More than 1,000 D.C. United season ticket holders gathered in Georgetown on Sunday for the MLS club’s annual preseason shindig, complete with hot food and cold drink, new merchandise and mingling players.
The function began the countdown to the season opener, March 4, when Sporting Kansas City will visit RFK Stadium. Amid the buzz about the 22nd season, however, another date loomed large on the organization’s broader agenda:
At the end of the business day, while the players resume workouts in Florida, United executives and attorneys will file into Room 220 of One Judiciary Square in hopes of clearing the last obstacle in a decade-long grind to build a new stadium.
There, barring last-minute complications, the five-member D.C. Zoning Commission will grant final approval to a public-private project at Buzzard Point in Southwest Washington, adjacent to Fort McNair and three blocks from Nationals Park at the confluence of the Anacostia River and Washington Channel.
The city handed over 14 acres in October, allowing United to begin clearing and preparing the parcel. In December, the zoning commission granted preliminary consent for the project but also asked the city and team to address additional transportation and neighborhood issues.
With permission granted Thursday, United would have the green light to begin applying for building permits Friday and commence construction in earnest within weeks. A formal groundbreaking involving city, team and league officials would mark the occasion at the end of the month.
As Mike Schoenbrun, the club’s chief revenue officer, said, “We can begin to go vertical.”
The organization is aiming to open the 20,000-capacity stadium (19,400 seats, 600 standing-room spots) in June 2018. Since MLS’s birth in 1996, United has played at RFK, a large municipal venue on East Capitol Street that has seen much better days.
The city pledged $150 million toward land acquisition and infrastructure costs at Buzzard Point, while the team will end up spending up to $200 million on the project.
While awaiting the next hearing, United continued going full throttle with non-construction plans.
Team officials say they have sold about half of the available suites, including all seven at field level. (Four of the 31 private boxes are reserved for city, team and league use.) A stadium preview center opened at Union Market last summer for prospective suite buyers; this year, the team will begin using it for season ticket efforts.
The team says the impending stadium project has already helped grow the season ticket base by 60 percent since 2014; it declined to reveal current figures. United averaged 17,081 fans for 17 regular season home matches last year, near the bottom of a league that will blossom to 22 teams this year and probably 24 in 2018.
United is deep in talks involving stadium naming rights, president of business operations Tom Hunt said, and a deal could be in place this summer. He and Schoenbrun said they have spoke with several companies and narrowed the focus to at least three, Schoenbrun said. Leidos, the defense contractor with its logo on United jerseys, is not among the candidates for stadium naming rights and will continue as a commercial partner.
The zoning hearing comes as the construction timetable grows tight for christening the stadium at a reasonable point in 2018. Under the best circumstances, United is bracing to start the schedule with 10-12 away matches. RFK would be available for use in early 2018, but United has no intentions of playing there again after this year’s regular season finale against the rival New York Red Bulls and perhaps playoff dates.
The longest road stretch to start a season was 10 games by Kansas City in 2011. Toronto FC began with seven and eight in 2015 and ’16 respectively because of renovations at BMO Field.
One scenario could have United inaugurating the new venue after MLS’s 2018 World Cup break.
“We’ve got a lot of jumbo jets lining up on the runway,” Hunt said in anticipation of the this week’s hearing, “and we’re optimistic the meeting will be the fuel for takeoff.”