WASHINGTON — For D.C. United, it’s a good year to have a good year.
Following a disappointing 2013 season that saw them finish dead last in the league, United has rebounded this year, crafting a worst-to-first story at just the right time. With the World Cup taking the nation’s capital by storm and a stadium deal on the table with the City Council, they appear poised to take their place at the table alongside the traditional big four sports in D.C.
A week ago Saturday, United visited Sporting Park in Kansas City, home of the defending league champs and the top-ranked side in the 10-team Eastern Conference. United had never won in Kansas City. All they did was jump out for three goals in the opening half en route to a stunning 3-0 victory.
After a tough loss at L.A. on Wednesday, United returned home to post a 2-0 shutout win over the rival New York Red Bulls on Sunday. That leaves them atop the table after 26 of 34 games, a full four points clear of Kansas City. They’ve netted 42 goals, the highest total in the Eastern Conference, and have Annandale, Virginia, native Bill Hamid in goal, their first-ever homegrown player and a member of the 2014 MLS All-Star team.
So, before football takes hold, with college games beginning this past weekend and the NFL season opening Thursday, United is making noise on field and at the turnstiles. Through last week, attendance was up 19 percent from last season, the third-highest increase in the league.
This is crucial as the club pushes for a more suitable long-term home than RFK Stadium. While the old cavern has its charms, it was also built for the much larger crowds of the NFL, and the upper decks sit empty, even on big attendance days. The new proposed stadium, a 24,000-seat, soccer-only facility just blocks from Nationals Park in the Buzzard Point area, is being discussed by the City Council over a series of public hearings.
United’s leading scorer from 2012, Chris Pontius, has been sidelined with a hamstring injury all season. While he is expected back on the pitch in a couple of weeks, Pontius has taken advantage of his downtime, attending a number of fan watch parties while the team has been on the road and participating in events around the community, such the recent D.C. Public Schools Beautification Day. He has had the chance to see the growth of the game’s popularity up close in a way that few others have been privy to.
“Obviously, the buzz around soccer is pretty special right now,” says Pontuis. “The World Cup is to thank for that, but … also the growth of the league and the teams becoming bigger in their communities.”
There was certainly no coincidence that the club chose Amidon-Bowen Elementary School, in Southwest, just a few blocks from the proposed stadium site, as their spot for Beautification Day. Those efforts, coupled with the buzz from this summer’s World Cup, can only be a positive for United’s hopes for a new home.
“I don’t know how much affect it has on the stadium, getting a deal done, but it certainly can’t hurt,” says Pontius. “If you’re looking to have a good year and get people out to games, I think this is a perfect year to do that.”
“It’s been a good year for soccer in D.C.,” agrees head coach Ben Olsen.
Olsen would know. He starred for United for 12 years after attending the University of Virginia and joined the coaching staff upon his retirement. At 37, he’s watched Major League Soccer grow from the inside since its inception. He’s confident that it’s only a matter of time before the new stadium is built, and that it will be one of the top venues not just in the United States but the world.
“The stadium seems to be very close,” he says. “When that goes down, it will take D.C. to the next level.”
In the meantime, all the team can do is keep winning. With the way they’ve played to date, and Pontius’ return on the horizon, at least that part of the plan looks promising.