The dynasty of the league’s early years has turned into a reclamation project, appropriate for a team playing in decaying RFK Stadium, but a couple of sound acquisitions and a thriving Academy pipeline should keep the stands bouncing.
Trophies: 1996 MLS Cup/U.S. Open Cup, 1997 MLS Cup/Supporters’ Shield, 1998 CONCACAF Champions Cup/InterAmerican Cup, 1999 MLS Cup/Supporters’ Shield, 2004 MLS Cup, 2006 Supporters’ Shield, 2007 Supporters’ Shield, 2008 U.S. Open Cup
Fan personality: Down but not out. The Screaming Eagles, Barra Brava and La Norte set the standard for supporters groups in the early days. Some wayward seasons dimmed the enthusiasm a bit, as have years of stadium frustration. But it’s still a soccer-savvy region that sets a terrific atmosphere all the way from Lot 8 into the stadium.
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Stadium situation: RFK Stadium is a massive concrete albatross. Fans and players can put up with the antiquated facilities and the occasional wandering animal, but management can’t put up with the red ink. But the political landscape might be shifting, at least enough to take the word “Baltimore” off the table for now.
Hard to believe United started slowly in Year 1, but it took some time and some personnel changes for Bruce Arena to put things together. Jaime Moreno joined in midseason along with a core of fellow Bolivian Marco Etcheverry, longtime U.S. captain John Harkes, rock-solid young defender Eddie Pope, El Salvadoran forward Raul Diaz Arce, pitbull defensive midfielder Richie Williams, versatile Tony Sanneh and international veteran Jeff Agoos. That team won trophies both domestic and international until salary cap restrictions forced the team to start dismantling. The survivors of the purge: Moreno, Etcheverry and a young midfielder named Ben Olsen.
United’s fall was quick and difficult to overcome. From 2000 to 2002, United finished last in the East. A trio of terrific signings — Hristo Stoitchkov, Earnie Stewart and New Zealand defender Ryan Nelsen – helped the team back to the playoffs in 2003. In 2004, while teen phenom Freddy Adu drew the attention, Moreno returned from a year with the MetroStars to team with Alecko Eskandarian and playmaker Christian Gomez on a run to the club’s fourth MLS Cup title, giving coach Peter Nowak a smashing debut.
For a couple of years, United settled into a pattern of strong regular seasons with a couple of Supporters’ Shields, followed by postseason disappointment. Despite an Open Cup win in 2008, the team was falling apart behind some awful personnel decisions — a group of South American imports flopped horribly. Rebuilding efforts didn’t pay off, and United fell to a 6-24-4 record in 2010. Olsen has taken over from there and hopes to build on a respectable 2011 performance.
Add injury to insult is the team’s protracted stadium saga. The team is on its third ownership group — a consortium including George Soros in the early years, a trip across the political spectrum to Philip Anschutz in the early 2000s, then finally to a group including Will Chang, real estate developer Victor MacFarlane and Duke basketball players-turned-real estate developers Christian Laettner and Brian Davis. After false starts that included a near-deal at Poplar Point in Washington proper and a comedy of errors in suburban Prince George’s County, the group was down to just Chang. The good news: Volkswagen built a plant in the distant D.C. suburbs (though not far from United’s old training grounds) and signed on as a team and league sponsor.
The last couple of years have hinted at a resurrection. Olsen made the transition from field to bench, first as interim coach and then permanent head coach. Dwayne De Rosario‘s tour of MLS employers brought him to Washington, where he won 2011 MLS MVP honors. Chris Pontius emerged as one of the league’s best attackers when healthy. The Academy started to crank out players like goalkeeper Bill Hamid and winger/defender Andy Najar, who has since been sold to Anderlecht.
New co-owners Erick Thohir and Jason Levien have helped Chang carry the financial burden and make more progress toward that elusive stadium. They also cleaned house internally all the way to the top — executive Kevin Payne, a high-profile connection to United’s early days, departed for Toronto. Most curiously, they signed Carlos Ruiz.