Audi Field was never going to feel like RFK Stadium.
D.C. United fans understood that their new home was going to be a lot different than the one they loved for 22 years. There was no realistic, inexpensive way to re-create the bouncing stands, or the tunnel that fans stopped in on the walk to the stadium to make as much noise as possible. And there was absolutely no way to build an urban stadium with a giant parking lot like RFK’s Lot 8.
That was fine — Audi Field was necessary for D.C. United to stay in business. The dilapidated condition of RFK and the terms of the club’s lease caused the club to bleed money, which led to a bad product on the field for most of the past decade.
“RFK was a drain, obviously. Anyone who didn’t already love the place would go there and say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable here, I don’t feel safe here because things are falling, I can see things falling,’” says Adam Taylor, a season ticket holder at both Audi Field and RFK Stadium, and the former manager of SB Nation’s Black And Red United. (Ironically, not long after Taylor tells me this, a railing would go on to fall at Audi Field and strike the club’s vice president of marketing and communications, Lindsay Simpson.)
There was a time when a move to Baltimore or Virginia’s Loudoun County seemed like a best-case scenario for the club. Securing a stadium in the city — Audi Field is located just a few blocks from Nationals Park in Southwest D.C. — was a victory for D.C. United fans, even if they knew it wouldn’t have a tailgate space.
Losing that space was no small sacrifice. Lot 8 tailgates were more than just tailgates — they were the gateway to D.C. United fandom. It was a place that let people connect with each other in a way they don’t get to do in their daily lives. Socioeconomic status didn’t really exist in Lot 8. You might see someone for several years before you found out they were a fast food line cook or a K Street lawyer. Many longtime season ticket holders will tell you they were hooked on D.C. United before they ever set foot in the stadium.
And having that space made it easier for supporters’ groups — like Screaming Eagles, La Barra Brava, District Ultras, and La Norte — to create and build their own cultures.
Everyone agreed that for D.C. United to succeed in its new home, those cultures that the supporters’ groups had created would need to endure.
That was the hope, anyway.
Over the past year — leading up to an opening night that featured protests outside the stadium by several of these groups — the relationship between D.C. United and its fans has grown increasingly fractured.
A former representative of the club accused one of the supporters’ groups of using a ticket reselling arrangement for the group leaders’ own personal enrichment. Several of the supporters’ groups allege that D.C. United has frozen them out, motivated by a desire to get a new fanbase with that new stadium — a fanbase that is a bit better behaved, and with a bit more money to spend.
What is certain is D.C. United won their first game at Audi Field, 3-1, over the Vancouver Whitecaps, on Saturday night. International superstar Wayne Rooney made his debut and played superbly. And for most of the match, the crowd was silent.
The morning after the game, I sit down with former D.C. United employee and lifelong fan of the club, Sebastian Salazar. “Ten years ago, any D.C. United fan would tell you, we’d sell our soul for a stadium,” he says. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
No one who knew about the situation with the supporters’ groups could have been surprised by how mute Audi Field was, but it was still jarring for anyone who had ever stood in general admission (GA) — a.k.a. the “loud side” — at RFK.
“My biggest concern before it all happened was, I didn’t think that what made RFK and D.C. United fun back in the day was going to survive the move. And I think after [Saturday], those concerns are validated entirely,” Salazar says.
It’s worth noting that Salazar is perceived by fans and many inside the club as having an agenda, which he acknowledges. “Take what I say with a grain of salt. I used to work for the team, they fired all my friends, so if you want to say that makes me biased, that’s totally fair,” Salazar says.
But Salazar has also been coming to games since 1996, he supported the club before they hired him, and he has continued to be a fan of the club since leaving. He is representative of the long-time, hardcore D.C. United fanbase.
“I’m going to be a D.C. United fan until I’m dead. So is my dad, so are my kids,” he says.
Besides, no one who was in the supporters’ section behind the northside goal on Saturday night could say he’s wrong with a straight face.
There was a smattering of people in Barra Brava and District Ultras shirts — two of the supporters’ groups who were protesting the match Saturday — but they did not organize into sections. They didn’t have drums and they didn’t sing. The section was filled with a lot of people who admitted they hadn’t been to RFK in five years, and a lot more who were clearly just there to see Wayne Rooney. There were more England and Manchester United shirts than Barra, Ultras, and La Norte shirts.
