Audi Field brings home the growth of soccer in the Washington area

D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen stood this week at an entrance to Audi Field, the beautiful, modern home stadium of which his franchise has dreamed for nearly 20 years, and said: “It’s better than I imagined. And I imagined a lot.

“I feel emotional right now because we have wanted a home of our own for so long,” said Olsen the former United star who has been with the team continuously since 1998, becoming coach in 2010. “But it won’t really hit me until this weekend for the first game. When we feel the energy of the moment, with all our fans, that’s when everything will go up to another level.”

Washington’s soccer fans have been imagining and hoping for a true home for so long that D.C. Council member Jack Evans, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony this week, said, “The first time we discussed this stadium, I remember I sat down with George Washington and Pierre L’Enfant.”

So many plans, so many potential sites and so many disappointments have dogged D.C. United’s stadium dreams since 2004, that it seems almost cruel to claim that Audi Field has been “worth the wait.”

But it is. It’s stunning.

Just two blocks from Nationals Park, and built in the past 17 months, the 20,000-seat stadium has revealed its finished exteriors only recently. Renderings don’t do it justice. Built by Populous (the former HOK), one of world’s largest builders of sports facilities, including 14 MLB stadiums, Audi Field instantly rivals Nats Park for first-sight, modern-design impact. Nats Park is twice as big and more expensively built, but Audi Field will hold its own.

Far more important perhaps is the sense of completion that Audi Field will bring not only to D.C. United’s fans but to everyone in the Washington area who has watched soccer’s role in the entire metropolitan area transform over the past 50 years.

In 1961, the Annandale Boys Club had four teams. By 1972, when I first wrote about the youth soccer explosion, the Annandale Club had 111 teams with 18 players to a squad. Suburban Virginia then had about 500 teams, and the entire D.C. metro area had boomed to more than 1,000 youth teams. Many assumed soccer was coming to North America in a huge, irresistible and exciting way.

Then came sobering reality. In 1975, I went to Randall’s Island in New York City to see the most famous player in the world — Pele — in his first game for the New York Cosmos. Even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger worked to get this Brazilian “national treasure” to be allowed to play for an American team. The exhibition game was covered by 200 reporters and 150 photographers from all over the world. But the crowd was 21,278 — 30,000 fewer than the New York Yankees drew that day.

The Washington Diplomats of that North American Soccer League, born in 1974, seemed like a certain success to me. I’ve seldom interviewed a more fascinating man than the late Johan Cruyff, the European Player of the Century, and the best player in the world when the Dutchman came to play for the Diplomats in 1980.

“The gift of the game is to see at a glance what exists, and, in an instant, create what might exist,” Diplomats Coach Gordon Bradley said. No one on earth could do it like Cruyff of whom a teammate said, “He reminds me of a leopard on the skulk, always biding his time and waiting to strike.”

“Soccer is the sport where no one can prove that he is right,” said Cruyff, who spoke seven languages. “Suppose I pass into a gap and no one is there. Am I wrong for losing the ball? Or is my teammate wrong for not anticipating my pass? There is no answer. It is nice in my game that you are allowed to make fine mistakes.”

How could anyone resist such a player and personality?

Then I attended a free Diplomats exhibition game in Jacksonville, Fla., against a college team. The crowd that day to see Cruyff, the man that more people on earth wanted to see than any other athlete? Zero. Those Dips folded at the end of the season.

My sense, with hindsight, is that America simply needed time for all those children in youth leagues in the 1970s and ’80s to grow up — with a love of playing soccer, not just watching it — then bring their own friends and families to pro games in what turned out to be Major League Soccer by the 1990s.

The opening of Audi Field symbolizes the way the entire MLS is putting down permanent roots. D.C. United is now the 19th team in its league to have its own soccer-specific stadium. Six more are planned.

That is essential because, ironically, soccer is now enormously popular in America — but the European version of the sport, which seems to be available 25 hours a day on every electronic device. FIFA Soccer is the most popular video game in the world. My 31-year-old son, like many millennials, watches the Premier League. And he knows that the MLS, as entertaining a product as it offers, is not close to the top of the world pecking order of leagues.

That’s why, when D.C. United announces it has signed a world-class player such as English forward Wayne Rooney, it is a huge boost to league credibility, as well as interest in more United victories.

“This beautiful stadium played a big part in me coming to D.C. United to try to win titles and create some history here,” said Rooney, standing by Audi Field.

I am often stunned by local sports fans, many in the suburbs, who don’t grasp what’s happened on the Anacostia waterfront from the Navy Yard to Nats Park and across South Capitol Street to Audi Field on Buzzard Point. They act like it’s some semi-blighted work-in-progress area that they’ve never visited.

Forbes magazine just named it the “12 coolest neighborhoods in the world.” Just two are in the United States, one in Chicago and this one in D.C. Perhaps Forbes exaggerates. I don’t always trust the objectivity of magazine evaluations of “destinations.” But, come on, digest those three words: “in the world.” Everything that implies — safe, beautiful, diverse, restaurants of all types, parks, scenery — is right there.

“We’re one of the coolest leagues in the world. Why wouldn’t we be here?” vamped MLS Commissioner Dan Garber this week. Turning serious, he added, “Actually, this neighborhood, the way real estate prices are going up, if you tried to get this stadium done here now, I’m not sure you could.”

After 20 years of what D.C. United fans call the pursuit of their soccer “cathedral,” it seems only fitting that they got more than they ever dreamed.

Audi Field may be on Buzzard Point, but on Saturday night, it’s going to be full of Screaming Eagles. “Vamos, United.” Home, at last.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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