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D.C. United reeks of irrelevance. Not just on the field, where through Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Columbus, United had just four wins and 15 goals in 23 games this season, and a choke hold on last place.
Off the, um, pitch, United’s powerlessness also abounds. Time was when political candidates in D.C. reached out to the soccer bloc. No longer. “We’re orphans,” says Nicole Gara. “No candidate wants us.”
Gara’s a Capitol Hill resident who’s been an obsessive follower of United since the team’s inception. She’s a longtime officer with the Screaming Eagles, a supporter’s club. Like most United fans, she can’t forget that night in October 2006 when Adrian Fenty, making his first run for mayor, showed up at RFK Stadium for United’s game against the New York Red Bulls. Fenty appeared on the field, accepted a jersey from United management, and took to the public address system to promise the team and its fans the world. Or at least the new stadium they’d been craving.
Fenty’s words live in infamy, or at least still show up every few days on local soccer blogs. Among them: “It is great to see over 20,000 fans here at RFK supporting D.C. United. It is my hope that [United] fans will soon be coming to your brand new soccer stadium at Poplar Point in Anacostia. World class fans, and a world class team like D.C. United, deserve a world class stadium. And I am going to make it a priority to help you build that stadium.”
United fans couldn’t believe what they’d heard. Fenty, after all, had led the political opposition to a publicly funded stadium when Major League Baseball came calling. “These are multimillionaires who do not need a government subsidy for their business,” Fenty told NPR in late 2004.
About two years later, in the mayoral primary, he defeated Linda Cropp, the pro-stadium council chairman. The Nationals Park boondoggle figured into the campaign.
Fenty knew United’s position: If no stadium was built to replace geezerly RFK, the team would leave D.C., and the 20,000 or so folks who showed up for games back then would be peeved.
Perhaps not coincidentally, just days before Election Day, Fenty forgot how much he hated publicly funded stadiums. Before God and the Barra Brava, he pledged to host a stadium-raising party for the soccer team and its flock.
Clearly, the would-be mayor felt this constituency was worth playing ball with.
Fenty, as we now know, never followed through. No soccer stadium has been built here, and everybody who cares accepts that no stadium will be built here during the next mayoral term, no matter who wins.
Despite polling evidence that he better come up with some votes by next week or he’s out of office, Fenty won’t apologize for not delivering. He won’t even hint that he’ll take up the issue again should he be given a second chance.
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“We got down to serious negotiations about doing the stadium at Poplar Point,” says Fenty campaign spokesman Sean Madigan. “But the package that [United’s ownership group was] originally proposing and the package that we could conceivably accept didn’t touch up. Then by the fall of 2008, the recession crashed on everybody, and the last budget had a $500 million budget gap, and included freezing step increases for city employees, cutting programs left and right. So the idea for putting money in a stadium, I don’t think there was the political will for that from anybody. We’d like to see the team definitely stay in the city. But reviving the old deal, I don’t see any chance to revive that.”
Some voters will hold this against him. “I know who I’m voting for,” says Gara. “It’s not Fenty.”
Challenger Vincent Gray isn’t offering any promises, either. The D.C. Council chairman was asked during a recent “social media” Q&A session what he was doing to keep D.C. United. Gray started out by claiming a “strong desire” to hold on to the team, but literally four seconds into his YouTubed answer, Fenty’s opponent in the upcoming primary appears to realize that he needn’t bother pandering to this bunch.
“Constructing a new stadium… is a very expensive proposition,” Gray said. “We’ve been in a recession. We just haven’t had the ability to pay for a stadium or contribute to a stadium because we’ve been investing our money in trying to keep the basic services in the city going.”
Asked by Washington City Paper about the lack of a United front in this year’s election cycle, team president Kevin Payne responded with an e-mailed statement: “We, of course, have dealt in the past with both Mayor Fenty and Chairman Gray and have great respect for each of them. We look forward to working with the District to help decide the future home of D.C. United and our tens of thousands of passionate fans.”
ZZZZZZZZZZ…Oh, where were we?
Through a team spokesman, Payne declined to discuss the political preferences of the team beyond that. (Payne, however, did agree to answer any and all questions from season ticket holders before Saturday’s game with Columbus, as part of United’s new, Bruce Allen-esque promotional campaign designed to prevent at least a few fans from jumping ship after this season’s debacles.)
Payne’s gun-shyness is only human. During negotiations with Fenty, Payne said publicly and repeatedly that the team would leave town unless it got a new home. When D.C. called United’s bluff, he bashed the Fenty administration and even named sites in Prince George’s County where a publicly funded stadium could soon be built. But the same budget problems that quashed the D.C. stadium project also killed PG’s interest. And Payne, the architect of four MLS Cup winning teams and—2010 notwithstanding—the greatest executive in league history, was reduced to promoting rumors that faraway cities, St. Louis and Portland among them, were ready to take in the team.
Yet, everybody, minus a few thousand ticket buyers per game, is still at RFK.
But fans such as Gara nevertheless wish United’s leadership, instead of turtling, would have shown some chutzpah as the election approaches. She says management has stifled supporters’ efforts to make noise during the campaigns.
“We have a lot of influential people, political people, who are D.C. United fans,” Gara says, “but we’ve done nothing. When we’ve been prepared to do something about [the stadium] in an organized fashion, and there were times when it was appropriate for us to do something, Kevin Payne stepped in and said, ‘Oh, no! Wait! I’ll tell you when it’s OK!’ I guess he thought he was going to pull of some sort of inside deal, but he never pulled that off. Now we’re being ignored.”
Gara said United’s fan base still occasionally buzzes with “a rush of rumors” about imminent stadium announcements, including one last week. But they’re resigned to a situation where new news ain’t going to be good news.
“The only thing you can think now is we’re going to move out of the city,” she says. “And that’s going to be sad.”
The next big chapter in United’s stadium soap opera should come sometime this month, when the mayor’s office—of Baltimore—is scheduled to release the results of an economic feasibility study of building an MLS stadium in its waterfront’s Westport section.
But neither Fenty nor Gray seems bothered that a D.C. team has an out-of-town suitor.
There is another stadium deal, however, that could grab Fenty’s interest before election day. If Dan Snyder called to talk about relocating the Washington Redskins here, Madigan says, Fenty would listen:
“There might even be a burgundy and gold phone here that would ring if he calls.”