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An ode to RFK Stadium

Today’s the day to say goodbye to our beautiful, weird home

MLS: New York Red Bulls at D.C. United Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Somewhere during late 2015 or early 2016, it occurred to me that I would have to sit down one day and write an article saying goodbye to RFK Stadium. It was a daunting thought at the time, as I’ve found the topic ineffable. I can talk about it in metaphors and jokes, and I can use my memories in the place to hint at what it means to me, but I’ve been trying to avoid looking directly at it and facing the reality.

Time is up. D.C. United is leaving RFK, and all of us have to face that fact. 2400 East Capitol Street SE will always be home, but come Sunday it will cease to be United fandom’s current address. We have to leave, both in the literal sense sometime tonight (I might still ask if I can just stay and move in, but it seems like a long shot) and as a club. From the standpoint of competing on the field, finally not having rent payments to make to the District and having the money made on gamedays actually end up in the team’s pockets is enormous.

And from the off-field competitive angle, well, just look at the Columbus Crew. What’s being done to those fans is obscene, and I can’t shake the thought that it could have been us if this move to Buzzard Point had never gotten over the line. Plenty of fans have their issues with aspects of Audi Field, but no one’s talking about moving the team out of town. Having lived through MLS’s darkest hours as the 2000s got under way, and having survived the scares when Poplar Point and Prince Georges County fell through, that security is even more valuable than being able to compete for Best 11-caliber players.

But I’m still going to miss RFK desperately. It’s been a part of my life since I can remember. When I was really young, my parents had to work on weekends, and occasionally I’d tag along with my dad as he headed into D.C. to continue work on a house on M Street. Coming from the Maryland suburbs, we’d drive along 50, jump on 295, and exit onto East Capitol.

It’s the same approach I will make today, the same approach that I’ve been making for three decades. You round a long bend, going down a hill before coming up to cross the Anacostia, and there it is, looming into view. I’ve been to a lot of stadiums, and no approach that I’ve ever taken to one of them compares.

As a kid, the suddenness of RFK coming into view gave the place a mystical quality, and I don’t think that impression has ever left me. Even today, after what I’m guessing is around 415 United games, and 70-80 other reasons for a visit, rounding that corner remains special. Some people love sunsets; I love dodging the potholes and crossing the Whitney Young Memorial Bridge, with RFK blotting out the sky as you get closer.

The first time I ever got to go into RFK rather than just drive past it was sometime in the late 80s. My dad and grandma, both big baseball fans, took me to an old timers’ game. I don’t remember much about that day, but what stuck with me was how big the place is. It’s a simple observation (cut me some slack, I was 5 or 6), but it’s another thing that stuck with me on some elemental level. A pair of my friends brought their daughter to the 2015 NYCFC game in the rain, and I saw her get the same impression. Through some trick of geometry, or perhaps just my own sentimentality, RFK feels bigger than it is. I was glad she could confirm that it wasn’t just me.

It’s not just a venue for soccer in my mind, either. While I never got close to the other sports teams that have played at RFK, it was also a pretty great concert venue. Going to an HFStival was a rite of passage for the teenagers of the late 90s. The only World Cup match I didn’t watch live on TV from 1994 until 2010 was Croatia’s 3-1 win over Jamaica, because I had tickets to the Tibetan Freedom Concert. Faced with choosing between soccer and RFK, I chose RFK. Look closely and you might even see me somewhere in this:

But ultimately, despite its multi-sport reputation and the 90s DMV cultural landmarks, it comes back to watching some people kick a ball around a field. The 1994 World Cup remains a formative event. I knew by then how important soccer was to me, and that it was so much more common for people around the world to feel the same way, but I didn’t truly see it until June 1994.

On back-to-back nights, in the kind of balmy conditions that every mid-Atlantic local is familiar with, I got to see Norway surprise Mexico 1-0 before the Netherlands (featuring Dennis Bergkamp!) saw Saudi Arabia off 2-1 in a game no one expected to be close. Both games ended up feeling like big parties, with Norwegians in viking outfits, folks in green jerseys intermingling with those in red or orange, and a general sense that everyone was just happy to be there.

