The Washington Spirit have not had a lot to be cheerful about in 2018. A young and promising roster hasn’t worked out, they’ve had to change coaches, and they’ve endured two separate goal-scoring ruts of over 400 minutes. And yet, touring Audi Field last week ahead of their showcase NWSL game against Portland Thorns FC (8:00pm Eastern, ESPNews), players were laughing and smiling throughout.
The District’s newest sporting venue has that effect on people.
“I think the fact that we’re gonna be the first women’s team to play here is really special,” said USWNT attacker Mallory Pugh at a press conference following the team’s tour of the brand new facility on Buzzard Point. “It’s awesome! [I’m] so excited for D.C. United and MLS ... The field looks amazing, and all the amenities, it’s truly professional,” added midfielder Andi Sullivan. Goalkeeper DiDi Haracic described Audi Field as “absolutely beautiful” after Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to Utah Royals FC.
“It’s just exciting...the reason why you play is to play in stadiums like this,” summed up team captain Estelle Johnson in an interview with B&RU.
The enthusiasm from Spirit players and staff was palpable during a tour of the $400 million stadium, which has hosted six D.C. United games since opening its doors on July 14th. Accustomed to a more spartan locker room at the Maryland SoccerPlex, wide-eyed players broke into grins as they saw where they’ll suit up for tonight’s game. Johnson and Sullivan both praised the Bermuda grass playing surface, while just about every player snapped numerous photos throughout the hour-long tour.
Bill Lynch, the club’s owner, said that his main goal for holding a game in the District was “establishing a footprint back in...D.C. proper.” While women’s soccer has a rich history in the nation’s capital, the last fully professional women’s game in D.C. itself came back in 2010, before the Washington Freedom were purchased, infamously renamed magicJack FC, and moved to Florida, a situation that eventually played a major role in the demise of WPS.
Lynch hopes the Spirit are more frequent guests at Audi Field in the future, provided that playing games there makes business sense. “I think that at the very least we’ll try expand what we’re doing [in 2019]. Like everything in life, a lot of things need to happen, numbers need to make sense,” said Lynch, adding that “the long-term goal is to fill big stadiums with fans of the women’s game.”
There are reasons for optimism on that front. The Spirit said in an email sent to fans yesterday that they had already sold over 5,500 tickets for the game, which would break their all-time attendance record. Asked how he’d define off-the-field success for this first time at the new venue, Lynch said he would consider 8,000-10,000 fans “a big first game for us.”
Players, meanwhile, kept the focus on their roles as ambassadors for the women’s game. “The numbers are important, but at the same time, if we attract people who have not previously come to...an NWSL game, I think that would be a huge step,” said Sullivan in an interview with B&RU. “I think once people see the league and the quality of the players, the fight and the character...they’re interested.”
Johnson embraced that aspect, saying “I’m really excited to be able to gain some new fans,” and also noted the challenge of drawing the area’s soccer fans out to the SoccerPlex, which is a fine facility that just happens to be about 19 miles northwest of the already treacherous Beltway. “I feel like one thing that is a struggle for us is, people don’t even really know we exist all the way out here in D.C. So it’s just an opportunity for us to dip our fingers into the market here in D.C. and try to get more fans.”
For Spirit players and coaches with local roots, the game has an added meaning. After all, anyone involved in soccer in the DMV is fully aware of the long struggle to get a soccer stadium built in the District, and the sheer fact that a permanent home for the sport in this region came up frequently.
“Having Audi Field open has been fantastic. I followed this process, this journey for D.C. United for many years,” said assistant coach and USWNT legend Briana Scurry. “It’s been a long time coming, and it’s fantastic to have a soccer-specific stadium finally in the D.C. area.” With a laugh, Scurry added that she was “a little envious” of the players who get to take the field tonight.
Interim head coach Tom Torres, who for many years coached in United’s academy system and described himself as “Black-and-Red through and through” on Wednesday, pointed out the number of times a potential stadium deal fell through for United, who had proposals at Poplar Point and in Prince Georges County go sour over the last 15 years. “I worked for the club when we thought we had a stadium two or three times. So, we were excited and then ugh, excited and ugh, so just to see that come through, to be a coach on the sideline...it’s super special.”
The Spirit have always tried to maintain a strong local flavor, and Torres is far from alone in having connections to pro soccer in the capital region that go way back. Sullivan, who grew up in Lorton, said that she wore the number 99 in her club soccer days as a nod to United legend Jaime Moreno, and lit up while describing memories of watching Abby Wambach and the Freedom at RFK Stadium.
Haracic was also a frequent attendee at Freedom games, which played no small part in inspiring her career path. “I remember probably the first game I went [to], I was probably like 9 years old? Someone asked me what I wanted to be, I told them ‘professional soccer player!,’ and they kind of laughed,” said the Round Hill, VA native before adding “And now, I’m laughing, so here we are!”
Sullivan hoped that games like this, and the potential for more like it down the road, might inspire a few more stories like Haracic’s, saying “Hopefully there are young players...who see professional soccer and think ‘Oh, this is something I want to do.’ That would be really cool for me, especially doing it in the area I grew up in.”
That bigger-picture view came up repeatedly, even as the team clearly wants to break a long losing streak by putting one over on Portland. A win would be nice, but putting on a show that brings fans from around the region out to more of their games is the bigger prize. The Spirit are confident they’re up to that challenge, and they hope DMV soccer fans respond in kind. As Scurry said, “It’s gonna be a great testament to our game, and I’m really hoping that D.C. comes out and supports women’s soccer.”