First, a question: Does the United States need a national soccer stadium?
The answer, without hesitation, is "no". America is bursting at the seams with stadiums, many purposely built with soccer in mind. That plethora of options, the size of the country, and the number of large population centers spread across vast distances make establishing one location for all National Team games a non-starter; there has been no "serious" push for one, and US Soccer has had little reason to pursue the idea.
Still, I wonder if the National Team might not be better served by having a semi-permanent home, one that gives its fans the best opportunity to create an atmosphere worthy of big international matches.
On the most recent Match Fit USA Soccer Show (soon to be The American Soccer Show, by the way), I presented a thought that was born out of a comment made by Bill Simmons of ESPN fame; Simmons suggested that RFK Stadium, site of the United States' qualifier against Costa Rica last Wednesday, be used for every big match. Following up on the idea, I wondered if it might not be worthwhile for US Soccer, DC United, and the District of Columbia to talk about turning RFK into a proper soccer stadium.
Did you see Wednesday's incredible USA-Costa Rica game? Phenomenal crowd, upper decks hanging over the field, entire sections swaying, tons of history … the whole thing was Estadio Azteca-esque, only without the fluid-throwing. I was lucky enough to stand on that field once with the Hogs for a 2002 column. It's an incredible place. Every seat feels like it's right on top of you. So can't we just make it official? Every big American soccer game should be played in RFK. We need the home-field advantage. Done and done. (source)
Simmons' call is an easy one to discount, especially because he's a bit of a soccer neophyte. But there's something to be said for the vision of fresh eyes, and his point is still valid; Wednesday's atmosphere was one of the best for the National Team in recent memory, and at least some of that has to be chalked up to the old stadium in DC.
It's not as simple as "done and done", of course. The "recent-cy" effect skews things; if the US had been playing Mexico, Honduras, or El Salvador on Wednesday, the stadium may have been packed, but the American fans would have been seriously outnumbered. Choosing RFK for "big" matches wouldn't do anything to change that situation, and might even exacerbate it in some cases.
I'm not sure much can be done about the fan ratio problem, however. Until the number of Americans willing to spend money to see the Yanks play reaches a level that puts the potential ticket-buyer pool on par with that of nations with large American immigrant communities, it's just the way it will be; for that reason, I'm putting that problem to one side and moving forward with the "RFK as the National Stadium" idea. We are talking about pipe dreams, after all.
RFK has a lot going for it as a soccer venue. As Simmons points out, the crowd is right on top of the field, with the upper decks almost hanging over the playing surface. The stadium is notorious for holding in the noise that even a relatively small crowd of 20,000 can make (just ask United's opponents over the years). The main stand on the "loud" side of the stadium literally bounces, adding an intimidating element that exists no where else in America (the bouncing stands are such a part of the DC United tradition at this point that the team has given lip service to recreating the effect in whatever new facility they're able to build).
The negatives are equally as significant, unfortunately. The stadium is old, under-maintained, and is literally falling apart. There are no amenities. It's not in a great part of DC, and there is nothing in terms of atmosphere surrounding the stadium.
Forgetting the lack of a business district with restaurants, bars, and pubs (that's why Americans invented tailgating), it would take investment, on the order of tens of millions of dollars (if not more), to rehabilitate RFK to a standard that makes sense for a true national soccer stadium. Even if the seating configuration is not returned to its previous state (the stadium underwent a baseball conversion when the Expos became the Nationals back in 2005), RFK needs a face-lift, and it won't be cheap.
Add to the renovation costs and the rumors of the NFL's Redskins potentially building a new stadium on the site the pesky detail that the District of Columbia, by way of a land lease with the federal government, actually controls RFK, and the problems with the scenario have multiplied.
But since we're dreaming anyway, I'll go on.
DC United is in desperate need of stadium cost relief. It's not that the team needs a new facility, per se, it's simply that their current lease deal with the District of Columbia is a financial albatross that leaving for a new suburban venue would remove. While United, and owner Will Chang, would probably like a shiny new stadium to play in, I think they might consider staying at RFK if they were no longer required to pay rent to the District that consistently causes the team to operate in the red. If DC United were amenable to staying at RFK with a new deal, and US Soccer stepped in to shoulder some of the cost of renovating RFK, maybe, just maybe, the District government could be talked into something that worked for all sides.
I realize that I'm extremely long on "ifs" here and ridiculously short on legitimate "hows". The cost break out, and what such a deal would bring the city, are major chinks in the armor; US Soccer would be playing benefactor while getting little, DC United would stand to gain (depending on what portion of the cost they would shoulder) but be forced to commit to what still amounts to an old stadium too large for their purposes, and the District of Columbia would lose a major chip in their bid to entice back the Redskins.
Still, the city's lease with the federal government dictates that the site of RFK be for stadium use only; if United leaves and the site is no longer needed for its original purpose, the District lose their control. In fact, plans have already been drawn up for that eventuality (pdf warning).
There may not be enough in this little idea of mine for it to ever be worthwhile for the parties (potentially) involved. As I said at the top, the National Team doesn't really need a National Stadium, and although establishing a refurbished RFK as one doesn't preclude US Soccer from scheduling matches around the country, the cost-benefit analysis isn't in the idea's favor. I'm being selfish, and I realize that. just as Bill Simmons got sucked in by the electric atmosphere at RFK on Wednesday, so have I; I want the United States to have a proper home advantage, and what we saw against Costa Rica is a tantalizing vision of what might be. I also want to see DC United in a stadium that allows them to enter profitability (and therefore help the overall health of the league and the professional game here).
Enough about the execution. What about the idea? Should RFK be considered for a role as the (de facto or otherwise) national soccer stadium?