- Jason Davis
I don't know whether to laugh or cry over the news that MLS sent out surveys looking for information on the strength of Baltimore as an MLS market. On the surface, which is the way 99.9% of the interested parties are viewing it, it looks like a clear sign that United is not long for DC. Should a move up I-95 come to pass, it would represent the biggest sin ever perpetrated against a group of MLS fans. Yes, people were undoubtedly crushed in Miami, Tampa, and San Jose when their teams were ripped away from them. Those situations pale in comparison to taking a team like DC United, with the history of support its has, out of Washington.
And for the uninitiated who might be suggesting that it's not a big deal, Baltimore isn't that far away, it's really not a relocation at all: wrong. Baltimore is not DC, nor should United fans be expected to simply trek up to the Charm City because MLS asks them to.
But there are still more questions than answers here, and the survey doesn't in and of itself confirm that DC definitely is moving to Baltimore. Those who have been paying attention should not be surprised by this news, unless the surprise comes from the rather obvious nature of the survey. Of course MLS knew fans would catch wind of it, because if they didn't, they're naive beyond any reasonable possibility. Here come the questions.
Knowing that dissemination of the survey would get back to DC supporters, did the league simply choose to absorb the negative reaction, or was observing and documenting that reaction part of the point? No one in DC's city leadership, beyond Marion Berry -- whose support for a stadium was about his constituency and not soccer or DC United itself -- has shown an interest in helping the club find a solution within the District. If the league asks fans to give their opinions about MLS in Baltimore and United's rabid fan base rise up to voice their displeasure, could it have a positive impact on the dialog between the city and club? There's an argument to be made that -- either through willful ignorance or unhealthy myopia -- that the city doesn't quite know what it has in United. Pushing aside the debates about public funding and the value of stadiums to a locality, if enough people make enough noise over the survey and its implications, it might give leaders food for thought on soccer's place in the city.
But probably not. While I think some effect is possible, more like this is what it looks like: DC is out of options, Will Chang (and the league itself) is hemorrhaging money, and there is real value in polling soccer fans in the Mid-Atlantic for their thoughts on an MLS team 40 miles north of DC. Whether it was wise to do so in the manner they chose, with the inevitability of it becoming a news item, is a separate can of worms.
The worst part of this, and why I don't begrudge United fans their (over)reaction, is that the fans are utterly powerless. Attendance for United games hasn't been at traditional levels recently, but as the club improves, there's no reason to think the numbers won't climb back into a very respectable range. This isn't FC Dallas. United fans are committed, for better or worse, and the quickest way to turn them against the league is to take their club away. Forty miles might as well be continents for most of them.
Here then, is the crux of the matter and why the survey is ultimately so troubling: we do not know if MLS is doing everything in their power to keep the team in DC. Even protestations to that effect by the club and the league won't assuage fears the MLS and United are anxious to take the path of least resistance and move up the interstate rather than explore each and every possibility in the nation's capital. From there, the questions get trickier, up to and including things like just how far out into the suburbs it would be okay for DC United to build a stadium if doing so enabled them to stay "DC" at least in spirit. Some of the locations bandied about in recent years are in the Dallas-to-Frisco distances, meaning they bring with them the very real possibility that fans in the city proper and the interior suburbs won't make the trek. DC is not Dallas insomuch as they've always been in one place and have always had good support, but that doesn't mean the same fate couldn't befall them.
Chang is looking for investors. If he finds them, does staying RFK become more tolerable? Is MLS helping him in the search, or is he on his own? How much influence does the single-entity all-for-one business model play into determining the threshold for when it becomes more attractive to go rather than stay? I would never assume to think MLS sees the United fan base as replaceable, but perhaps there are delusions about how much of the current fan base would make the drive to Baltimore for home games. DC-based Oriole fans did it for years before baseball returned to DC, so why wouldn't some here swallow the realities of the intransigent DC stadium situation and help fill the gap?
Everyone is trying to flesh out exactly what this thing means. If MLS thought they were muddying the waters by including five different clubs as choices for whom respondents would like to see moved to Baltimore, it was a rather transparent charade. It's inconceivable that the league would move any other team than United and risk cannibalizing the DC-Baltimore soccer fan base, leaving DC United to rot in RFK while FC Dallas or Columbus or the other of the other teams listed moved into new digs in Baltimore. To include Philadelphia and New York on the list is farcical.
Excuse the incomplete thoughts - I thought it important to post something on the survey, but am pressed for the time to spit them out in a more coherent form.