Ben Olsen fondly recalls strolling up to RFK Stadium in 1998 as a shaggy-haired rookie out of the University of Virginia. Having opened in 1961, the aging venue on East Capitol Street was already something of a relic. But in those early years of MLS, it represented a crown jewel.
“I was in awe of everything at that moment,” Olsen said. “I was playing pro soccer, I was in this big, glamorous, beautiful building, I thought. [I’m from] central Pennsylvania, you know? Compare that to Hersheypark Stadium — it was a big deal.”
“We’ve got to go out with a bang,” United veteran Nick DeLeon said. “Just leave it all out there on the field, for the fans, for ourselves. … We have to give everyone a show, and we have to close down this legendary stadium in the right way.”
As United established a dynasty in the late 1990s, winning three of the first four MLS Cup titles, RFK Stadium earned the reputation of a fortress. Blending South American influences with multicultural supporters, United built the league’s first flagship fan base. Images of the rickety east-side stands bouncing in tune with the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava defined the passion that propped up a fledgling league.
Then the stadium started showing its age. Rust spread. Concrete crumbled. Feral cats, wasps and, most famously, raccoons took up residence.
As MLS grew from its initial 10 franchises to the 22-team league it is today, the cavernous site grew increasingly antiquated. If United were to survive, a smaller, soccer-specific stadium was a must. After a decade-long pursuit of a new home, United secured the club’s future when the D.C. Council approved legislation in December 2014 to build a stadium at Buzzard Point in Southwest.
Yet even as RFK fell into disrepair, with greener pastures on the horizon, a ragged charm persisted. For a stadium that has hosted men’s and women’s World Cup matches, Olympic soccer, and three MLS Cup finals, its soccer history knows no rivals stateside.
“Everyone wants a magic story — it didn’t work like that,” said Olsen, who spent 12 years with United as a player before taking over as coach in 2010. “The magic of this place was coming here every day. It was constant — the floods and the animals and the leaks — but it was all beautiful, it was all great because it was our culture here.
“That part was always a rallying cry here. At first it was just RFK, and it was storied. Then it got old and even more broken down. As other places got more stadiums it became even more ancient, and it almost became even more our home.”
Despite playing on a modest budget with dated facilities, United had made the playoffs four of the past five years entering this season.
But 2017 proved to be a down year for Olsen’s team, which sits last in the Eastern Conference at 9-15-5.
Like paint chipped away on the lower bowl’s orange seats, United’s home-field advantage eroded as the club went 6-7-3 at RFK Stadium.
“Talking to the older guys, they always talk about RFK being a place that when they were on other teams they didn’t want to come here to play because it was tough to get results,” said rookie Ian Harkes, the son of United legend John Harkes. “I think we got away a little bit from that this year, but I think the passion’s always there, the fans come out regardless to support us, and it’s a great atmosphere to play in.”
Sunday’s celebration will extend well beyond the match itself. Members of Robert F. Kennedy’s family are expected to participate in the festivities, and a “Legends” game featuring famed former United players — including Olsen, Jamie Moreno, Marco Etcheverry, Hristo Stoichkov and Freddy Adu — will be held before the match.
RFK Stadium will continue to host events beyond Sunday, with international soccer matches, college football games and concerts on the table. But with United set to begin play at Audi Field in June, after an extended road trip to kick off 2018, Sunday marks the end of an era for a true cathedral of American soccer.
“It’s sad, but it’s also a joyous occasion for us because of the excitement of a new building,” Olsen said. “As much as this week is about putting RFK to bed, the narrative also is this rebirth of our club and … a new era at Audi Field.”
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.