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.
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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