This weekend marked one year since the opening of Audi Field, D.C. United’s long-awaited home in Buzzard Point. The home team had to settle for a 2-2 draw with the New England Revolution after falling in a two-goal hole early, and while they at least got a point out of the game, it was hardly the rousing opener of a year ago, or the result fans grew to expect during last year’s magical late playoff push.
That late-season success, though, was preceded by a dreadful first half for D.C. United. And before Audi Field became a true home field for everyone in the D.C. soccer community, there were growing pains.
Opening night brought fans frustrated with the inability to download mobile-only tickets, due to poor cell service around the stadium. A piece of railing fell and injured a team employee. The new bag rules were confusing to fans not used to the policies.
That opener was, of course, also missing something big — the most ardent, vocal supporters of them team, who were spending their energy organizing a noisy boycott outside, rather than cheering the team on.
“If you remember 13 months ago, some of the supporters groups were protesting,” D.C. United CEO and managing general partner Jason Levien told WTOP after Friday night’s game. “Some of them weren’t happy. We didn’t know how they’d adjust to leaving RFK (Stadium). And RFK was a wonderful place, but we don’t hear any of that anymore. We hear a cohesive group that’s very passionate about the team.”
A year later, they were all present, fully in place, chanting and drumming ahead of a 7 p.m. kick that saw roughly half the stadium still empty at the opening whistle. The place filled out eventually, to a standing room only crowd, one with far more noise in them than the comparatively tepid audience on the stadium’s opening night.
The other issues have been addressed one-by-one as well. The team changed its bag policy. The mobile service in the neighborhood has improved greatly, and fans seem to have adjusted to the stadium policies. One issue persists, though, which appears to have no easy answer.
Despite several iterations of different screens along the back, upper level above the seats on the west side of the stadium, there still nothing to stop the blazing summer sun from cooking the press box and the upper tier of the east side of the stadium until about halftime of a midsummer 7 p.m. start, when it finally dips below the metal rafters along the overhang. It’s why most — but not all — evening games this time of year are pushed back and seem like they will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Overall, though, Levien seemed ecstatic about the state of the organization one year after the opening of a stadium that took years to get off the ground.
“I think we’re in a great place,” he said. “We’re poised for even more growth, but one year in, this has exceeded all our expectations, what this has brought to the city, what it’s brought to our organization, sort of a turbo boost.”
On the field, the team that stepped onto the Audi Field grass for the first time a year ago had struggled mightily, but saw its turnaround begin that night. New addition Wayne Rooney came off the bench in a 3-1 win that keyed a late-season surge from the Eastern Conference cellar into a playoff spot.
“We had a ton of momentum bringing Wayne in, with the new stadium, it was all brand new,” defender Steve Birnbaum told WTOP Friday night.
Where last year’s addition of Rooney brought cautious excitement that was quickly unleashed into a full-on fever, this year’s team hasn’t been able to gain a rhythm yet. The Black-and-Red were really up against it by the time Audi Field finally opened last July, needing to win nearly every game down the stretch to sneak into the playoffs. Thanks to a thoroughly unbalanced home/road slate that gave them almost every second half game in D.C., they were able to do just that.
The players know that they need to find a way to tap back into both that magic and that desperation of last July, but also that they’ll never have an opportunity quite like the one that last summer’s home-heavy stretch provided to get them on a roll.
“You don’t expect to be able to play so many games at home,” said midfielder/forward Paul Arriola. “It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime situation for us.”
United finished the weekend in second place in the Eastern Conference in points, but did so knowing that position is just as tenuous and illusory as their last place position was last summer. Four teams are within three points, three of which have at least one game in hand over D.C. The scariest one is NYCFC, which has three games in hand and trails by just three points. Orlando City, currently in eighth place and just outside the playoff bubble, is sitting just seven points back, with a game in hand.
This week brings a two-game road trip, to Cincinnati on Thursday and Atlanta Sunday, which appears it will start the same way this weekend finished, with Luciano Acosta out on suspension after receiving a red card in Houston a week prior. That means United will have to find other ways of creating offense, as they did Friday night with two players earning their first goals for the team.
That’s also something they might need to figure out for more than just Thursday’s game. Acosta nearly left last offseason and his contract is up after this year. The team could look very different without its dynamic duo up top.
All that means that while plenty has changed in the year since Audi Field opened, at least within the locker room, that same sense of urgency that existed last July seems to be creeping in again.
“I think it was more desperation at the end of last season that we need to have right now,” said Birnbaum.
“It starts with the guys above, the coaching staff, and it trickles down to all the players. It doesn’t have to be just Wayne. It has to be everyone that feels that sense of urgency,” he said.
There may still be midseason additions coming, and getting Acosta back with Arriola in the fold again after returning from Gold Cup duty means the team will be as close to full strength as it’s been in a while this weekend in Atlanta. But with just one win (and six draws) in their last nine games, now it’s a matter of putting it together before it gets too late.
“To be honest, we’re putting ourselves in a situation where, eventually, if we continue on this road, we’re going to have to get wins both home and away, which we all know how the league is and the success rate on the road is extremely difficult,” said Arriola. “So hopefully we turn it around before we get to that position.”