How a new waterfront soccer stadium can score and unite a city in the process
When Cornell Daniel says there’s a hype on something, he means it as a compliment. He’s describing a certain buzz, an unmistakable energy, the palpable frisson you feel when something is not merely trending, but legitimately happening. Daniel is a bit of a hype hunter. He likes being able to tell riders what’s worth checking out around town. Right now he says the hype is on the Southwest Waterfront, pointing to its newly renovated District Wharf and Audi Field, the soccer stadium the city is building for D.C. United.
Southwest sits in the nibbled-off, bottom-left quadrant of the city, where the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers meet. For decades it was overlooked by tourists and locals alike. The area along the Anacostia River was mostly vacant lots and auto repair shops, without restaurants or retail to speak of. Then, in 2006, the Nationals, the city’s then-new Major League Baseball team, decided to build their stadium near Buzzard Point, a tapered stretch of waterfront. This year, D.C. United is following suit, opening Audi Field, their own soccer stadium, right next door.
At this moment, Audi Field is maybe half built. There’s still a gaping hole where the field will be. Looking at the construction site’s mess of grey steel, it’s difficult to imagine what it will be what once construction is finished. Out of context, the shapes are abstract. But the architectural renderings promise a stunning facility with an industrial-modern aesthetic and state-of-the-art everything.
Perhaps more important is that this stadium brings a two billion dollar revitalization plan for the Southwest Waterfront, which is becoming one of the hottest—and most contentious—neighborhoods in D.C. Where there were formerly only trash-compacting facilities, wine bars and yoga studios have sprung up. A concert venue. A Mike Isabella restaurant. A Blue Bottle Coffee. Even with many of the new restaurants and shops still under construction, you’ll now find people hanging out, grabbing lunch, strolling along the refinished Wharf on a weekday afternoon. There is most definitely a hype on the waterfront.
Daniel lives just a few blocks away and possesses impressive knowledge of the area. He becomes animated when he describes plans for the new construction, which is everywhere you look. He believes all this development is going to connect the waterfront to the city, both literally and metaphorically. He talks about how the addition of an entrance from M Street SE and Interstate 295 will make this long-isolated neighborhood accessible to Eastern Market. He’s heard that there are going to be water taxis, too, connecting the Waterfront to Alexandria and Georgetown. He doesn’t complain about construction messing up traffic. “It’s bringing people together,” he says frequently.
This idea of people coming together is important to Daniel. Beyond the glitz of the new Wharf, he believes that the new stadium will unite the city. Born on the island of Trinidad, Daniel moved to Washington with his family when he was six. “Growing up, soccer was life!” he says of his life in Trinidad, where he would stay after school with the other kids to play pick-up. If they didn’t have a ball, they’d kick around an old water bottle. “When it comes to soccer season, that’s all people were watching, that’s all people were doing,” he remembers. “In my home country, soccer is a religion.”
This wasn’t the case when he arrived in Washington in the ’90s. His classmates were into American football and basketball; soccer was hard to find on television. His father would go to a Caribbean bar to watch games sometimes, but otherwise the sport faded into the background of Daniel’s new American life. Even in 1996, when Washington became home to D.C. United, one of the inaugural Major League Soccer teams, the culture didn’t change much. Daniel never went to a game. He says this isn’t unusual among the soccer-loving immigrants he knows.
For example, he’s made a close group of friends who also drive for Uber, including one friend from Bangladesh and another from Pakistan. “Soccer is life there, too,” Daniel points out, although this point of connection never really came up.
That started to change with the 2014 World Cup. “A lot of hype was on the World Cup last time,” Daniel recalled. “The energy reminded me of home. Customers were going to the bars and watching the games—it was amazing.”
That interest sparked momentum. “When you get the hype from other people, you start to remember some days of old time. Like, ‘Yeah, this is how it felt like being around people that talk about soccer all the time!’”
He believes soccer is now on the rise—getting the hype on— in D.C. Driving by the city’s parks, he’s sees people playing soccer, and finds himself in conversations with riders about the new stadium. Daniel thinks Audi Field is going to definitively change the culture around soccer in the District, bringing the sport to the foreground of city life, where it belongs.
Part of this is simply logistics. United’s former stadium, R.F.K., was a rusty hand-me-down originally designed for multi-sport use. And it was located on the far side of the city. “With R.F.K., [D.C. United] would play, and people would go, but the team didn’t really have a home,” Daniel says. With an inviting, permanent location integrated into the heart of the city, Daniel believes going to games and following the team will become second nature to Washingtonians.
Daniel also predicts the new stadium will bring people together in deeper ways. He believes soccer has a unique quality. From his perspective, the sport is endowed with the capacity to unite communities—particularly diverse communities like Washington’s—in ways other sports don’t seem able to do. He compares soccer to traditionally American sports. When he looks at football and basketball, he mostly sees athletes who are either black or white. “Soccer has a different face—you see diversity in the faces. Good players from India play soccer. Good players from Mexico. Good players from the Caribbean. Good players from Germany.” Soccer represents the America he knows. “D.C. United is America’s team!” he says. “When you look at the roster, it be diverse. Just the image of this diverse roster can throw down walls and barriers.”
Or, as Daniel might phrase it, Audi Field is putting a hype on love. “Every country that is in this world shares a love for soccer. A lot of diverse people will come together, and it’s all love,” he says. “That’s what beautiful about soccer.”
Photos: Gary Williams
Kerry Folan lives in the Washington, D.C. area and writes about art, fashion, and culture. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Glamour.com, Literary Hub, and ARTNews, among others. Formerly, she was the editor of Women in the Arts magazine, published by D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, and Racked.com, a fashion news website published by Vox Media.