Credit: Charles Steck

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D.C. United opens its 2009 home schedule later this month at RFK Stadium. But emotionally, the team has already left the city.

It’s not quite sure when it’s going to leave, nor exactly where D.C. United will end up. But talking to team president Kevin Payne, the brains behind the franchise’s four MLS titles, it’s pretty clear that in the eyes of management, our city’s in the rearview mirror.

“We’re not wasting our energy or otherwise dwelling on what did or didn’t happen in D.C.,” says Payne. “We’re working very hard on the opportunities we now have in Maryland. We’re appreciative of the way we’ve been received by the state, and now we’re committed to getting this job done. We don’t spend a lot of time on what might have been in D.C. We’re looking forward.”

The team hopes to end up in Prince George’s County; Payne says that management is now focused on two Landover sites, one adjacent to the Morgan Boulevard Metro stop, the other at the intersection of Brightseat Road and Landover Road. Both plots are very close to FedExField.

None of the locations yet mentioned are too far away from the District, as the crow flies. Yet among fans, a move anywhere outside the city isn’t being taken lightly.

“It was a point of pride to have the team inside D.C., no question,” says Paul Sotoudeh, president of the Screaming Eagles, one of D.C. United’s two fanatic supporters’ groups. “We cultivated an urbane atmosphere for our club, for the fan base. You could see it in so many ways, even the music and bands that played at our tailgates. It’s almost like living in D.C. or living [in the suburbs]: It’s almost a political choice to actually live in D.C. And, for the team, that psychological piece will be lost.”

Payne disputes that moving to Maryland will damage whatever metropolitan flair the franchise has. He points to the migration of the favorite sports team of his boyhood, the New York Giants, from Yankee Stadium to the Yale Bowl to the Meadowlands in the mid-1970s.

“It’s not like we’re leaving a great stadium for a high school,” he says (a United forerunner, the Washington Diplomats, played at W.T. Woodson High in Fairfax in the ’70s). “We’re talking about moving from a nearly 50-year-old falling-down old football stadium with no club seats and no restaurant, substandard concessions, and too many seats to a state-of-the-art soccer facility, something our fans deserve.

“There are many things that go into establishing the identity of a team, certainly more than just the physical location,” Payne adds. “The New York Giants are certainly still a New York team, a dominant social force as a sports team in New York. I don’t think anybody resents that they had to play in New Jersey. They’re a regional team. In the same sense, [D.C. United] is a regional team. The fact that we might move five miles east doesn’t mean that suddenly we’re going to lose a fan base that’s been called the best sports fans in D.C.”

Of course, when the Giants moved to Jersey, the Bronx was a hellhole of burned-out buildings, and building in the suburbs was the dominant trend in sports stadiums.

But a lot’s changed in subsequent decades. Since Camden Yards opened in 1993, all the cool stadiums have urban addresses. When the Yankees’ new home opens next month, it’ll be in the Bronx, not the ’burbs. The Mets didn’t flee NYC, either.

The only bucker of this urban trend that leaps to mind, in fact, is the Washington Redskins. The Skins’ 1997 move has been a boon if you just count revenues. But if you ask fans to judge the transfer, it’s been a disaster.

There are parallels to what D.C. United is going through now and what the Redskins went through a decade and a half ago. Jack Kent Cooke kept telling everybody he was willing to build a new stadium for the Redskins with his own money, and he tried again and again to find a spot in D.C.

But whenever Cooke got close to a deal with the city, either Mayor Marion Barry, who publicly supported keeping the Skins here, or his placeholder, Sharon Pratt, who once claimed the team owner disrespected the city by slapping her on the butt, would scuttle it. After seeing the construction project killed by such things as the stadium’s potential impact on Langston Golf Course and disputes over what percentage of minority workers should be guaranteed, Cooke looked outside the city.

P.G. County courted the crusty Redskins owner most aggressively. County officials even gave Cooke permission to invent a town to put his building in: Raljon, Md., since folded back into Landover.

And shortly after the debacle now known as FedExField was opened, then County Executive Wayne Curry, a guy who never put on pads but who brokered the deal to steal the Skins from D.C., was inducted to the stadium’s Ring of Fame.

Payne insists that D.C. United started out its stadium-site search sure that a deal would be worked out with the District. In March 2006, he told the Washington Business Journal that he didn’t “believe there are any impediments” to constructing a stadium with both public and private money on Poplar Point, a tract of land on the Anacostia River, and that because everything was going so smoothly he figured D.C. United would be in its soccer-only home “in 2008 or at the very latest in 2009.”

By the end of the 2007 season, MLS Commissioner Don Garber began pressuring United to look outside the city. A few months later, and with talks still stalled, newly elected Mayor Adrian Fenty showed up at midfield of a D.C. United game, got on the RFK PA and told the team and fans that they’d have a new stadium.

But Payne learned, as Cooke had years ago, a mayoral pledge doesn’t mean much in the District. The soccer plans were always tied up in real-estate issues much bigger than a soccer stadium, especially once big-time developer Victor MacFarlane bought the team in 2007. Rather than hand the Poplar Point site to MacFarlane—which would include the lucrative rights to build housing, retail, and offices—Fenty opened the tract up for bids. MacFarlane decided not to participate, and development rights were awarded to Clark Realty Capital, which had said it was amenable to including a soccer stadium in its plans. Soon after Clark cited economic realities and bailed on the Poplar Point project in January, team management publicly gave up on the city.

Yet according to D.C. United supporters clubs, Payne is right when he says the team’s fan base backs management in the stadium squabbles. Even those wishing the team would stay in the city feel so burned by the District government that they’re rallying behind an exodus.

“By now, we would have all preferred that Mayor Fenty not show up at a game and say, ‘You’re going to get a stadium!” says Sotoudeh of the Screaming Eagles. “But he did. And how long can you ask [D.C. United] to guarantee that they’re going to lose money? They need a stadium. But it’s not going to happen in D.C.”

Oscar Zambrana, founder of the fan club Barra Brava, concurs.

“Everybody’s been disappointed by Mayor Fenty. There has been disrespect,” says Zambrana. “Everybody was hoping to have a stadium in D.C. We all thought we were going to stay here. But, since we found out about all the [sour] deals, we are supporting the team in whatever they want.”

Now, a Maryland stadium isn’t a done deal; some state and county officials are balking at public financing when their budgets are in dire condition.

Still, Sotoudeh says he figures it’s a “90-to-95 percent chance” that D.C. United’s days in D.C. are numbered and expects to be watching the team play in P.G. County “by 2012.” Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles members rallied in Annapolis on Tuesday to get Maryland legislators moving on building a soccer stadium in Prince George’s.

Accepting that the move is a near-certainty allows Sotoudeh the freedom to dwell on other matters as Opening Day approaches. Such as, how the team will play this season.

“Like everybody else,” he says, “I’m worried about the defense.” cP