Mar 11, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United fans participate in the supporters march before the match against the D.C. United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
On Sunday, D.C. United played in front of the largest crowd for a stand-alone match in MLS history.
This Saturday, United might perform before the smallest audience in the league’s 23 seasons.
By choosing to play one of two off-site home games at Maryland SoccerPlex while Audi Field is under construction, United was assured of a small audience against the Houston Dynamo. (The Montgomery County venue holds about 5,000.)
But because it’s not part of the season ticket package and individual sales are slow, the match is threatening to break the league mark of 3,702 set by defunct Chivas USA four years ago. No official data was available, but multiple people familiar with the situation said this week that, barring a late surge, final attendance would probably end up between 3,000 and 3,500.
Such a figure would be more than 20 times smaller than the sellout crowd of 72,035 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday for D.C.’s 3-1 loss to Atlanta. The previous record (71,874) was set by Atlanta last fall.
With the D.C. organization focused on Audi Field, a 20,000-capacity stadium scheduled to open July 14 two blocks from Nationals Park, the front office has put little marketing efforts into Saturday’s match and the April 14 game against the Columbus Crew at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Ticket sales for the Annapolis, Maryland, date are also sputtering, one person said. (Data was not available.)
While a small crowd won’t look out of place at cozy SoccerPlex, it would cause embarrassment at Navy’s 34,000-seat venue.
United officials did not want to comment about the attendance outlook for the two early home matches. The team said it has sold close to 10,000 season tickets to Audi Field (most are full packages, the rest are partials that equal fulls) but didn’t include the first two home dates in the packages because of the distances that fans would have to travel. SoccerPlex is in Boyds, 30 miles northwest from downtown Washington; Navy’s stadium is 33 miles east. Both are beyond the reach of Metro lines.
Audi Field season ticket holders were given first priority to purchase seats. This weekend’s match will kick off at 1:30 p.m. Next month’s game will start at 7 p.m.
The club considered other venues in the immediate area and the region, such as Richmond and the University of Maryland, but ran into scheduling conflicts and logistical challenges. United had no desire to continue playing at RFK Stadium, even temporarily, after 22 seasons. Even if the team had reconsidered, the RFK grounds are booked this weekend for a St. Patrick’s Day music festival.
Small attendance figures would stand out in the blossoming league. The regular season average has eclipsed 20,000 in three consecutive years, with a high of 22,113 in 2017. Atlanta and Seattle were the runaway leaders last year at 48,200 and 43,666 in NFL stadiums, respectively. Nine others, based in medium-sized venues, averaged more than 20,000. D.C. was 16th out of 22 teams at 17,904. FC Dallas was last at 15,122 – which was about the league average 12 years ago.
Regardless how many fans show Saturday, United coach Ben Olsen will appreciate a rare early-season home game. (D.C. will play 12 of the first 14 on the road.)
“It’s nice to sort-of come home next weekend,” he said Sunday. “It’s going to be a really unique experience playing in a tight venue. It’s going to be a lot of fun for the fans and give us a little bit of a home-field advantage.”
United has played many U.S. Open Cup matches at SoccerPlex over the years. The venue is home to the Washington Spirit, which is entering its sixth season in the National Women’s Soccer League. While the men’s squad is playing at SoccerPlex this Saturday, the women’s team will be at Richmond’s City Stadium for the preseason finale against the North Carolina Courage.
Meantime, the Spirit is planning to play its Aug. 25 home game against the Portland Thorns at Audi Field, a test run for possibly multiple appearances in the city in future seasons. Details are still being worked out and a contract has not yet been signed.
– (c) 2018, The Washington Post