City Desk

Brokedown Palace: RFK Stadium Is a National Treasure, Cracks and All

Brokedown Palace: RFK Stadium is a National Treasure, Cracks and All

When you view Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium from one of its lagoon-like parking lots, it looks like a mod flying saucer parked on the home of the Jetsons. Its curved roof harkens to space-age architecture from the 1960s that would be more at home in Seattle than next to the Anacostia River. As you move closer, you notice that its bright white façade has faded and is actually, in many places, flaking away.

This utilitarian relic of an era when people were still dreaming about sending men to the moon is old, antiquated, and crumbling due to two decades of poor upkeep. But it’s also loud, unique, and boasts one of the best atmospheres in American sports. When full, like it was Sunday for the U.S. men’s soccer team’s 4-3 win against Germany in an exhibition match, RFK Stadium is without question the best place to watch a soccer game in the country.

I always take a quick stroll around before I go to any game at RFK, just to see what kind of rough shape the place is in. I don’t know how many more times I’ll have the pleasure of watching a game inside this unlikely fortress of American soccer, which has hosted more national team games—23—than any stadium in the world. It was first built for football and baseball in 1961 as D.C. Stadium, at a cost of $184 million in today’s dollars, a fraction of what a new stadium its size would cost today (Nationals Park cost nearly $700 million). Its construction inspired a national boom in cookie-cutter, multipurpose stadiums that continued through the 1970s—venues like Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, St. Louis’ Busch Stadium, and Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, all of which have since been torn down. RFK gave birth to a national architectural trend and then managed to outlast all of its offspring after that trend was no longer popular, even though the tenant most associated with it—the Washington Pigskins—departed for FedEx Field in 1996. Aside from three seasons hosting the Nationals, RFK has been all but exclusively a soccer stadium since then.

Railings on the stairs around the stadium are so rusted that a tetanus shot should be required to touch them. Little effort is made to hide the large rat traps that are spread outside the grounds and at the base of the stadium itself. Tree stumps and patches of dirt now replace areas where there once were patches of landscaped grass and flowers. The stadium was further abused during the Nationals’ stay, resulting in the removal of a huge chunk of 100-level seats and the construction of two dugouts that are wasting away from lack of use.

The handful of memorials outside the stadium’s main entrance all reference its rich football and baseball history; there’s nothing permanent that acknowledges its history as a soccer venue. The only evidence that this place has been a soccer stadium for the last two decades is two cheap-looking tarps that cover crumbling Pigskins stone murals resting in the ground below the bust of the stadium’s namesake.

Even for a high-profile game like Sundays—the official celebration of the 100th anniversary of U.S. soccer—the Yanks, much like the stadium staff, enter through a garage door opening that’s below ground level. Everyday spectators enter RFK through its space age ticket portal that projects out about 8 feet from the façade. The long metal poles that make up the façade of the entrance portal are still in OK shape, though they don’t appear as if they’ve been cleaned since 1961 and some are crooked. The big sign over the main entrance, “ROBERT F. KENNEDY MEMORIAL STADIUM,” touches my Boston Irish Catholic heart. The signs for some of the gates, though, are broken and probably will remain that way until the stadium is, in all likelihood, demolished.

What newer stadiums have in modern amenities and creature comforts, they frequently lack in atmosphere and character that can only be attained with age. The dented metal floor that makes up much of the 100-level stands is an outdated relic, with an almost unintentional steel drum appearance (and sound). The construction-orange seats, with terrible sight-lines for football but great for soccer, rise and fall at the whim of the excited fans with a soft boom. So many rowdy fans over the years have stood on the seats that they occasionally come crashing down, cracked from more than 50 years of stress. The arc lighting that’s hung at roof level around the stadium gives it a Latin American feel, a rarity in American sports stadia. Many of the bulbs are out, but even those sway ever so slightly when fans go crazy. A broken digital clock hangs over what was home plate for baseball. The awesome creakiness of the place makes RFK feel like an extension of the emotions of the spectators.

