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Apr 9, 2010

United still in search of new stadium deal

WASHINGTON -- It's not often that a commissioner of a major professional sports league gives a local government an on-the-record tongue-lashing the way MLS commissioner Don Garber did in the general direction of that of Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, during a conference call with the media. The target of his ire was the tortuous progress in getting D.C. United a new stadium. "I just can't understand why we can't make progress in D.C. and what more do we need to do to have the politicians in that community understand the relevance of that club, its deep commitment to the community," Garber fumed, accusing the city of showing "no commitment in return." "I am tired of going down to meetings and getting my back slapped and [going to] faux press conferences with mayors and local city officials to have them backtrack on that [new stadium projects] because they can't get out of their own way. Quite frankly, it's frustrating. And at some point, we are going to have to do something about it." D.C. United play in one of the league's worst accommodations. Walking into the grim football stadium turned baseball stadium turned soccer stadium named for the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, it isn't hard to ascertain why anybody would want to move out -- and why other teams have (the Washington Redskins in 1997 and the Washington Nationals in 2008). Cavernous, outdated and poorly designed for soccer, not even United's devoted and relentlessly rowdy Barra Brava or Screaming Eagles fan clubs can compensate and make the place feel the way a soccer stadium should. "Our current stadium is 50 years old and has been in disrepair for some time," United team president Kevin Payne said. "The concourses are too small. The seating area is too large. The lake of the seats is too shallow. The food-and-beverage facilities, both on the concourse and behind the scenes, are just inadequate. That's not counting the air conditioning not working in our offices in the summer and the heat not working in the winter. We have leaks everywhere, which is the case in my own office. It is what it is; it's a very old stadium. We need a new home." As such, D.C. United, MLS' pre-eminent (or at the very least its most decorated) franchise, inevitably will be on the move. In fact, it's been trying to escape its shabby downtown digs since 1999. Perennially simmering on the back burner, a potential move was brought to the fore by Garber.

The ageless one

D.C. United midfielder Jaime Moreno is still going strong at age 36. The MLS all-time scoring leader remains an integral part of United's lineup.

Yet whether the issue is truly on the city's radar is doubtful. "This is the first I've heard of [it]," D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty said on March 25 when asked about Garber's comments during his weekly Q&A on the local Fox affiliate. "Everyone really appreciates and are big fans of D.C. United. They've been a fantastic team. There hasn't been a lot of communication recently. Listen, you can certainly blame me, you can blame lots of people, but to be honest with you, I haven't talked to this particular gentleman. "I'm sure he's very sincere on what he wants for Major League Soccer, and I'm sure the owners of the team are very sincere. But I'm not sure if the best way to come to some deal is to make these types of pronouncements. If we want to work and negotiate, let's do it like all professional negotiations." United weren't particularly thrilled by the commissioner's comments, either. "It was an off-the-cuff remark," Payne said. United have made it a point to talk quietly. One has to feel for Fenty's plight, though. Like most mayors, he faces severe budget constraints as a consequence of the economic downturn. Additionally, he is in the midst of a major overhaul of the public school system and is having to deal with fixing a metro system that has been marred by a string of deadly accidents while the city recently helped pay for the Nationals' new stadium. Then there's his fight against crime, which has plagued the city for decades. Fenty, in other words, has a thing or two to worry about. Thus his noncommittal answer to Fox is understandable. "As I said during the campaign and when I was elected, we'll try to make a responsible deal for the people of the District of Columbia," Fenty said. "If we see one, then we'll send it to the council, and if we don't, we won't." That's not much help to United, though, which have never made a secret of their desire to remain within the District. Yet a series of potential deals for United, who are seeking public backing, have collapsed. "We've been talking about a new stadium since 1999 or 2000," Payne said. "We started talking quite seriously in 2003 with the city. It's been a lengthy progress. The city lobbied us initially, they asked us to build the stadium at Poplar Point," a waterfront spot in the impoverished Anacostia neighborhood, just downstream and across the Anacostia River from the current stadium. "We spent a lot of time trying to get the city to transfer that land to us," Payne said. "The city decided to go a different route. ... The land transfer has not become final because the city and the federal government have not been able to finalize the development plan." Mostly, the project lacked political support within the city council. "I don't think that option is on the table anymore," Payne said. Also not on the table anymore is a move to Prince George's County in Maryland, where a potential deal also collapsed after the county council voted unanimously against even allowing a feasibility study to be drawn up. "It's premature to say we would move it," Garber said during the news conference, addressing long-standing rumors the franchise could relocate. "If they don't get a stadium ... that team will not be able to succeed, and we would have to address what that means." Yet United are in no rush to skip town. Like all matters regarding real estate, the club understands the golden rule: location, location, location. Some of the scourges afflicting the current facility, for example, are the lack of commercial neighbors. "I've always taken a very long view on this," Payne said. "It's much more important to me that it be done right than that we rush into the wrong kind of deal or the wrong location. We want to be patient." Yet if a deal with the District proves unattainable, United will have several fall-back options outside the D.C. borders once more. "We're talking quietly with three different jurisdictions, trying to find a solution that makes sense for us and our public partners," Payne said. "That includes Baltimore, suburban Virginia, and it includes the District." Team owner Will Chang recently told The Washington Post's Soccer Insider blog that Baltimore has pursued the franchise aggressively and that United is listening. Baltimore United? D.C. United of northern Virginia? United say a name change isn't an option. It's hard to imagine Baltimore would shell out money for a stadium without being credited in the team's name, though. For now, United are stuck in RFK Stadium. Relocation doesn't look imminent, but if D.C. refuses to budge on the status quo, it could become inevitable. Major League Soccer declined to further comment for this story. D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty was unavailable for comment, as was D.C. councilman Vincent Gray, who will challenge Fenty in the upcoming election.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com.

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