Analysis

D.C. United empathizes with Columbus plight

Crew fans [Image: Matthew Bernhardt]

As Columbus Crew goes to Washington D.C., the home fans will recognise the uncertainty facing the side from Ohio – for now. Ian Quillen reflects on the journeys of two pioneering MLS clubs.

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From a competitive standpoint, it's D.C. United that have everything to lose in Saturday's MLS fixture against Columbus Crew SC.

United have earned only two points from a possible 15 so far. And after their second "home" match some 25 miles east of Washington at the United States Naval Academy, they face a brutal eight-match, three-month away stretch before finally opening their new ground, Audi Field.

And yet most D.C. fans grounded in the history of the two clubs will likely feel considerable compassion for any Crew SC fans who find their way to Annapolis, Md.

Because while Crew fans may see their team lifted from Columbus after the season, few of their MLS brethren should feel more empathy than those from Washington, who endured a decade of uncertainty in their club's search for a permanent home.

“There’s sort of a level of helplessness, and seeing that is really unpleasant,” says Jason Anderson, co-managing editor at D.C. blog Black-and-Red United. “It makes me think about the stadium here getting built. And it’s like, if that didn’t get done, this could’ve been D.C.”

TWO OF A KIND

Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt's open demand for a new taxpayer-funded stadium in downtown Columbus, followed by his open exploration of a move to Austin, Texas, is not exactly like anything D.C. fans had to endure.

But it does evoke certain memories of a spectre that loomed for years over Washington fans: that their club might move out of the area. And it also risks the destruction of the league's foundations. Together, D.C. and Columbus have embodied what is worth remembering about the early “MLS 1.0” years as the league grows into more matured first division.

On the field, D.C. United were the league’s first powerhouse, winning three of the first four MLS Cups – as well as pioneering the search for South American talents like Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez. In the terraces, their diverse supporters groups like the Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles modeled authentic, passionate and yet uniquely American soccer support.

Columbus lagged D.C. in on-field success, often falling to the Black-and-Red in the playoffs in the 1990s. But in 1999, the Ohio club opened the nation’s first soccer-specific stadium and changed the league’s course forever in the process.

“It was a very simple kind of stadium,” says Paul Sotoudeh, a D.C. supporter since the inaugural 1996 season and former president of the Screaming Eagles. “But it was the first, and it meant so much to the league at the time. I think we all know that in the ‘90s and early 2000s the league was on shaky financial ground. And Columbus kind of showed the way.”

The Crew's ground-breaking stadium [Image: Rick Dikeman]

Clubs owning their own stadiums and controlling their own revenues pushed the league forward, but surfaced recurring questions over D.C.’s sustainability. While other clubs followed Columbus' example, the red tape common in the nation's capital doomed a stadium plan in southwest Washington, and another fell through in suburban Prince George’s County. At one point, it appeared "D.C." would either build a stadium in the city of Baltimore some 40 miles away or fold altogether.

"There was certainly a point after [the move to Prince George’s] collapsed where nobody really knew what was going to happen," Sotoudeh recalls. "We were hopeful, because D.C. was such a good market in terms of wealth, and the soccer fandom here is really strong. There was always the hope that it just didn’t make financial sense for the league to leave."

THE MODEL SHIFTS

Some argued that D.C. United could've had a stadium sooner if they'd followed the path of Crew SC owner Lamar Hunt. Hunt's group chose to build their stadium next to the Ohio State Fairgrounds on the northern side of the city, a tract with plenty of parking but one that is isolated from bars, restaurants or other businesses. And that was always less than ideal, says former D.C. club president Kevin Payne.

The LA Galaxy, Chicago Fire, F.C. Dallas and others followed Columbus in building suburban stadiums. But from very early on, Payne longed to construct a venue in a downtown district where it could be utilized for multiple purposes and capitalize on community ties.

“I had a board meeting our very first year, and one of our board members said how will we ever get this to be profitable?” Payne recalls. “And I said we need our own stadium, and we need our own stadium in the right location. And I believed then that means being in an urban environment.”

Some criticized Payne for waiting too long to secure the perfect deal. He admits he wasn’t enthusiastic when team ownership explored construction in Prince George’s County.

“They needed to try to do something quickly,” Payne says. “And it looked like there was an opportunity to do something quickly in Prince George’s County. In a way, for the club long-term, I’m glad it didn’t work out.”

As time went on, other MLS clubs built in more urban areas. In time for 2007’s U20 World Cup, Toronto FC opened BMO Field – near the city’s lakefront, the Rogers Centre and CN Tower. Seattle Sounders drew crowds of more than 30,000 from its inaugural match in 2009 as the second tenant of CenturyLink Field, built for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.

Seattle's stadium exemplifies the downtown ideal [Image: Art Bromage]

The Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact also followed by constructing or renovating urban venues as part of their expansion agreements. And Houston relocated to BBVA Compass Field, next to MLB’s Houston Astros.

All the while, Columbus remained in what began to feel like an erector set of a football ground in comparison. They thrived on the field, winning their first MLS Cup in 2008 and reaching another final in 2015; but with other cities better equipped to capitalize on the sales of corporate suites and commercial sponsorship, Payne understands Precourt’s dissatisfaction with Crew SC’s current home.

“This league is becoming a much more serious economic engine, and the levels of competition are starting to more closely resemble what you see in other sports,” Payne says. “Columbus is very competitive because they’ve done a good job. But they can do a great job all they want, and then the other guy signs Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It’s hard to do a better job than that.”

HELPLESS SYMPATHY

Payne left D.C. in 2012 – after discussions began over the site of the soon-to-open Audi Field, but well before any earth was moved. Construction finally began in February of 2017. And on July 14, 2018, United will open the downtown venue Payne envisioned, next to Washington’s pro baseball stadium and within shouting distance of several shining new condominium towers.

In the process, D.C. fans will be left in the unfamiliar position of watching another MLS club's supporters waver in the wind.

“I can’t imagine what they’re going through, because as much as D.C. fans had the uncertainty, there was always a decent chance it was going to work out,” Anderson says. “I look at the Crew situation, and if Precourt can find a place to put a stadium in Austin, he’s going to move the team and that’s the end of it. It just seems like stuff the fans can’t really control.”

Andrew Mack, a longtime member of Barra Brava who like Anderson and Sotoudeh has endured the disappointments of stadium plans past, is most troubled by the pace of Precourt's actions and apparent lack of concern for the fan community.

Crew fans [Image: Michael Barera]

“Whatever your plans are, you still should treat people with respect,” Mack says. “And we know the Crew fans have been at it a long, long time. They’re a class group of supporters.”

Meanwhile, Payne still holds onto some optimism that Crew SC will remain in Columbus, perhaps because he has seen the inside of these negotiations before. He doesn’t believe a lawsuit filed by the state of Ohio last month will prevent the move, but he is heartened by recent statements of Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther.

“I would hope that the Columbus mayor meant what he said,” Payne says. “That he wants to engage with ownership from the Crew to help find a viable home that’s more in a downtown area. They made those efforts on behalf of the hockey team.” Making them again might be suitable reward for one of MLS’s pioneers.

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