By far the loudest pop of the night was when Rooney walked up to the fourth official right before he entered the game. That moment was louder than any of D.C. United’s three goals. Between the goals, there was virtually no singing from anyone outside of a few members of the Screaming Eagles — the one supporters’ group that had worked out a deal with the club ahead of the new stadium opening — who were committed to making the most of the situation. A lot of their fellow members didn’t join them. Almost none of the non-members sang.
Eagles leadership handed out song sheets before the match, but most attendees promptly put them in their pockets or threw them away. In the second half, a Screaming Eagles member made his way up the stand to the people who weren’t RFK regulars, begging them to sing. “Come on, you’re killing me,” he yelled. No one responded. The newcomers’ only contributions to the atmosphere were a “WE WANT ROONEY!” chant and, of course, the wave.
“The team is definitely taking a risk that they will bring in new people,” Taylor says. “Wayne Rooney is certainly going to help with that. D.C. is the largest market in the country for the Premier League and Wayne Rooney speaks to that market. If you get them in the door and get them to experience the new stadium, and hopefully the team is improved, some of them stick around, that’s who the team is going for.”
But for that opening night at least, those Rooney gawkers didn’t bring much.
It was clear to those who knew RFK best what Audi Field was missing. In addition to the Screaming Eagles, D.C. United have been backed for years by three other raucous supporters’ groups. Those groups were absent Saturday, many of them protesting outside, as the groups and the club could never come to a bulk ticketing agreement.
Before we break down the rocky relationship between D.C. United and its most passionate fans, we should talk about the new stadium, and what it took to make it real.
Back in 2007, D.C. United fans thought they were getting their new stadium on Poplar Point, a piece of undeveloped and underused park land across the Anacostia River from Nationals Park. They had good reason to believe that would happen — the mayor told them so.
“[Former D.C. Mayor] Adrian Fenty was at midfield at RFK Stadium saying, I will help you build that stadium,” Taylor says. “And then, July of 2007, he pulls the rug out from under it.”
An attempt to get the federal government to give the city the land fell through, and United fans were wounded. By 2010, Mayor Fenty had lost the Democratic primary in his bid for re-election.
“I was almost a single-issue voter,” says Rick Allen, a former Barra Brava member who flew into D.C. from his home in Belgium to attend the Audi Field opener. “I had a lot of Fenty street team people come up to me trying to pitch me, trying to get me to vote for Fenty. It felt good to be like, ‘no, to hell with your guy, he’s going to pay on election day.’ He did, and it was awesome.”
Poplar Point was just the first in a long series of setbacks for D.C. United. They looked into building in Prince George’s County, Maryland in 2009, but that plan also fell through.
By 2010, MLS commissioner Don Garber was using ominous language to talk about the team potentially moving.
“If they don’t get a stadium, that team will not be able to succeed and we would have to address what that means ... I am tired of going down to meetings and getting my back slapped, and faux press conferences with mayors and local city officials to have them backtrack on that because they can’t get out of their own way.”
A feasibility study for the Baltimore market followed, but went nowhere. Current owners Erick Thohir and Jason Levien took over in 2012, ousting president and founding partner Kevin Payne, and began efforts to secure a stadium in Audi Field’s eventual location, Buzzard Point.
Negotiations with the city were slow, so Virginia tried to attract D.C. United. The club seemed to entertain the idea, much to the displeasure of fans inside the district.
“Jason Levien said: ‘We are all in on DC,’” Taylor says. “‘We aren’t going to try to leverage Baltimore or Virginia against the district, we know we need to be in the city and that’s where we want to be.’ For him to talk that talk and seem to walk that walk, and then out of nowhere, this Virginia discussion comes out? No, that’s not OK.”
The club did eventually return its focus to Buzzard Point, but the original D.C. proposal endorsed by then-mayor Vince Gray was unpopular. It included a land-swap in which property developer Akridge — who owned part of the land on which Audi Field now sits — would get the land currently occupied by the city-owned Reeves Center, some of the most valuable property in the city.
