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Columbus Crew SC, RFK Stadium, and what MLS loses by growing up

It’s a strange time for American soccer.

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at FC Dallas Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday evening, Atlanta United FC will host Columbus Crew SC in a first-round playoff game at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Upwards of 50,000 (perhaps even 70,000) people could attend the match, if recent crowd sizes and playoff stakes are any indication.

It will be a triumphant moment for MLS: a nationally televised playoff game featuring Atlanta United FC, the club that came into Georgia and took the league by storm. The expansion team found success on the field, led by former Barcelona manager Tata Martino and a group of young stars from South America, who quickly came together to create one of the most exciting, attack-minded sides in the league. It also found unreal success off the field, setting attendance records and capturing Atlanta.

The match will be a wonderful way for the league to showcase all of that. It will also be an incredibly awkward affair, one that shows the turning point the league is at right now. (More on that in a bit.)

Atlanta’s opponents in the match, Columbus, have their own narratives heading into the first-round matchup. In the weeks leading up to the playoffs, it leaked that Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt was threatening to move the club to Austin if the city didn’t aide him in building a new stadium.

Again, this happened in the weeks leading up to the playoffs, playoffs which the team is participating in. The team is still very much alive, and competing for its second MLS Cup. The team is doing this while fans of the club are feuding openly with its ownership, who are now, after pressure, refunding season ticket purchases for next year, while angling to move the club to Austin the following year. It’s a mess.

For a host of reasons, it’s clear MLS would love to see Atlanta win this game. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Crew SC midfielder Wil Trapp:

Not just to highlight Atlanta, but to avoid the awkwardness of having a team in the middle of a MLS Cup run while its fans are despairing and supporters across the league are banding together in “Save The Crew” campaigns.

It’s the plot of Major League brought to American soccer.

In a twisted way, it’s a sign of progress. Cities are competing for MLS teams now, and owners are using that competition to blackmail existing MLS towns into subsidizing modern stadiums with taxpayer dollars.

Yay, guys. We made it.

And what else.

D.C. United played its final game in RFK Stadium this weekend. It was a dispiriting 2-1 loss to New York Red Bulls, who trotted out a team of substitutes and academy kids and still somehow took down United on what was meant to be a joyous day. C’est la vie.

RFK Stadium was objectively awful. It was gorgeous in its crumbling grandeur, and caught in the right light, one of the more beautiful buildings in the District of Columbia — a ruinous monument to sport hulking up over the Anacostia River. But it was also awful. It was dank and cold. There was a (very real) risk of concrete falling onto your head at any moment.

It was a ruin. People still just happened to play professional soccer there. Or they did, until this weekend.

What does all this have to do with Columbus, and Atlanta, and the state of MLS? It shows where we’re going. How MLS is moving on to bigger and better things, and what is lost in that process.

I will not miss covering games at RFK Stadium, will not miss its frozen press box in the winter and its wasps in the summer. (Yes, there were wasps.) What I will miss is MLS having a home that was so decrepit the fans were left to create their own magical, organic identity. D.C. United did many things well over the years, but the best thing the club ever did was decide to let the fans do their own thing. The tailgate in Lot 8 was left to grow into its own wild, raucous party before every game. The supporters’ section, on the sunny side of the pitch, was given to the diehard groups — Barra Brava, District Ultras, Screaming Eagles — and the club more or less got out of the way.

It’s unlikely this will ever happen again. There is too much money at stake now. Next season the club will open up Audi Stadium, a stadium that had its location partly secured by ownership threatening to move the club to Baltimore.

(Remind you of anything else going on in the league?)

The stadium will be polished and new, and fans will be encouraged to gather at the Metro and do a walk to the stadium, much like they do in Portland and Seattle. Supporters’ groups will be given smaller assigned areas. Every part of the stadium experience will be sponsored.

This growth is great. It’s exciting. And we will lose something by it.

Growth means new. New means things will be shiny, and fresh, and there will be no place for a rotting, beautiful dump of a stadium where fans are left to create their own magic. New means an owner possibly tearing a club away from its fans in Columbus, because D.C. United, among many other professional sports teams, showed that that’s the blueprint to get what you want.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at D.C. United Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

After the final game on Sunday, and the press conferences were over, I walked out through the old, dank tunnel in the underbelly of RFK one last time, alone. The place was quiet. Someone had left open one of the massive garage doors that line the tunnel, and I peered in to see a room full of old debris — soccer flags, banners, broken down office chairs, all tossed to the floor.

It looked like an attic, long forgotten and filling with dust. It looked like someone’s home.