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D.C. United’s rise in D.C. sports depends on D.C. United

D.C.’s sports relevancy is something that’s attainable if work is put in.

For longtime fans of D.C. United, the fulcrum that has swung the Black-and-Red’s way over the course of the last 8 or 9 months has been nothing short of breathtaking. Let's count them off in no order:

  • Sign a global superstar (Wayne Rooney), whose play on the field not only was the rising tide to lift the team’s boat, but has embraced the community where he lives to the point where he was visible at Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals games this past offseason.
  • Added a second Boca Juniors player (Leonardo Jara) to their roster, while
  • Their first Boca Juniors player (Luciano Acosta) was subject to transfer interest from French club Paris St. Germain and was rumored to receive lesser interest from Manchester City and Manchester United.
  • Announced the creation of a USL Championship team and broke ground/began work on a 5,000 seat stadium for same,
  • Began site preparation for a modern training facility next to the aforementioned stadium.
  • On field, began toying with teams from both Conferences when it came to skill and style of play, most recently a comprehensive 2-0 win over Atlanta United FC on Sunday which had some people put D.C. at the top of their power rankings.

Heady times indeed, especially for a team that played their last game of 2017 in a stadium so dated that (at one point) a small desk fan blew cool air on an internet router to keep press internet functional. Now comes the assertion that D.C. could very well, for the first time in more than a decade, see a consistent place in the reality and perspective of media and populace alike, cracking the subjective vaunted title of major pro sports. And from a writer who talks about the Wizards no less! I mean, I guess it’s possible, and it’s flattering to see such a discussion occur. Bill Hamid made mention of the fact that he saw more D.C. United shirts over this past winter than he had at any point in his pro career (narrator: in fact, Bill has played for D.C. off and on since 2010).

I don’t know Albert Lee but I assume he’s a nice guy, and he knows as much about MLS as I know about the NBA. I know that the Wizards have an injured player (John Wall) making a lot of money, signed another player (Dwight Howard) with consistency issues, and as far as the rest goes...well, Gilbert Arenas’ podcast is engaging? And it is funny to me to see owner Ted Leonsis’ perceived distance from the club, compared to his constant presence at Caps games. When you throw in that at the time he bought into both clubs, it seemed to be for the inevitable assumption of ownership of the Wizards, wrapping both arms around his fallback school is just humorous. And circumstance and buona fortuna (in the form of a transcendent Russian left winger named Alex Ovechkin) changed those things, and well, we are where we are, and there seems to be not a lot of joy for the Wiz for the foreseeable future.

When D.C. went on their insane Audi Field run last year, and into the fall, as the NFL team started its annual slow downturn to disappointment while the neighboring Washington Nationals dealt with another early playoff exit, D.C. certainly had that opportunity to grasp the visibility of the peripheral D.C. sports fan and hold onto it, only to have it go away all too early thanks to the Columbus Crew SC. To be clear, I think the use of ‘Big Four’ sports by people, a lot in DC in fact, is a shifting of goalposts in a discussion because they can’t or won’t see the advancement (or in D.C. United’s case, resurrection) in popularity of other sports. A lot of this was asserted during the “D.C. Sports Curse,” a narrative device that a lot of cities want to do these days to romanticize the games they follow. The Washington Spirit get to the NWSL Finals? Doesn’t count, not “major.” DCU winning the U.S. Open Cup during their horrid 2013 season? Doesn’t count, not a “major” title in a “major” sport. So now that the Caps have phony wiped out the phony curse, I get that serves as a reset of sorts for a lot of folks, and good on them for doing so.

Given the health of both franchises at the moment, I think there’s no doubt D.C. United could replace the Wizards as the 4th most popular team out there. That’s not the question to ask however. You have to ask is whether or not D.C. United wants to take the position.

In their defense, the organization is juggling three very significant balls right now: their USL team kicks off their inaugural season in a couple of days and there is a 4% chance their 48-year-old head coach and former D.C. United player Richie Williams would have to sign a USL contract for roster compliance (I’m kidding on that number. I think). They’re also working on improvements to Audi Field after finishing it quickly but at deadline last July, and there’s the matter of having barely enough bodies to fit an 18-man squad for the first team at the moment.

But saturating the market and putting the team in front of as many eyes off-field is paramount to success. You and I know of D.C.’s connection to the community. From its jerseys (save for, well), to its coach Ben Olsen’s city residence and his accompanying advocacy in voting rights and budget autonomy, to the team being called “D.C.”, it seems that the only pro sports folks with a stadium in the city who have a lot of people living IN the city are the ones who are told frequently their sport doesn’t count. They are usually told this by people in Maryland (ed: a Virginia resident wrote that).

Past that, you have the Homegrown indicator in MLS which other leagues don’t have. Bill Hamid stood in the supporters’ groups at D.C. games as a kid, he also supports causes and events in D.C. So does fellow homegrown player Jalen Robinson (despite J-Rob’s Baltimore Ravens fandom). Chris Odoi-Atsem grew up here and is looking to return to play after recently completing chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Pretty soon you’ll presumably have another player from Montgomery County (Poolesville’s Bryang Kayo) and two from Fairfax County (Clifton’s Griffin Yow and Springfield’s Antonio Bustamante) that you have the chance to maybe watch play, along with ones from Howard County (Clarksville’s Donovan Pines).

For the interest that Acosta appears to have gained internationally and has already gained in MLS, he (like Rooney) are both relatively anonymous around the city and suburbs. Perhaps that is how both like it, and in comparison, someone like Diego Valeri could serve as the touchstone. You know, a fellow player from Argentina who has blossomed into life in his MLS city and team (the Portland Timbers). Am I expecting Acosta to be constantly stopped in Southwest as he walks a couple blocks to Audi Field? It wouldn't hurt, but no. I’m saying that the bond between Valeri and PDX is known, as well as a little PDA between both parties. Do we see that with Lucho? Have we? Rooney’s fondness for this new home, combined with his talent level, places him in a rarified air that few MLS players can approach. I’m not asking Lucho to go to a Caps game, just that given his age, talent level and current conditions, putting Mambo Sauce on his platanos is further indication would seem to indicate that it isn’t just an affair, it’s a romance.

It’s not that D.C. United COULDN’T get more popular than the Wizards or even the Nationals, particularly if the latter came out of the gates slow from the Uber-marathon that is the Major League Baseball Regular Season. And it’s not that D.C. United SHOULDN’T, because they should. Given the menu at the moment, the proposition is a Chef’s Surprise that they may not have expected or considered.

But opportunities like this one, or last fall, don’t occur that often and the D.C. United organization should strongly consider grabbing them while they can. A team with a winning history and a stadium downtown only needs the next step of making the connection in and around their community to make this a truly special (and more importantly, long-lasting) bond.