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D.C. United’s opener at Audi Field could have been perfect. It wasn’t.

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An ideal outcome on Audi Field’s pitch was tarnished by events off of it

Caitlin Buckley

It finally happened: D.C. United hosted a home game in a venue that was truly theirs, and on the field they rose to the occasion. United played some of their best soccer in years in the final half-hour. Audi Field feels like a great venue to watch a game. Wayne Rooney’s debut offered a tantalizing glimpse at what this group can achieve with him on the field. Yamil Asad and Paul Arriola scored spectacular goals, Luciano Acosta was in a groove, and Vancouver’s wasted big chances made sure they wouldn’t spoil the Black-and-Red’s big night.

We’ve all waited for this. We’ve lost sleep over it, endured back-stabbing politicians and interminable council meetings for it. We’ve yelled, we’ve sweated, we’ve worked. Any fan who needed a moment to compose themselves after walking inside our new home...I get it completely. I did the same thing. The stadium is a real-world, tangible sign that United is not going anywhere. In a world where MLS has been completely fine with moving a fellow original club to Austin no matter what fans league-wide say, that means something big. Walking into that building on Saturday, to see my team play at a permanent home, is a moment I will never forget.

However.

As soon as you think about things that happened off the field, the luster starts to fade. First and foremost, the stadium was not ready to be opened. I’m not talking about the fact that it is not 100% done; we all knew that would be the case. Construction is ongoing, and that will continue to be the case for quite a while. I’m talking about the railing, or railing cap, or whatever you’d like to call it, that fell and struck Lindsay Simpson, the team’s VP of marketing and communications. Pablo Maurer has done valuable work covering what happened for the Washington City Paper.

This is unacceptable. Set aside the “it could have been a fan!” thing that has been said a few times, because in the end the difference isn’t important. Someone was hit by a dangerous falling object, period. The team and construction contractors, who pursued an extraordinarily challenging timetable, have to answer for it. The city, who inspected and approved the stadium for occupancy, does too. This never should have happened.

On a less essential note, the gameday experience is also one that still needs work. This is a problem that shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. No stadium opening ever goes smoothly as far as lines to get in or at concessions stands go. You have a new building with new procedures, a larger than usual contingent of first-time attendees, and a lack of familiarity with everything about the place among fans and employees that are going to be visiting Buzzard Point on a routine basis.

However, what concerned me a bit was that the presentation felt a bit like going to a game at any other team in the region’s stadium. It’s not the building, which once it’s completed and totally ready for occupancy should be great. It’s the extra stuff, like overly loud pregame pop songs, and a high-definition screen behind one goal that only showed ads rather than, say, a game clock or scoreboard.

United shouldn’t be afraid to sell genuine soccer and genuine emotion. The loudest roars of the night, outside of the goals, came when Rooney windmilled his arms in an attempt to rile the crowd up. It worked like a charm, and the building was, briefly, almost deafening. Contrast that with the roving pre-game hype man, who fans simply had no interest in. I feel for the guy, who gave it his best effort. It’s just an impossible job, because fans did not want the role to exist. There was an instant, bone-deep lack of response.

This is a soccer-mad region, and that’s what people are going to respond to. The crowd didn’t just get loud at the end of the game because of Paul Arriola’s goals; they appreciated the beautifully simple soccer that United was able to play with Rooney in the game.

I mean, look at this:

For those of you who weren’t in town for the glory days, or even the mid-00s sides, this was the kind of goal that United scored all the time in that era. And those eras saw the most fervent support throughout the stadium, rather than just relying on the supporters groups to do all the heavy lifting. The difference between the quiet side and the loud side was for a time not nearly as pronounced as it became in the final years at RFK, and we don’t have to rely on one end of the stadium to carry the noise today. It can be a cacophony on all four sides, and part of building that is the play on the field.

But of course, before we can even get towards building support, we have to get the supporters in the building. La Barra Brava and the District Ultras protested the game, having for five months now demanded acceptable terms to buy group tickets in the supporters’ stand. Their absence was unquestionably felt; a United game needs the non-stop rowdiness we see from La Barra, and it needs the “90 Minute Mentality” that is essentially the motto of the Ultras.

This problem isn’t going to change unless and until D.C. United comes to the table and makes the first move...and probably the second. The bridges here have been burned down, and the team holds the cards. If they can’t or won’t make an offer to both groups that is satisfactory, the issue is going to languish where it is. Eventually, the people who are willing to attend a protest are going to start to wonder why they give so much of their time, their emotional involvement, and their mental bandwidth to this team.

There may be some movement. Both groups have tweeted confirmation of a meeting with managing general partner Jason Levien:

It’s not guaranteed to work, though progress has continued during the time it took me to write this piece. This is just step one in a very long path back towards a deal, and towards rebuilding trust and the relationships that have to be in place for supporters culture to thrive (including between the groups). But it’s something, and we can all hope that progress continues.

However, when it comes to #UnitedAtHome, we’re not home until all of us are home.