* * *

When Jozy Altidore scored early Sundayafternoon against Germany, the press box started to tremble. To make sure it wasn’t the burger and drinks I had in the parking lot, I asked the reporter next to me if we were, indeed, moving. He laughed and said, “Yes.” What little more convincing I needed was provided by the slight movement in my water bottle.

I bailed on the press box and headed back down to the stands. I worked my way through the cool and surprisingly intact concrete ramps.

Members of the supporters group the American Outlaws were standing on chairs leading the fans in the chants of the day (some World War II- themed for our German opponents). Flags were waving in the air; the occasional smoke bomb appeared, too. Everyone was standing. Hell, many of them were jumping and swaying, even though the hot sun was cooking them.

The game Sunday was my friend Van’s first national team game and first time at RFK since the Pigskins left, and she couldn’t get over the noise in the place. Van’s a Virginia native and now lives in the District. We met in Boston during our college years, when my fascination with this facility and its outmoded architectural style was just taking off. (I travel to D.C. several times a year for work and pleasure, but as a Boston native and resident, I don’t care for any of the local teams, particularly D.C. United.)

We were standing in the lower deck, in section 138 near the front row, where the American Outlaws had set up camp. During national team games, it’s a zoo, because it often becomes a general admission section even if it’s officially not. Fans in red shirts wearing USA bandanas around their heads like Bruce Springsteen double up at seats and spill into the aisles. Security rarely cracks down on the ruckus. You could probably sacrifice a goat in the supporters’ section at RFK with little interference from the yellow shirts if you tried.

This is a scene that you just don’t see at typical professional sporting events in America.

Almost everything in our professional sports culture is neatly packaged and sanitized in a presentation that has the soul of a Clear Channel top-40 station. Creativity from the fans? Yeah, right. These days, fans just do whatever the hell the Jumbotron instructs them while they wear the free color-coordinated sponsored T-shirt that was waiting for them at their seat or handed out at the turnstiles. There are some holdouts to this lobotomization of the American sports soul, but it’s a tough fight: Spectators have been spoon-fed nonstop mindless stimulation all throughout the late 20th century largely because of the explosion in new stadiums and arenas.

The soccer fans at RFK take all that shit into their own hands. The fans lead the chants, not the antiquated Jumbotron. The fans hand out flags and other items needed to make supportive displays, not the organization through some big-money sponsor (though U.S. Soccer has plenty of those). The stadium is what enables all this creativity, because RFK wasn’t designed for sensory overload like more modern joints: It was built for people to watch a game, not get their ugly mugs on the Kiss Cam.

The roof that is so typical of stadiums built in RFK’s style hangs over much of the upper deck nosebleed seats and helps keep the noise in and amplify it. The whole upper deck and the mezzanine with its luxury-free luxury boxes hang over the lower tiers and help amplify the sound even more. Was this intentional? Probably not, but it does the trick.

Despite all its charms, RFK is dwarfed by FedEx Field and Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, more modern facilities nearby with fancy luxury suites and no soul whatsoever. It wasn’t entirely clear why the old joint had won the honor of hosting the game Sunday. Some U.S. Soccer Federation officials I talked to over the weekend were surprisingly reluctant to wax poetic about the atmosphere or the stadium, though they noted that fans flocked to RFK for games in big numbers and that it has a fantastic natural-grass field. U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said the fact that RFK is actually located in the nation’s capital and easily accessible by Metro, unlike FedEx Field, is a big deal, too. “If what you’re looking for me to say is the ambiance or something like that, no, it’s not that,” he said. “It’s an older stadium. We’ve been successful, so that’s why we’re here.” Gulati, like the other suits I talked to, wouldn’t speculate on whether the United States would ever play at RFK again. If D.C. United gets a new stadium soon, chances are they won’t.

In the end, U.S. Soccer bigwigs aren’t that different from other sports executives in their quest for shiny, new stadiums stocked with palatial suites, sushi bars, and modern amenities. Character in the cheap seats usually loses out to champagne in the club seats. The game Sunday was just a friendly, after all; what’s an exhibition match if it’s not a giant money grab by the promoters? We’re suckers. We always line up and hand over our $50 to get in, no matter where the game is. But one day when it’s gone, we’ll miss the rickety spiritual home of the United States national soccer team.