Those games were fun, but I didn’t really get how much it all meant to people until Mexico faced Italy on June 28th. All four teams in Group E came into the day with 3 points, and someone was going to end the day eliminated. RFK felt like it was going to erupt from kickoff, and when Daniele Massaro scored for Italy (who also started Roberto Baggio, my first idol in the sport), I first felt the tremors in the building that have become famous. Those vibrations were even stronger when Marcelino Bernal equalized in the goal directly below my seats in the upper deck.

I was even lucky enough to see some World Cup history. In the 5th minute, Saeed Al-Owairan turned onto a pass about 30 yards from his own goal. Eleven seconds and five attempted tackles later, he had scored one of the great goals soccer’s grandest stage has produced.

Of course, that was only a taste of what was to come at RFK. I got to see D.C. United lift their second MLS Cup in a day-long downpour in 1997, and I was there to watch the Black-and-Red win three games in a week to take the 1998 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup (the whole final stage of the tournament was played at RFK...times have changed). At the time, it all felt so normal. Of course they’d win! They always win. Little did I know that MLS clubs would go on to win just one more CONCACAF title.

Things changed not long after that. I still remember stewing for days after the 2000 season opened with a 4-0 home loss to the Galaxy. That season, and the next few to follow, helped me learn how to handle losing like an adult. Trips to RFK were still the highlight of my week, even if the chances were that the news was going to be bad. They were tough times, but sweating through brutal August day games or shivering on a rainy April night at RFK was still the only option. Doing something else was unthinkable.

I’ll miss a lot about RFK. I’ll miss the customs, and the knowledge base fans have. Everyone knows about the Loud Side, and everyone knows that if you’re on that side, you stand. The halftime drum circle on the concourse is going to be there every time. These are the things you tell new folks, along with advice about wearing closed-toe shoes. These are the things that cannot be replicated. We can build new traditions, but they’ll be different.

I’ll miss the moments before games, too. Having a couple of beers with friends near the banks of the river, maybe kicking a ball around, before always being the one who noted when it was time to head inside. On a regular game night, if you started walking from our spot 15 minutes before the advertised start time, you’d be in your seat just before the national anthem started. Lot 8 is nothing if not an extension of RFK’s ragged charms, and for a lot of fans the tailgate is just as vital as the game itself.

I’ll miss the architecture of the place. The dimly lit concourse, the gradual incline to get to the upper levels, and the unusually shallow angle of the seats in the lower bowl. I’ll definitely miss the fact that when you settle in to watch a game, there’s nothing else to see or do. There aren’t nice views of other local landmarks, because you’re not at RFK to look at the monuments. No distractions. RFK’s design made the game sacred.

And of course I’ll miss the moments that still feel so real every time I walk through the tunnel and see the field. Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, and Raul Diaz Arce leading United in the team’s trademark celebration. Joe-Max Moore scoring against Argentina. Being in the building to see United lift five major trophies. WUSA’s first-ever game. Nick Rimando sprinting off to his left after sending United to the 2004 MLS Cup. The euphoria, after five down years, of Lewis Neal running onto Branko Boskovic’s no-look pass for a stoppage time winner that sealed a playoff spot. If I listed all of them, I’d be publishing a novel.

Yesterday, sometime during the open training session, I started to come to grips with it. I’m still not ready. I’m not ready to hear United chants echo off of different walls. I’m not ready for a year to go by where I don’t find myself in a post-apocalyptic parking lot, checking the time to make sure I’m not going to miss kickoff. I’m not ready for different sightlines, or a trip to games that doesn’t include that view coming off of 295, after you go past the weather-beaten signs for RFK that haven’t been updated since the 90s.

I pushed this story back as far as I can. It’s 6:51am on the day we say goobye to RFK. It’s time to send it out into the world, to make one last drive to RFK for a game. It’s time to make one last memory at the only home our team has ever known.

It’s time.