Gray lost his primary election, just like his predecessor, before his plan could be implemented. His successor, Muriel Bowser, eventually got the deal done without giving up the Reeves Center property, but not without setbacks and backlash. The Audi Field deal takes $32 million out of the city’s schools, and the District, after losing its eminent domain case against Akridge, will now pay the company $11 million more than it thought it had to.
Still, after 11 years, a deal was done. The club, and its fans, had waited a long time and, briefly, everyone who was financially or emotionally invested in the club was mostly content.
“We should be excited about the new stadium, the possibilities that it brings, but it’s very hard to be excited about a stadium that you’re intentionally excluded from,” Barra Brava vice president Jay Igiel says.
Before Saturday’s match, Barra and Ultras organized a protest march to raise awareness among fans not associated with the supporters’ groups about their cause, and to put pressure on D.C. United to offer them more favorable ticket agreements.
That Barra and Ultras would organize any event together and put their logos side-by-side would have been unthinkable just a year ago. Leadership from the groups had a financial dispute that went back several years, and it took a long time for Barra to be willing to work with Ultras again. “The Ultras were a splinter group from the Barra,” Igiel says. “The relationship between the groups was not the best, but time has passed and now we have a common cause.”
At RFK — with its dilapidated conditions, outdated amenities, and low local buzz — the supporters’ groups were a gift to D.C. United. (Or, perhaps in the club’s eyes, a necessary evil.) The club knew it couldn’t sell out the lower bowl, and with an aging stadium and often middling team, knew it couldn’t charge what other pro teams in the city charged for tickets, either.
So they worked out a deal: They would sell tickets to supporters’ groups — all of the supporters’ groups — at below face value, then let the groups mark them up to fund things like tailgates, banners, and road trips. For D.C. United, it gave them a low-risk way to ensure that fans would show up to the games. And for the groups, it provided a source of income that could fund their organizations’ activities.
The club made it clear that this arrangement would change after it moved to Audi Field, but the supporters’ groups weren’t prepared for how drastic the changes would be … nor that one group would be treated differently than the others.
The relationship between D.C. United and its supporters’ groups took its biggest hit when the clubs announced that the Screaming Eagles had successfully negotiated a partnership with the club in which it buys a large block of tickets that it is allowed to resell.
The other groups were blindsided by the news and demanded that the club sell them blocks of tickets on the exact same terms. So far, the club hasn’t seemed interested in doing so. Subsequent negotiations between D.C. United and the other groups have gone nowhere, while the club’s president of business operations Tom Hunt has accused Barra leadership of profiting off the club by acting as a “ticket broker.”
The club announced Wednesday that Hunt was leaving the club to pursue a new job in sports.
When asked about the terms of the deal offered to Barra and how it differed from the Eagles’ arrangement, Igiel says that “there were no similarities.” He added, “each individual member, on their personal credit card, could put down up to $2700 to buy up to eight season tickets, then resell those tickets.” Igiel also says that Barra “offered straight up to buy tickets from Screaming Eagles, but they refused.”
The club’s decision to prioritize their relationship with Eagles over their relationship with Barra is probably (hopefully) a matter of simple math. Eagles have a lot of season ticket holders who are willing to pay up front, while Barra sell a lot of their tickets on a game-to-game basis.
But there is more at play here. Barra and Ultras have also gained a reputation of being the rowdier fan groups. Whenever the club has run into trouble because of unauthorized smoke devices or fans using abusive language towards referees and opponents, those problems have usually stemmed from Barra and Ultras, rather than the Eagles.
Barra and Ultras acknowledge the thoughts about their groups, which is why they say they didn’t accept the club’s offer to pay for flags, banners, drums and tailgates. (The club, looking to move past the ticket reselling model, offered to pay for the services the supporters’ groups have traditionally provided to its members with the profits from selling tickets.) La Barra Brava and Ultras say they knew the club paying for flags, banners, and travel would be held over them in order to get them to behave how the team wanted, and they knew this money could get taken away from them if they stepped out of line.
