Stadiums function a great deal like shoes. Wear a pair for too long and the shoelaces begin to fray, the outer sole wears thin, and the inner sole starts to emit a smell generally acceptable at the bottom of a rubbish bin. Change them out for new shoes that fit too snug, and walking around becomes a right pain in the heel with ingrown toenails forming from the compression. Pick out a pair too large and you find yourself wobbly on the feet, liable to trip over at any attempt to move forward with your feet swimming within the vast space and most likely falling backwards until those shoes come off for pair that fits. It matters not as to your relative means, the price of the shoes, or whether you are big or small; if the shoes are ill-fitting, they do not permit you to perform to your best relative to your goals. While English football watches this unfold near the close in the case of Darlington FC, football fans in the United States are at intermission of a similar-looking affair transpiring in their nation’s capital, but with a rather different check and balance that will prevent such a possible demise.
While many European observers of Major League Soccer today might consider Los Angeles or Red Bull NY the preeminent clubs due to the media attention paid to them or their collections of known players like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Robbie Keane, much of the first decade in this iteration of a top division in US football belonged to DC United. With squads containing international US players such as John Harkes–perhaps well known to supporters of Sheffield Wednesday of the early 1990s–DC United dominated the early years of the league, appearing in the first four championship finals and winning three of those titles. Under manager Bruce Arena, DC United looked to have brought immediate credibility to the new league in 1998 by winning its confederation’s version of the Champions League over top Mexican side Deportivo Toluca. Following Arena’s departure to take the position as manager of the US national team, the club’s form dipped from being the consistently dominant organization, earning the double with regularity to being but another among a pack of top MLS sides, earning the occasional MLS Cup, US Open Cup, or Supporters’ Shield over subsequent years. Since 2007, though, the drop in league performance has become more pronounced, with the club having missed out on playoff qualification for MLS Cup their past four campaigns. Just to frustrate their supporters, this current inability to qualify has come while the league has expanded the number of clubs eligible for post-season league play.
All of those seasons, mostly victorious but lately dismal, have seen DC United call RFK Stadium home. This stadium, built in 1961 for the purposes of American baseball and football, is a hand-me-down relic, owned by the city council’s Washington Convention & Sports Authority (also known as EventsDC), abandoned by two baseball teams–one that left the city entirely decades ago–and the American football team that moved to a new purpose-built home just outside the city limits. Lacking an ability to be incredibly picky as to where its clubs played in the early years, MLS might have considered itself lucky to have feature DC United at RFK Stadium for a time. Even though the stadium was not optimal, it provided the capital club with a home of their own shared with no other professional team, excepting a three year period where Major League Baseball turned its Montreal Expos franchise into a carpetbagger that tore up the pitch until moving into a stadium of their own. RFK Stadium, then, appears now to serve the WCSA as a place for other professional teams to be given shelter until they move to greener pastures, but for some reason DC United have yet to be granted a similar chance to be shot of the aging and ill-fitting facility, and here is where the eerie parallel with Darlington FC’s status comes to play.
As several proposals for a new soccer-specific stadium within the surrounding area for DC United have come and gone, the club remains a tenant to Events DC at reportedly the highest cost of any club in the league. The organization’s front office estimates it costs the club $140,000 to host a match at RFK stadium, which is nearly double the league average. President Kevin Payne suggested his team is $2.85 million worse per year than other clubs, in part for lease payments ongoing to Events DC, but also the inability to earn supplemental income from concessions as Events DC retains ownership of this additional revenue source. Further, as RFK Stadium is an older stadium built before the idea of extracting top dollar fees from special executive sections became commonplace among US sports arenas, DC United lags behind league colleagues that now have these revenue-generating seats applied to their bottom lines on top of earning concession fees denied to the capital club. With a shirt sponsorship from Volkswagen providing roughly the same money per year as Payne estimates the club overspends via their tenancy at RFK, treading water might soon turn to drowning should a resolution favorable to DC United not be found soon.
