He’s D.C. United through and through, so head coach and former player Ben Olsen knows better than most what a new stadium would mean not just to the team and to MLS, but to the American game itself.
“Our fans deserve a stadium and the nation’s capital should have a stadium,” says Olsen, who served United as a player and assistant coach prior to being handed the reins full-time in 2011. “It’s one of the most soccer-rabid cities in this country and it’s one of the most diverse cities in this country. There’s no excuse why Washington D.C. shouldn’t be one of the best places to play soccer in the country.”
The District of Columbia Soccer Stadium Act of 2014 was approved by the Council of the District of Columbia on Wednesday, two weeks after an initial vote had passed. At issue was development of a 20,000-25,000-seat stadium in the Buzzard Point neighborhood of Southwest Washington that would be completed in time for the 2017 MLS season.
“This is a historic victory for the team and its fans, the city, the region and the sport of soccer in this country,” said United’s managing general partner Jason Levien in a statement. “I am deeply appreciative of the efforts of many city leaders, including Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Mayor-Elect Muriel Bowser, City Administrator Allen Y. Lew and the D.C. Council.”
The search for a stadium dates back to the tenure of former mayors Anthony Williams (1999-2007) and Adrian Fenty (2007-11). A project to build at Poplar Point collapsed during Fenty’s term, and flirtations with Prince George’s County in Maryland and Baltimore never materialized. Since the Buzzard Point location surfaced as a possibility in January 2011, the team’s ownership has changed, longtime executive Kevin Payne was hired and fired by Toronto FC, and Olsen has matured from neophyte to MLS Coach of the Year.
“It’s a no-brainer and why it took this long, there’s a whole slew of reasons,” says Olsen. “But that stuff is in the past. We feel here that there’s a real bright future for this club and the fans who’ve dealt with RFK.”
Aside from a brief loan to English club Nottingham Forest, Olsen spent his entire playing career with United, and won two MLS Cup titles and a Concacaf Champions Cup. He’s already coached United longer than any of his predecessors, and has extensive experience dealing with the crumbling concrete, antiquated facilities and non-human inhabitants of RFK.
The Washington Post Soccer Insider provided this account of starting his first full year in charge of United in 2011:
“Yesterday, I come to work, first day, a new year, optimism, I walk in, and who greets me in the hallway? A cockroach, the biggest one I've ever seen. He wasn't moving for me. He looked me dead in the eyes and was like, ‘Look, I am not moving.’
“So I said, ‘Good morning, Happy New Year,’ and walked by. He tipped his hat to me. He was hung over from New Year's. He had the little horn in his mouth and the party hat.”
Winning the Eastern Conference regular-season title last season gave United cause for celebration, and a tough playoff loss to New York (3-2 on aggregate) provides ample motivation heading into 2015.
“You learn in this job that there’s not a lot of time to spend on that, and that’s OK,” Olsen says of taking your lumps and moving on. “It still stings a little bit, but we lost to a team that’s pretty good. New York is as good as any team in this league and if you have an off-night, like we did in New York, you find yourself with a longer offseason. I was proud of the way we went out. At home, I thought we played in the right way and ultimately won the game [2-1] but we just fell short.”
News of the project’s approval comes at an opportune time as the organization re-tools for next year. Olsen is hopeful he’ll still be in charge when the new facility opens yet United has its sights on winning a fifth MLS Cup before then. The team has been outperforming its stadium for most of its existence anyway.
“We’re going to have to continue to deal with RFK for several years but we have a mentality here that we make the best out of things,” he says. “When things don’t go our way, we figure it out. We do what we can and for the most part we’ve been successful doing that.”