If D.C. United wanted to avoid the league fines and bad PR that might come from Barra’s vulgar brand of enthusiastic support, that would be understandable, but they seem to have underestimated how much the overall fan experience would suffer without the groups there.
Barra has always been prominent at D.C. United games — standing next to Eagles, with the second-largest section, but making the most noise. Eagles and non-affiliated fans on the loud side often took their direction from Barra’s drummers and leaders.
“Everyone I ran into said, ‘this is great, but.’ There shouldn’t have been a but. Everyone said something’s missing,” Salazar says of opening night at Audi Field.
The biggest thing missing was La Barra Brava. It was obvious.
Most sports teams are trying to trick you. They appeal to your desire to belong to something bigger than yourself in order to win your undying loyalty, and in turn, profit off you. They don’t care about you.
And yet all of the fans whose words appear in this story used the word “family” to describe how they felt about D.C. United, because it actually was different. Former CEO Kevin Payne was a businessman who wanted to make money, but he also went to Lot 8 tailgates and supporters’ forums. If you thought he was an idiot who was bad at his job, you could tell him to his face a few times a year. Kyle Sheldon, who was the club’s director of marketing, is still close with some fans and met them at Audi Field’s opening.
Those people do not work at D.C. United anymore.
“They fired everybody who really cared about the team, and they did it quick,” Salazar says of new owners Thohir and Levien. “And slowly but surely, the divide between the true D.C. United fans and the team started to erode.”
The team didn’t just let go of executives who felt it was part of their duty to be accountable to supporters, but people whose job it was to deal with fans directly — people like Stephen Zack and Fred Matthes, who had been with the club since 1995.
“The relationship between the club, Barra, and stadium used to be terrible. We had members assaulted by CSC, fights with security. Stephen [Zack] and Kevin [Payne] worked really hard with me, Oscar Zambrana and the late Chico Solares to fix them,” Barra elder Robert Gillespie (a highly recommend follow on Twitter) told Pablo Maurer in 2012.
Salazar compared the relationship the fans used to have with the team at that time with the coffee shop where we met up, which he patronizes regularly.
“I come here because they smile, they know our names, they know my wife’s order,” Salazar says. “I know some people here and it’s a cool little community. I don’t need their tea, and I don’t need D.C. United soccer. In America, soccer is everywhere. But that sense of something beyond the 11 guys on the field is valuable. That’s when people connect to your team even if the team sucks.”
And the team has sucked, a lot. The deep, family-like connection supporters had with the club is what kept D.C. United’s season ticket base at a healthy number, even while it was putting a bad product on the field in a rundown stadium. It’s why the team never sank to last place in attendance despite fielding three of the worst teams in MLS history in 2010, 2013, and 2017.
But a lost connection between the club and fans led to the front office seemingly failing to understand how much their dispute with Barra and other supporters’ groups would hurt the stadium atmosphere.
“Do I think the front office understood the reaction and the anger that would be coming from a wide swath of the fanbase? No,” says Igiel.
There wouldn’t have been any mysteries if the team communicated more and listened more. But their longtime fans increasingly feel like the team that used to treat them like family is now planning something in secret, without them.
“The team constantly gets in its own way,” Taylor says. “They’re so tight-lipped about everything. People need information to feel comfortable. They need to feel like they’re a part of it, supporters groups especially. People who consider themselves hardcore supporters will very quickly go from loving you to hating you and actively rooting for your death.”
I wrote this story because D.C. United is my second family too. The people whose voices are featured in this story are there because I think they’re representative of the fanbase, but also because they matter to me, personally.
Almost all of the friends I have in D.C. are people I would not have met without following the club and going to games. When I had to move to D.C. on short notice with no money, a friend and Screaming Eagles member let me stay at her home indefinitely. We had met in person once, in Lot 8.
I met Adam Taylor at Vox Media’s office not long after I moved to the city. I was already a D.C. United fan, but his enthusiasm made me want to contribute to his site, even though I was severely overworked. When I finally did get an apartment, it was a block away from Adam, and he told me the good places to eat in the neighborhood. He remains my favorite person to go to a D.C. United game with.
