Closing Time

Yesterday, DC United played their final match at RFK Stadium. For the first time since it opened in 1961 as DC Stadium, RFK has no tenants. United is moving to Audi Field in Southwest next year, and threw a big “Last Call at RFK” party to mark the end of this era.

The less said about the actual game, the better. United started strong, but folded late, and with some help from the officials, the New Jersey Red Bulls headed home with the win. They’re off to the playoffs, where they will certainly fail as they always do. United, on the other hand, finishes dead last in the Eastern Conference, and tied (on points) for dead last in the league with the LA Galaxy, another historically great team which had a historically bad year. (United did win one more match than the Galaxy, so we escape the Wooden Spoon on that tiebreaker.)

RFK was a lot of things for a lot of people. For those who were longtime, hardcore supporters of United or the local NFL franchise that once played there, RFK was home for several weekends a year. Tailgates in the parking lot were always epic. Friendships, partnerships, even marriages were born of the time spent there.

For me? It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been a season ticket holder, but I’ve been around since almost the beginning for United, going to a few games a year. Back in 2015, when I decided to take my love of soccer up a level, I found the Screaming Eagles and American Outlaws DC, and instantly had a crew to hang with. Most of my tailgate time was spent in the beer tent, checking IDs and sampling some of the fine craft brews along the way. Inside the stadium, I sang and clapped and drummed and even capo’d a few times. And I helped make some great tifo, including one (for a US men’s national team match against New Zealand) that was seen on ESPN, which I consider a major accomplishment considering it had nothing to do with Lavar Ball.

Beyond the last few years, I had fun with the Nationals for the first three years before they moved across town (just blocks away from Audi Field, coincidentally – or not.) They were awful for those first couple seasons, but I could say I was there when it mattered. I was never a fan of the local NFL franchise, so I didn’t see them there, but I made it to a few concerts, most recently the Foo Fighters’ 20th anniversary extravaganza on July 4, 2015.

RFK is one of the last relics of the “multipurpose” stadium era. One by one, the stadiums that were built to house both baseball and rectangular-field sports have fallen. RFK might not have made it this long if the quest for a new United stadium had not taken as long as it did. You could tell, by the end, that RFK was old. Chunks of paint, concrete, and who knows what else have fallen. A large number of seats are broken or just plain missing. It smells like everything you can imagine and some things you can’t. Towards the end, visiting fans would taunt us with a “RFK is falling down, falling down, falling down” chant, and we really had no response. You got us there.

But as much of a dump as it was, it was our dump. It was a place where we could stand and sing and drum and wave flags and generally be inmates running an asylum. And that’s why the move to Audi Field is bittersweet for a lot of people. Yes, it’ll be new and shiny and clean and we’ll get MLS All-Star Games and national team matches and other things that might have passed the grubby old RFK by. But we won’t be able to do all the things we did at RFK in the pristine new place. Between all the excitement and passion of last night were some public displays of frustration and anger. Smoke bombs are a no-no at RFK these days, but many were deployed. There were disputes and altercations with security. As the game slipped away, the bad mojo took over for lots of people.

Many of those people won’t be following the team to their new home. I understand. For a certain class of long-time, devoted supporter, what has come out (and, perhaps more importantly, what has not come out) from the team about next year has been not just discouraging, but seems almost hostile. It’s as if the team wants the passion, but wants it to be well-behaved. Some of us are OK with that; some of us clearly aren’t. For my part, I’m waiting and seeing. Next year is just too hard to know right now. Maybe it will be fun – not in the same way as it was at RFK, but in some new way to be determined. Maybe it won’t be fun any more. When it stops being fun, I’ll stop going. Until then, I’ll give the new place a chance.

Between today and the opening of Audi Field around the middle of next season, the team will be nomadic, playing a lot of road games. The supporters will follow them to some, and gather on their own for the others. At some point next year, the new place will open and we’ll get to see what the future is. But for now, we get to remember the past, and what a past it was. A club that won 13 major trophies, both national and international. A stadium that hosted 24 wins for our national soccer teams, and hosted matches for two World Cups. And that’s just the soccer. It’s been a great run for RFK. Remember it fondly, and I’ll see you next year, wherever it is we meet again.