Ashley Tippie’s mind flashes back to a day three years ago. Standing in the concourse at RFK Stadium with her friend, she met another die-hard D.C. United fan, Gustavo Sanabria, and his friend at a Major League Soccer playoff game against United’s hated rival, the New York Red Bulls. Tippie and Sanabria gravitated toward each other throughout the night.
“We definitely bonded over the fandom,” Tippie says. A formal date followed.
On this warm Saturday evening in Southwest, D.C., a relationship born out of a shared passion for D.C. United enters another chapter. Tippie and Sanabria are just two of the announced 20,504 in attendance for the inaugural game at Audi Field, D.C. United’s new home in Buzzard Point, a shiny, state-of-the art home that the team estimates cost $500 million to build.
Thousands of fans arrive nearly two hours before the 8 p.m. kickoff time. Inside the stadium, the crowd is already in a celebratory mood. Wayne Rooney, the English superstar acquired by United, is doing stretches below on the pitch. Cell phone cameras go up in the air to capture his every move.
Just a few yards away from Rooney, a group of guys attempt to sweet talk their way into the premium seats, located on the field level. The usher politely but firmly turns them away.
Up in section 111, Brian Gardner of Ashburn takes his seat with his 8-year-old son, Finn. This is their first D.C. United game. Gardner, 43, was offered two free tickets to the game after he purchased an Audi A7 sedan. His son plays for the D.C. United affiliated Loudoun Soccer travel team and the two have been watching nearly every World Cup match on television.
“He’s pulling me into the sport,” Gardner says. “To be here on the first night is amazing.”
“I’m excited to see Wayne Rooney,” Finn adds.
In the 14th minute, Chip Whittmore, a 28-year-old Georgetown resident, screams “C’mon!” as D.C. United again turns over the ball.
As the orange sun begins to set behind the stadium and the temperature starts to the drop, Whittmore takes a sip of beer, looking comfortable in his recently purchased Rooney jersey, a popular item among the new fans—the ones the club undoubtedly would like to attract while ushering in a new era. Whittmore has been to only two other D.C. United games, but plans on attending more.
“I wanted to get the experience,” he says. “Just being a part of the reintroduction of the D.C. United brand.”
When D.C. United midfielder Yamil Asad scores in the 27th minute, a beautifully-placed strike to the right corner of the net, the fans start jumping.
Tippie, 22, and Sanabria, 23, hug each other and high five strangers around them.
“Honestly I’ve been waiting for this forever,” says Sanabria, a Northeast resident. “RFK is a dump. We miss it but we’ve waited forever for this.”
“It wouldn’t be right if we weren’t here,” Tippie of Columbia, Maryland adds.
But Sanabria acknowledges that a dark cloud hangs in the air, despite the celebrations. About a hundred supporters and members of La Barra Brava and the District Ultras—two of United’s three recognized supporters’ groups—organized a protest march prior to the game.
They were voicing their displeasure with the club’s decision to partner exclusively with the Screaming Eagles, another of the team’s fan groups. Even though the team announces a sell out during the game, there are areas in the stadium with visibly empty seats. Fans also complain that there is only one scoreboard in the entire arena, and in a freak accident, D.C. United director of media and communications Lindsay Simpson is hit by a falling railing while filming a stand up—issues that mar the festive opening night. (The author is a friend and former classmate of Simpson’s.)
“I hope they solve their issues with Barra Brava. It’s not a full crowd,” Sanabria says, pointing across the stadium at the supporter club section. “I’m not sure how long it can be sustained without Barra Brava.”
D.C. United midfielder Paul Arriola scores in the 69th minute to put the home team up 2-0. A few Barra Brava members watch with arms crossed on the platform above the Screaming Eagles.
Todd Dodge is among those in the fan section, but that doesn’t mean he supports the Screaming Eagles. The 54-year-old from Front Royal, Virginia is a founding fan of the D.C. United. He’s wearing a cap from the club’s first home match during its inaugural 1996 MLS season. He proudly pulls out from his wallet a ticket dated April 20, 1996. He calls Audi Field, “beautiful.” But Dodge still feels something is off.
“The lack of enthusiasm by the Screaming Eagles is apparent,” he says. “The enthusiasm, joy, and passion from the Screaming Eagles is definitely missing. … I’m going to sit here but not support the Screaming Eagles, but I will always support D.C. United.”
A few rows down, Tyler Treuting, a 27-year-old from Arlington, is soaking in the celebration. He’s a wearing a Screaming Eagles T-shirt and is a member of the fan group. He became a season ticket holder when he moved to the area from New Orleans three years ago and adopted the local MLS team as his own. Louisiana does not have an MLS team.
“The team didn’t communicate well with Barra Brava from what I understand,” he says, standing next to his father, Robert. “I’m hopeful everyone can come together as a team. In the long run, maybe we drop the support groups and just become one big group cheering for D.C. United.”
Dawnleigh Slaughter, 41, drove three hours from Bumpass, Virginia to attend the game. Arriola scores again in the 80th minute, and the fans—and coach Ben Olsen—begin to breathe a little easier. The goal happens just a few feet away from where Slaughter is standing with her 12-year-old son, Zachary.
“It feels like home,” she says. “Like it’s permanent for D.C. United.”
When Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Alphonso Davies scores in extra time to put the away team on the board, the crowd responds with a smattering of boos. It doesn’t matter. Moments later, the game is over and the fans offer the team a standing ovation for its third victory of the season. D.C. United flags fly in the air and firecrackers go off high above the stadium. The message is clear: This is just the beginning.
Pablo Maurer contributed to this report.