiming a “strong desire” to hold on to the team, but literally four seconds into his YouTubed answer, Fenty’s opponent in the upcoming primary appears to realize that he needn’t bother pandering to this bunch.

“Constructing a new stadium... is a very expensive proposition,” Gray said. “We’ve been in a recession. We just haven’t had the ability to pay for a stadium or contribute to a stadium because we’ve been investing our money in trying to keep the basic services in the city going.”

Next question?

Asked by Washington City Paper about the lack of a United front in this year’s election cycle, team president Kevin Payne responded with an e-mailed statement: “We, of course, have dealt in the past with both Mayor Fenty and Chairman Gray and have great respect for each of them. We look forward to working with the District to help decide the future home of D.C. United and our tens of thousands of passionate fans.”

ZZZZZZZZZZ...Oh, where were we?

Through a team spokesman, Payne declined to discuss the political preferences of the team beyond that. (Payne, however, did agree to answer any and all questions from season ticket holders before Saturday’s game with Columbus, as part of United’s new, Bruce Allen-esque promotional campaign designed to prevent at least a few fans from jumping ship after this season’s debacles.)

Payne’s gun-shyness is only human. During negotiations with Fenty, Payne said publicly and repeatedly that the team would leave town unless it got a new home. When D.C. called United’s bluff, he bashed the Fenty administration and even named sites in Prince George’s County where a publicly funded stadium could soon be built. But the same budget problems that quashed the D.C. stadium project also killed PG’s interest. And Payne, the architect of four MLS Cup winning teams and—2010 notwithstanding—the greatest executive in league history, was reduced to promoting rumors that faraway cities, St. Louis and Portland among them, were ready to take in the team.

Yet, everybody, minus a few thousand ticket buyers per game, is still at RFK.

But fans such as Gara nevertheless wish United’s leadership, instead of turtling, would have shown some chutzpah as the election approaches. She says management has stifled supporters’ efforts to make noise during the campaigns.

“We have a lot of influential people, political people, who are D.C. United fans,” Gara says, “but we’ve done nothing. When we’ve been prepared to do something about [the stadium] in an organized fashion, and there were times when it was appropriate for us to do something, Kevin Payne stepped in and said, ‘Oh, no! Wait! I’ll tell you when it’s OK!’ I guess he thought he was going to pull of some sort of inside deal, but he never pulled that off. Now we’re being ignored.”

Gara said United’s fan base still occasionally buzzes with “a rush of rumors” about imminent stadium announcements, including one last week. But they’re resigned to a situation where new news ain’t going to be good news.

“The only thing you can think now is we’re going to move out of the city,” she says. “And that’s going to be sad.”

The next big chapter in United’s stadium soap opera should come sometime this month, when the mayor’s office—of Baltimore—is scheduled to release the results of an economic feasibility study of building an MLS stadium in its waterfront’s Westport section.

But neither Fenty nor Gray seems bothered that a D.C. team has an out-of-town suitor.

There is another stadium deal, however, that could grab Fenty’s interest before election day. If Dan Snyder called to talk about relocating the Washington Redskins here, Madigan says, Fenty would listen:

“There might even be a burgundy and gold phone here that would ring if he calls.”

Our Readers Say

Boo, freaking, hoo, DCU. Here's an idea, if DCU is such a great business, then build the stadium with your own money. It isn't like 99% of the current populous would give a damn if the team left tomorrow.
Bob -- the original Poplar Point proposal had the team building the stadium with their own money. But then, if you had even the tiniest clue what you were talking about, you'd know that.

Too bad. The apathy for soccer now is to be expected with some middle aged Americans, even after the World Cup bounce. The unfortunate thing for younger soccer fans in the DC area is that 20 years from now the apathy will have morphed into deep regret for neglecting D.C. United.
I'm a big DC United fan, because it gives me that "fix" of football that I used to get back home. RFK is such a terrible stadium, its not meant for football. It wouldnt be as bad if United won some, but every team goes into a slump. Next year is hopefully a better year and maybe we'll get a new stadium in the future, but so far my time with DC United...all we do is hope for a better tomorrow.
Don't let this issue bring you down United fan's. Even though
RFK Stadium is a dump,the atmosphere at United games is usually
awesome. My family and i attended last years DC vs Chicago Fire
game last june and had a wonderful time.
Just keep thinking positive and supporting your team and having
a great time at games.
We cannot leave DC for another city. Whatever we have to do to stay - we have to do. Even if it means proposing to renovate RFK. It is nuts Payne still can't make this happen. The fans need to make more noise to their politicians, media and in public. We need a stadium badly!
If DCU was a great business, making lots of money, they would build their own stadium, buy their own land, pave their own parking lots, etc. Unfortunately, they are a business that relies on public dollars as part of their revenue stream and they must prevail on public money build a stadium. If you look closely at the Poplar Point deal you'd realize that it was a total bunch of crap. DCU proposed to build a $100 million stadium in exchange for $1 billion worth of development rights and infrastructure improvements paid for by the DC taxpayers 95% of whom don't care about DCU. It was a plan to make the rich, richer. When it didn't happen Mr McFarland backed out.