I met Sebi Salazar in 2012, at a bar in Houston. He moved there for a job after leaving D.C. United. He came to the place where all the fans who’d traveled for a playoff game met and he talked to every single person there. They shared memories from the 1997 season and their local pickup games. The supporters’ groups seemed like they were his second family.
Rick Allen is one of the first people I met in Lot 8, when I didn’t know anyone there besides a couple of people from Twitter. Like Sebi, he started coming to games in 1996. The team means so much to him that despite living across the ocean in Belgium, and despite his long-time friends in the Barra getting screwed over by the club, he just had to be at the opening of Audi Field.
“I’ve got friends that I’ve met through the team, through going to games, tailgating, away trips, that I really really wanted to share the moment with,” Allen says. “After putting so much into being a fan of the team for so long, I felt like I was cheating myself if I didn’t try to get back here for today. I didn’t even really give it a second thought. There was no way I was going to miss this.”
Allen and Salazar both talked about Bob Brown, a supporters’ section original who lost his battle with cancer on July 9.
“They had an open-mic segment and I spoke there briefly,” Allen says about Brown’s memorial service. “There were people in that room, and there are going to be a bunch of people in that stadium, that, maybe I don’t know them by their given name. They have a nickname and I’ve been calling them that for years. Maybe I don’t know them all that well, but I still consider them to be close because we have, every other weekend, been in the same place, done the same stuff with the same people. It’s like an entirely different sort of family. I’m so grateful to have that after all this time. It’s brought me back for today.”
While researching and doing interviews for this story, I started thinking about Chico Solares, mentioned in the quote above from Rob Gillespie. I dug up the old Big Soccer thread from right after his passing and felt like crying.
Here’s the thing — I met Chico once, for like 30 seconds. I’ve spoken to the man literally one time in my life. I came across his posts online plenty. My friends who knew him well talked about him, but I didn’t actually know the guy. And yet, I felt an emotional connection to him because he loved the thing I loved. And more importantly, he loved the people that I loved.
D.C. United used to give us more than a soccer team and a space to gather. We loved the team because they were our partners in helping us build connections.
“I think a team is a public trust,” Salazar says. “I get that it’s also a business, but this group of owners has been really negligent of the public trust side. And I think there’s a wound there that they’ve got to heal.”
I’m not sure if they’re interested in healing it. They seem most interested in making all of the relevant numbers look good so billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who is reportedly (maybe) interested in joining the ownership group, pays more for his stake in the club. I can make this inference because of the little, cheap things the team is doing. All season ticket holders used to get a discount at the team store, but now only “premium” season ticket holders do. This weekend, Academy kids and their families had to pay to go to the Audi Field opener just like everyone else. And of course, supporters’ groups can’t buy cheap tickets anymore. The old D.C. United did not nickel and dime its most reliable customers.
But despite all of the overwhelming negatives, there are a lot of reasons to have hope for D.C. United’s future.
A lot of the problems that existed on the sporting side could not be fixed before, because RFK Stadium caused the team to bleed money. The team is building a new training facility and starting a reserve team in USL. If it has enough money to sign Wayne Rooney, it also has enough money to put a good team on the field. It has the money to hire more staff. It has the money to fully fund its academy instead of charging players $2500 for it.
The off-field stuff can be fixed quickly if the front office wants to. Selling blocks of tickets to supporters’ groups at slightly below face value would cost them so little money. Time spent fighting PR battles could be spent talking to Barra elders instead. Jason Levien seems to have finally figured this out, and the departure of Tom Hunt (the former club head of business operations who had implied that supporters’ group leaders were profiting from the club) on Wednesday was welcome news for many of the D.C. United faithful.
Audi Field’s opening was supposed to be a day of unrestrained celebration and unbridled joy for the fanbase. It wasn’t, and that sucked. We can’t get a do-over on opening day. But it would take so little money and effort for the club to re-establish itself as a community fixture and win back the undying loyalty of its hardcore fans. It’s so easy if they care at all.
I want to believe they care. I want to believe that D.C. United’s front office is filled with smart people who can figure out that strengthening ties with D.C.’s existing soccer community and catering to the country club crowd are not mutually exclusive. I want to believe that this company masquerading as D.C. United can become D.C. United again.