Can Audi Field harness the Spirit of women’s soccer in DC?

WASHINGTON — On Aug. 25, the Washington Spirit will play the most important game of their season. But the result on the field will matter much less than the one in the stands, and what it signals for the future of women’s soccer in the D.C. area.

The Spirit will take on the Portland Thorns at Audi Field, D.C. United’s new home in Buzzard Point. It will mark the first time the team has ever played in the District, and the first women’s professional game in Washington in more than eight years.

“The big thing is just establishing the initial footprint back within the D.C. metro, or D.C. proper area,” said Spirit owner Bill Lynch at a news conference Thursday. “Somewhere in the 8,000 to 10,000 or so folks — and legitimate 8,000 to 10,000 — would certainly be a big first game for us.”

That number may not sound like a large number, but it would be more than twice what the Maryland SoccerPlex, the Spirit’s permanent home, holds. It would also make it among the larger crowds in the National Women’s Soccer League this year.

The NWSL has reached its sixth season, already doubling the duration of its predecessor, Women’s Professional Soccer. There was once talk of expansion to 14 teams by 2020. But the road hasn’t been entirely smooth. Six of the original eight teams remain (one was relocated), while two have disbanded and three additional teams have joined, bringing the total to nine. Player salary minimums are just $15,750, with $44,000 maximums. Many teams lose money, though the Spirit do better than most, per team President Chris Hummer.

The league is the showcase for many of the best players in the world, which one might think would draw more young fans to the game. But youth soccer participation has taken a dive, down 14 percent among 6- to 12-year-olds over the last three years, the fastest decline of any youth sport in America. This begs the chicken-or-egg question of professional team success and youth participation — is either one driving the other? If so, what can be done to help spur interest in both?

The league faces some immediate questions. There has been no commissioner since Jeff Plush resigned in March 2017. Recent reports have shined a light on substandard living and training conditions for Sky Blue FC, the New Jersey-based team that sits dead last in the standings, without a win this season. The Spirit, meanwhile, have endured a tough season as well, winning just twice in 20 games and averaging 3,491 fans, the second-lowest mark in the league.

That’s what makes the Aug. 25 game so important. While it’s certainly unfair to pin any kind of large shifts to the success of a single game, that contest is the Spirit’s one big shot to infuse interest into a new crowd of fans. It was the one date they could lock down, given the busy, backloaded D.C. United home schedule and the restrictions of having a game at Audi Field that conflicts with a Nationals game two blocks away. For better or worse, the Spirit know it will serve as a litmus test for future games at the stadium, for a potentially stronger relationship between them and D.C. United.

“This is a test for us,” Hummer told WTOP. “We can build our database with a bunch of new fans that we didn’t have before from this game. And if we get a great turnout, it makes the confidence a lot higher that we could contract far enough in advance to lock up dates in the future for the purpose of more Audi Field games.”

While the viability of the league’s potential partnerships with MLS teams is nothing new, it hasn’t yet materialized beyond a few markets. United has plenty of more pressing issues, acclimating to a new ownership group as well as a new home. But officially partnering together down the road could help provide more stability, as well as become a way to get the Spirit playing in D.C., much the way the Portland Thorns are with the Portland Timbers of MLB. They share not just a stadium, but marketing and community efforts. The Thorns lead NWSL in attendance, averaging over 17,000 fans per game for the second straight year.

Could such a partnership be on the horizon?

“We’ll see,” said Lynch. “We’ve had a good relationship with D.C. United even before Jason (Levien) and folks were here … They’re certainly willing to talk about and what makes sense for both of us down the road.”

The SoccerPlex is a fine home, but it seats only 4,000 spectators and is far-flung from actual Washington, 25 miles to the northwest. Playing in the city, with access to public transportation, could be a big boon for the fan base, especially those who live in D.C. and rely on it for everyday life.

“They live in the District, work in the District and don’t have a car,” said Hummer of a percentage of Spirit fans. “And you can’t get to our stadium without a couple of bus rides, and Metro, and Uber, that sort of thing, for that group. So it’s really nice for them to be able to come to a game.”

For former USWNT goalkeeper Brianna Scurry, the Audi Field game is a dream her hard work helped realize. Now an assistant coach for the Spirit, she’ll be there on the sidelines a week from Saturday.

“I’ve played several games at RFK. Coming in here this morning and seeing how glorious Audi (Field) was, I was a little envious of the players’ opportunity to be able to play on this wonderful pitch,” she said. “And I think it’s going to be a great testament to our game, and I’m really hoping that D.C. comes out and supports women’s soccer. It’s been a long time coming.”

While Scurry will be watching and coaching, Mallory Pugh will be one of the stars on the field. Just 20 years old, she is a budding star of the USWNT, among the seven or eight national teams represented between the two sides.

“That fact that we’re going to be the first women’s team to play here is really special,” said Pugh. “Beautiful stadium and beautiful facilities, so to be able to play a game here is amazing.”

It’s just one game. But with the larger implications surrounding the team and the league, it’s the best chance to showcase what the Spirit have to offer, and to get a glimpse of what the future might hold.

“Our mission statement is to play great soccer and empower women,” said Hummer. “And we really believe these are some of the best women role models in the world. So we’d love to have a chance for a whole new group of young girls to get to know our team and our players.”

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