Have things changed that radically for D.C. United since the team’s awful 2010 season ended just under three months ago? On a first glance at the roster that United will bring into its 2011 training camp – which begins this week with physicals and meetings before official practices start on Monday – there are a plethora of encouraging signs.
United has bolstered its locker room with significant signings, including Dax McCarty and Perry Kitchen in the middle and Josh Wolff up top. There are a host of returning players on the mend who missed much of last season: Bill Hamid (shoulder), Marc Burch (foot), Chris Pontius (hamstring). Even last year’s rookie of the year, Andy Najar, took the winter off to recharge after a tiresome first professional season. Ben Olsen proved he was up to the challenge to be a head coach last season with a decimated roster. It would be a bad idea to a put a ceiling on his potential with a full complement of players.
This is a team that will compete, and it might actually be decent if it can develop some chemistry, get healthy and stay healthy, and perhaps sprinkle in one more goal scorer.
But the cloud that hovers over the club’s long-term future – where it will make its permanent home and who will step up locally to partner with owner Will Chang and team president Kevin Payne – remains as unsettling as the way the team has played for much of the past three seasons. That was the impetus for today's print edition story.
“I would certainly like to have some of these questions resolved, particularly where we are going to have a permanent home,” Payne said in an interview on Wednesday. “In that regard, I’m not different from our fans. We’d like to have resolution of that, and we hope to have resolution before too much longer.”
Payne and Chang have both said in as many different ways as possible that their preference is to keep the team in Washington, and the latest developments in the stadium search back that up.
Of course, details remain scarce, as they have in the past, for better or worse, when United has attempted to get a stadium deal together. Payne said he’s spoken “with a very small number of people in D.C., very few people in D.C. government.” A spokesperson at Akridge wasn’t aware of any potential interest in the 100 V Street SW property beyond what’s been reported, and talk about that property first surfaced nearly a year and a half ago.
Buzzard Point does, however, appear to be a frontrunner, given how other parties in the city hope to present an alternative, and that’s an encouraging sign that there are groups out there that are willing to work to find the team a home in D.C. No matter the location, lots of hurdles remain, the biggest one by far being financing.
The team, of course, is steadfast in holding out Baltimore as a legitimate alternative, even if it isn’t a legitimately great alternative.
“It absolutely is a viable market,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber at the MLS draft in Baltimore last week. “The team is called D.C. United and they’ve been down there, obviously, since the league’s inception, but they don’t have a stadium solution, and they need one. They’ve had very positive discussions here in Baltimore, and if these guys can deliver the right kind of facility, I’m sure Will Chang and Kevin Payne will look hard at a potential stadium solution, and they must have a solution, because what they have right now is not working.”
“The Baltimore opportunity is a real one, and it’s an attractive one,” said Payne. “It’s a very good site. The City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland are very good partners, and the State of Maryland has an agency that knows how to do these projects, and it’s something that we’re taking very seriously.”
But the stadium feasibility study released last month doesn’t give the sense that Baltimore is an untapped market just waiting for top-tier professional soccer to explode onto the scene. It said the stadium would generate jobs and revenue (once stabilized with events and decent attendance), which is expected. Beyond that, the conclusions weren’t a home run.
“The market and economic analysis suggests that the D.C. United stadium concept may be somewhat challenging to market from a corporate perspective in Baltimore based on the relatively limited interest expressed by area businesses and existing corporate sponsors to purchase premium seating or advertising/ sponsorship packages,” the report states in its conclusion. “That said, MLS’s structure, business model and strategic planning appear to be sound. This coupled with the positive impacts that a new, soccer specific stadium would have on attendance and revenue opportunities (e.g., premium seating) could mitigate the impacts of limited corporate interest.”
Even if an aggressive outreach program taps into the Baltimore market like never before, the study closes with a warning that development around the stadium is essentially a requirement for the stadium itself to produce the numbers that the report projects.
“This stadium concept is anticipated to be part of a mixed use development project that offers a critical mass of people and activity as well as surrounding infrastructure in terms of a 500-room hotel and 10,000 parking spaces," it said. "This analysis assumes that the planned mixed-use development occurs simultaneous to construction of the proposed new soccer stadium. If not, the economic and fiscal benefits associated with this stadium concept at this site location will be less than those shown in this report.”
Thus, the stadium alternatives in D.C. and Baltimore serve as a backdrop to the team’s pursuit of additional investors to add to its ownership group. Payne said stadium plans don’t depend on new investors, but that’s what helped bring in Victor MacFarlane and Will Chang.
“Our stadium conversations don’t rely on us having other investors,” said Payne. “Getting new investors, it’s linked to the stadium in the sense that any new investor is going to look to better understand how you can grow the business and make it consistently profitable. It’s not the just the stadium. There are a lot of factors in that, but the stadium is obviously an important part of our business future.”
It also will be just as important this season as how D.C. United does on the field.
“I would certainly like to have some of these questions resolved, particularly where we are going to have a permanent home,” said Payne. “In that regard, I’m not different from our fans. We’d like to have resolution of that, and we hope to have resolution before too much longer.”