RFK Stadium in U.S. Soccer history

• U.S. ties Ajax, 1990:

• U.S. beats Argentina, 1999:

• "The building is shaking," U.S. beats Guatemala, 2000:

• Honduras beats U.S. in World Cup qualifier, 2001:

• U.S. ties Costa Rica, 2009:

• U.S. beats Jamaica, 2011:

• U.S. beats Germany, 2013:

Photo by Mike Madden

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Comments

  1. #1

    I think you're one of very few who will miss it.

  2. #2

    Nope, I'll miss it too.

  3. #3

    RFK is great. Its got history, a roof and an egalitarian atmosphere. You go there to watch an game and hang with your buds - nothing else. No luxury boxes or sushi bars. Everybody enter and exits on the same ramps. Of course, the lower seating areas could and should be reconfigured to give the fans better site lines. That's not in the cards because DCU is about a soccer-specific stadium. Why? Because the MLS business plan is about increasing its net worth by developing Capital assets (stadiums) with public dollars.

  4. #4

    You're wrong Joe. I'll miss RFK. I fell in love with soccer there and been to countless games. It's a second home.

  5. #5

    Garrett,

    I've never been, but can completely relate to what you admire in a quality stadium. Please, come to Portland sometime for a Timbers game, I think you'll be in heaven. We, too, like our home crickety, undersized, underwhelming, and--most importantly--overcrowded with loud and creative fans.

  6. #6

    I was going to share this until I read that ridiculous Washington Pigskins reference. Can't support that at all. Goodbye.

  7. #7

    You won't say Redskins, but you'll say shit? Yeah, holier than thou indeed, City Paper. SMH.

  8. #8

    I too will miss it terribly. The place gets loud even when 15k-20k people are in it, and when it's full like it was on Sunday - goosebumps. DC United needs a new stadium for its own survival, so I understand why RFK has to go. But I will shed a tear when it does.

  9. #9

    Great article! I'll definitely miss RFK. I grew up in Arlington, VA playing soccer with my brother and every now and again we would catch a Washington Diplomats game at RFK. I still have a Wash. Dips pennant I got as an 8 year old kid from one of the games there.

    I went to the US v Germany game this past Sunday. It was phenomenal, still a tremendous soccer venue! It brought back a lot of memories. Here's RFK sold out in 1980, almost exactly 33 years ago, for the NASL Cosmos/Dips game.

    http://youtu.be/xtO6B3Kj2t0

    Enjoy!!

  10. #10

    The author of this article doesn't know what he is talking about when he writes that RFK Stadium has "construction-orange seats, with terrible sight-lines for football but great for soccer" Huh? The sight lines at RFK Stadium are designed for baseball, not for soccer. The seats are too low to the ground, and too far from the field. RFK Stadium may have its charms, but it doesn't have good sight lines for soccer.

  11. #11

    RFK is the boston garden of soccer. NASL, MLS,WCQ,GOLD CUP. to much history. Could they just remodel RFK?

  12. #12

    I love RFK and will miss it dearly when (if) D.C. United gets a new stadium.

  13. #13

    Fantastic read. Although you miss the one small, permanent memorial to soccer, a plaque indicating that RFK was the site of "Olympic Football" in 1996.

  14. #14

    Does anyone else question the statement that RFK has hosted more national team games than any other stadium in the world? More than Azteca, to take just one example? Or was that supposed to be any other stadium in this country?

  15. #15

    Johnny V: In a word, no. The reasons are many and varied. You can search the archives of the Soccer Insider blog at the Washington Post site for more information.

