D.C. United bids farewell to RFK Stadium in emotional final day

WASHINGTON — On Sunday, it actually happened. A day that for so long seemed like it would never arrive finally did, and a club and a city now stare into a strange and surreal new reality.

D.C. United has played its final game at RFK Stadium.

As Audi Field is constructed just a few miles down the road, D.C. United had one last chance to bid farewell to a stadium that's old, outdated, partially falling apart and yet, beloved by many fans as if it were a family member.

The team fell 2-1 to the New York Red Bulls in a game that meant nothing in the standings, but counted for plenty to a group of current and past players, fans, media members and team employees who came to say goodbye to the venerable facility that first opened its doors in 1961.

Though DCU has been trying to find a new home for well over a decade, the club’s success in finally securing Audi Field meant leaving a facility that has drawn plenty of scorn and mocking from all over the American soccer world, but has also generated an aura and a mystique that few facilities in this country ever have or will.

In the center of it all Sunday was Ben Olsen, the D.C. United lifer who has been with the club in some capacity — player, assistant and now head coach — since 1998.

Following the final whistle Olsen took a moment to take it all in, standing all alone in the center circle and contemplating the end of DCU’s 22-year run at the stadium.

“It’s been an emotional day,” Olsen said. “I was able to have a few moments with myself and appreciate being a part of the history of this building. I’m very humbled.”

Before the game, Olsen was able to take part in a legends game that served as an ideal reminder of the kind of exceptional talent that has graced D.C. United’s roster since the team was a part of the inaugural MLS campaign in 1996.

Jaime Moreno, Marco Etcheverry, John Harkes, Hristo Stoichkov, Ryan Nelsen and many others took part in the match while Kevin Payne and Bruce Arena, who helped construct and manage teams that won three of the first four MLS Cups, watched from the sideline.

“[I was] just trying to slow things down a little bit and take it all in because these type of moments, sometimes they rush right by,” Harkes said.

“You look back ... and think about how lucky we were to have so many great moments in the game.”

Sunday was undoubtedly another of those moments, as a season-best crowd of 41,418 made a dead rubber feel like a playoff game.

“It was special,” DCU defender Nick DeLeon said. “There was just a different roar in the crowd. The noise level was pretty spectacular.”

D.C. United RFK Stadium
D.C. United fans MLS
D.C. United fans MLS

That crowd was aware they were witnessing the end of an era — possibly the last event in a building that’s hosted the old NASL, both the men’s and women’s World Cup, the 1996 Olympics and more U.S. national team matches than any other.

The club’s new home at Audi Field promises to be packed with plenty more amenities and will feature significantly less dilapidation. But, of course, a significant amount of history and mystique will be lost.

DCU general manager Dave Kasper said one of the key holdovers from the old building will help reconstruct the atmosphere at the team’s new stadium.

“Our fans and the fan culture and a lot of the things that this club got right early on are still going to be there,” Kasper said.

“We taught a lot of fans from other cities how to do things. That was the greatest thing about today — just that level of energy, that level of excitement from the fans and the noise in this building was tremendous.

“That’s going to be there in the new building and it’s probably going to be twice as loud.”

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The time will come to raise the curtain on Audi Field in 2018. Sunday, though, was all about saying farewell to a true original that made an indelible impact on soccer in the United States.

“It’s simple, RFK has got a lot of character,” DeLeon said. “This place has got a lot of history so that’s one thing I’m going to miss.”

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