Commissioner Don Garber made it quite clear in his annual statement to Payne, club owner Will Chang, and Events DC that the current situation cannot be maintained for long before the league becomes more intimately involved. In the short term, Garber placed the onus on DC United and Events DC to pursue a plan more financially viable for the club to remain at their current home with an eye toward club and city officials locating space and funding for a new stadium in the future. The difficulty with obtaining something sustainable for DC United in both instances has been the attitude of public officials toward the club along with the lack of deep pockets for such a project.
City mayor Vincent Gray, who not only as the most prominent elected official involved in these dealings but also as a decision maker within Events DC owing to its public affiliation, appears to believe there is little to be gained by negotiating a better lease agreement with DC United. With public statements like, “Gee, I hope you can stay, but how are we going to make this work?” and, “…we’d love to be able to find a way to help them stay,” Gray provides little in the way of confidence that DC United will be given a reprieve on the lease or afforded first right of refusal on prime real estate within the district to develop. As Gray comments via his personal Twitter account that with the district is struggling financially a publicly-funded stadium–even partly funded as many of the club’s schemes include majority private investment–is impossible, the essential message to DC United’s front office is that the city will continue extracting as much money from its lease agreement as possible until they are drained dry and forced to leave for greener pastures.
Where those greener pastures might be, however, could be a contentious matter between supporters and the league. Late last year Major League Soccer sent a questionnaire to residents of nearby Baltimore surveying whether sports fans there would support a soccer club in their area. While the survey included other clubs as possibilities for relocation to Baltimore, it is no secret the intent was to gauge public support for the league uprooting DC United and moving them some 30 miles north. As this would be rather devastating to the supporter culture built up around DC United in their RFK environs, who would be unlikely to move with the club to reestablish their Barra Brava, DC Ultras, La Norte, or Screaming Eagles supporter sections in Baltimore, such a move engenders considerable risk to the club and league. Garber and the league are unafraid to rip the band-aid off this particular wound should the need arise, however, as they saw fit to do in 2005 when the absence of a stadium solution in San Jose saw a relocation of that club to Houston. San Jose has since had its league status renewed with a new team for supporters to rally behind, but should DC United leave Washington, DC, there will likely be no hope of a return for domestic soccer fans.
Considering it took Major League Baseball 34 years to have an appetite for the district again, Major League Soccer would likely have less stomach to give it another go.
Here, then, demonstrates one of the qualities that differentiates MLS from other leagues. While we may say that Will Chang is the owner of DC United, in truth the league owns the club and grants him the right to operate it. While the complexities of the single-entity structure of the league are beyond this tome, suffice it to say a club will not be allowed to continue operations in a market where the league determines it is not wanted. Thus, while DC United–as a franchise of Major League Soccer–might be granted license to shrivel on the vine rooted in RFK Stadium while attempting to reach a solution with Events DC and the city, they will not be left to rot on that vine much longer and suffer a fate staring a club like Darlington FC in the face. With the most recent public activity on the matter being a rather toothless resolution proposed by the city council that sounded more like something a girlfriend would say to the boyfriend she just broke up with rather than a solid statement of support, the question now might be how much longer into this year it will be before Don Garber tells Chang and Payne to knock the dust off their sandals and walk away from the District of Columbia.
The shoes have worn thin, there are holes in the soles, and they are the most expensive pair about despite lacking the proper arch support. The time will likely come sooner rather than later when DC United must unlace them and try on another pair before their footing slips any further while league rivals run ahead. MLS clubs have been getting new kicks lately that for the most part have fit just right and grown as the league has grown. Commissioner Garber & Co. acutely recognize one of their more important teams in the short history of the league need new shoes not only that they can afford but that will give them a bit of that toe space to grow as well rather than be further blistered by their surroundings. Whether those shoes are found at a market in the district or at a new shopping center elsewhere depends on whether the cobblers at Events DC truly value their business.