  16. #16

    Thank you so much. I too will miss RFK. I've seen so many special moments there. USA 4-0 vs. Mexico in 1995, right after I graduated from college. USA - Scotland in 1998, which was the hottest match ever. Saudi Arabia vs. Bulgaria (I think) in the 1994 world cup, with an amazing 70 yard run by a Saudi player. Too many DC United matches to count, but especially the 1997 MLS Cup and the 2004 Eastern Conference Final.

    It's a special place, and deserves to be listed among the great soccer stadia of this side of the world.

  17. #17

    @ Steve:

    Unlike the name of the local football team, "shit" isn't a racist term.

  18. #18

    @ rella:

    That line may have been a bit confusingly worded, but it's meant to say RFK has hosted the U.S. national team for more games than any other stadium, not all national teams. The U.S. has played 26 games in Mexico, but not all at the Azteca, which didn't open until 1966.

  19. #19

    I love RFK and I don't understand the appeal of "amenities". I am there to see a soccer game not blow money on a ten dollar beer and five dollar hot dogs. Also, having been to FedEx several times for soccer games, I absolutely loathe it. Too big, too steep (I actually had a touch of vertigo the last time I was there), and it's hard to access.

  20. #20

    Garrett,you must be my age, if that is possible. It's funny; the timing of your piece because I was thinking the same thing Saturday afternoon. I was in the stadium, assisting my friends with the hanging of the banners in preparation of the USA v Germany friendly. I told one of the guys that you better enjoy this because I suspect that this may be one of the last US national matches to be played here...so much history, so many memories. I'm happy someone mentioned the NASL years with the Dips. And yes, don't forget the 1994 Men's World Cup games, as well as the Women's national team games here. Finally, I will never forget seeing Jaime Moreno for the first time, wearing his Bolivian jersey, racing up the right side of the field and beating Jeff Agoos! What an impression!!! But change is inevitable and to everything there is an end....

  21. #21

    I remember seeing the NY Yankees play the Senators in about 1962 with Micky Mantle and Roger Maris in the outfield for the Yankees. Later I saw Frank Howard hit a monster home run into the upper deck that didn't start dropping until the ball was just about to seat level in the upper deck. I am dating myself.

  22. #22

    Well said Stepanie.

  23. #23

    Thanks for the article and giving RFK it's due appreciation. I fell for us soccer there as a kid (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9BCGwPeO8s) and grew up with DC united. How the winningest team in DC sports history doesn't have a stadium that's well maintained is difficult to understand. Renovate RFK and keep it as DC united's home.

  24. #24

    On the subject of 'amenities', I have had season tickets for about 10 years. I have sat as close as the 4th row, "40-yard line" (if it was football). . . and you can't see corner kicks from there. Is that bread-and-butter enough?

    RFK is round and soccer is played on a rectangular field.

  25. #25

    To those urging 'renovation', renovating RFK would be like trying to rehab a 1984 Buick Cutlass supreme, if it's been driven hard and for 300,000 miles. It's past the point where it's cheaper to replace it.

    And what color is the sky on the planet where a private entity would pump a nine-figure sum into a publicly owned stadium and not get anything from it? What kind of weird charity request is that.

  26. #26

    Washington Diplomats vs. New York Cosmos, circa 1979 - My first visit to RFK.

    U2 - The Joshua Tree Tour, Sept. 1987 - My first concert.

    Skins games, Ring of Fame, Chief Zee.

    Grateful Dead, Summer Tour 1992 - They played Casey Jones for the first time in years. The place went bananas.

    Guns 'N' Roses, Metallica, Faith No More, Summer 1992 - Metallica went on before GNR and owned the place. Axl came out 3 hours late.

    3 years of front row seats for the Nats seasons of 05,06,07. Got a high 10 from Mayor Williams when the Nats first RBI hit dropped in (Vinny Castilla?) and sang Happy Birthday to Nick Johnson with 10 other fans.

    Don't get me started on what used to happen out in the parking lots along the Anacostia!

    Yeah, RFK will be missed when it's gone.

  27. #27

    I loved RFK, including the 1969 baseball All Star game where Frank Howard hit a home run and the stadium got louder than any Redskin's game I've been to. But...its time to move on.

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