WASHINGTON — For the past decade, soccer-specific stadiums have opened across MLS for clubs new and old. All the while, D.C. United — once considered the league's flagship franchise — toiled at archaic RFK Stadium.
It was in July 2013 that plans to build a 20,000-seat stadium at the Buzzard Point property in Southwest Washington were announced. In December 2014, the city formally approved funding for the project. Yet United fans echoed the refrain: They'll believe it when shovels are in the ground.
At long last, that day arrived Monday. With Mayor Muriel Bowser and MLS commissioner Don Garber among those in attendance, United officially broke ground on Audi Field.
"I think that every owner, every executive, every player is smiling today," Garber said. "This is the one I think we wanted most, and we finally have it today. I think everyone who is involved in our league and our sport has a soft spot for how hard it has been."
At one point in the ceremony, United co-owner Jason Levien brandished the machete presented to him by D.C. supporters in 2012 after he pledged to cut through the political red tape and secure a stadium deal.
When all was said and done, four and a half years passed between Levien and Erick Thohir being introduced as United's new investors and construction kicking off Monday.
"It was a process where there were hurdles put up in front of us, and we sort of collectively jumped through them — and then they put up more hurdles and more hurdles," Levien said. "But it's really just an important process to get right."
With final approval from the zoning commission secured earlier this month and the stadium design set, the club is planning for a 15-month construction before opening the venue midway through the 2018 campaign.
"We're focused on June of 2018," Levien said. "We've spent a lot of time on the design already with the drawings from the architects, with the construction firms, so we know what needs to be done.
"Because of the site, we're not building so deeply into the ground. We're building up, so it's a little bit more in our control in terms of our timing. So we feel very good about that timeline based on what other stadiums have taken to be built, and that's our schedule."
That schedule would require United to start the 2018 season with approximately 12 matches away from home, surpassing the 10-game road trip Sporting Kansas City kicked off 2011 with while Children's Mercy Park was under construction.
But United fully expects to depart RFK Stadium at the end of 2017 and play its entire 2018 home slate at Audi Field, with no contingency plan currently in place should construction take longer than anticipated.
"Certainly we would think about that, but right now we've got Plan A and we've got Plan A," Levien said, "and we want to make that happen."