Throughout the years, D.C. United fans have always cast skepticism when it comes to talk about a new stadium for the team. That skepticism was well deserved, as promises from city mayors came and went. Plans flamed out at Poplar Point and in Prince George’s County, and the team teetered on having to leave the area all together. So when fans trotted out the phrase, “I’ll believe it when shovels hit the ground,” they meant it.
After Monday afternoon, there is no more room for that skepticism. The shovels hit the ground - okay, a box of dirt set up for the occasion - in the team’s groundbreaking ceremony for Audi Field at Buzzard Point. D.C. United’s stadium is now a reality, and sometime in 2018, the team will finally begin play in a new stadium, in their 23rd year of existence.
“Today is really a milestone for this franchise, for our fans, and for the community,” United’s Managing Partner Jason Levien said during the ceremony. “It’s a day that couldn’t come soon enough for us, and a chance to look back on all the work that’s been put into this franchise and this opportunity to have a home for D.C. United, and it’s also a day to look forward because we have amazing things ahead.”
It wasn’t so much what happened on Monday that mattered. Instead, it’s what the ceremony represented. The original stadium deal, the one that lead to Audi Field, was officially announced as an agreement between the city and United on July 25th, 2013. That came about a year after Levien and Erick Thohir took over the club, who said that their number one mission was to get the team a new stadium.
But it’s been a long and arduous road since that 2013 announcement. And it wasn’t until February 16, 2017, a full 1,303 days after that original announcement, that the Black-and-Red finally had final approval to begin constructing the stadium. There was plenty of the usual political wrangling, and several iterations of what the stadium might actually look like once built. So the groundbreaking was a relief, a culmination of years of angling to keep United in the nation’s capital.
“This team has needed a stadium for over 20 years,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber, told reporters after the ceremony. “After years, and fits and starts, pseudo-groundbreakings, and press conferences, to finally sit up there with [Mayor Muriel Bowser] and with Jason Levien and with [Ben Olsen], and with our new sponsor [Audi], to celebrate the new future for soccer in District really warms my heart. It’s actually a pretty emotional moment.”
The moment came after poetry readings from kids from DC Scores, and speeches from Levien, Bowser, Garber, and Olsen. The dozen or so players from United who were in attendance were introduced, and the build-up to the actual groundbreaking was capped off by a speech from Bill Hamid, United’s longest-serving current player. Hamid joined the club’s academy in 2006, and was a fan before that.
“This is a monumental day for D.C. United and D.C. sports,” said Hamid. “It’s heartwarming to see so many good people work around the clock tirelessly, on and off the field, to make this dream a reality for so many people.”
Then, the shovels hit the dirt. And as the shovels plunged in, ceremoniously breaking that last barrier, earth-movers in the background were running, prepping the site for construction. It was further evidence that this event wasn’t purely for show: the stadium is getting built.
“I wanted to make sure D.C. United were here to stay, and that they were going to continue to invest in Washington, D.C., and the best fans in the world,” Bowser said during her speech. “World-class cities have world-class sports teams and facilities.”
It was a moment that Levien never let himself dream of. Just like the fans, he wasn’t going to believe a stadium was going to get built until the shovels actually hit the ground.
“I never let myself think about it,” Levien said of the groundbreaking ceremony. “Sometimes you daydream, and things don’t get done. I had a sense it was going to be a process. It was going to be tough. Grit to the end.”
There’s still plenty of time until United does actually run out onto Audi Field for the first time. The team is still optimistic that it can open the stadium next June, around the time of the World Cup break. That’s a best case scenario, one that forces the team to begin the season with a long road trip.
But after all the hurdles the team had to clear, all the starts and stops, the dream is now a reality. D.C. United has an end date in sight for playing at the revered RFK Stadium.
“Every owner, every executive, every player is smiling today,” Garber said of the feeling around the league about United’s new stadium. “This is the one we wanted most. And we finally have it today. I think everyone who is involved in our league and in our sport has a soft spot for how hard it’s been.”