DCU could easily improve RFK but that wouldn't fit their strat-plan. They could not leverage those improvements.
If DCU puts up its own money I say fine build a new stadium but to ask DC residents to build another venue in the middle of a deep recession is just not going to happen. You do realize once the stadium is built ticket price are going to double
DC would be better off spending public money on the Washington Mystics. They have about the same non-existent fan base as DC United. But at least the Mytics are tied in to the NBA and one could argue that helping the Mystics would free up some of Ted's money for the Wizards (a real team in a real league that people actually care about).

As for even mentioning the Redskins in the same article as the United, that had to be joke. The NFL, the world's biggest professional sports league, has about as much in common with the MLS as I do with a pro linebacker.

Read nothing into my words: I am neither pro nor con soccer stadium.

That said, am I the only one who thinks a soccer stadium would serve D.C. better than Nationals Park has/can?

DCU is a D.C. team; the Nationals seem to serve the same fan base as the Redskins with regard to geography, income and (dare I say it) complexion/native language.

With all the "who is getting ripped off?" questions regarding a soccer stadium, have we seen any evidence to counter the opinion that we were royally shaken down and then ripped off by MLB? Dollar for dollar, what exactly do the Nationals contribute to the District aside from one more blog post on Things White People Like to which Washingtonians can say they have? (That said, I suspect that blog also includes "soccer" as a TWPL ... but at least the fan base is a lot more diverse in every sense.)

One wrong doesn't merit a "less wrong," but I think the jury is still out about whether the Poplar point is actually a bad deal. That land isn't worth a billion dollars (or a penny) so long as it continues to be a source of embarrassment to our fair city and the ever-maligned residents of all-too-deserving Anacostia.

There are many other questions at play -- including the environmental impacts and the gentrification-vs.-existing community uplift -- but let's acknowledge that the baseball stadium as-is and the soccer stadium as-proposed are very, very different things.
this sport is growing in this country the only time nats sellout is when the redsox come to town or if strasburg start we know what happen to stevie watch how many tickets sell next season dc united needs a stadium did u know dc sports and entertainment commission gets $60,000 a game
I bet all these people poo-pooing the idea of public money were completely behind the Nats getting a park which always looks empty. At least United has won trophies (MLS Cup, Supporters Shield, US Open Cup, and CONCACAF Cup) within the past two decades, unlike a large majority of DC teams.
Quite frankly, I don't think that there's ever been a stadium or an area that's ever been built without either government financing or government-made infrastructure improvements -- or both. It's just a specious argument to say that United should build a stadium entirely on their own when the Redskins, Nationals, and Bullets/
Wizards/Caps didn't.
Can't ya'll see that Payne and others sabotaged the team after the stadium deals fell through? Now they will have really no qualms about relocating the team, citing a myriad of difficulties. I stated so at season start (it was apparent), as we had arguably the worst constructed MLS team in MLS history.
"the original Poplar Point proposal had the team building the stadium with their own money"

I've been attending DC United games since 1998, and my first date with my now wife was with the rowdy "Screaming Eagles." Now I take my nine year old daughter to see the occasional game.

I look up I-95 and see New York build a beautiful soccer stadium with no taxpayer money, then I read
about DC United's owners saying that they will build a soccer stadium... AFTER District taxpayers spend millions on "infrastructure" that would cost as much as a stadium!

Kevin Payne's ego won't let him build a modest little stadium. As much as I have enjoyed United, I want my tax money to go for schools, not a minor league sports ego trip. My
daughter and I will watch the EPL on Saturdays before her games instead of DC United.

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