Football in the United States has become “more ubiquitous,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Thursday.
“And I think that’s a very positive development for our league and for the sport,” he continued. “Ultimately, we all have a soft spot for DC, for all the history it’s had and the success it’s had for a generation.”
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And so, on Thursday, MLS returned to its roots, announcing that the 2023 All-Star Game will take place at Audi Field, DC United’s four-year-old playhouse. The date is July 19.
The league has not yet decided whether the current format – selected players from the MLS against counterparts from Liga MX, the Mexican first division – should return to the MLS against a famous club or move on to something completely different.
The last time the All-Star Game was held in Washington was in 2004. The MLS Cup was last played here in 2007, before the league started awarding the game to the highest-seeded finalist. With United struggling to keep up since winning four titles in the league’s first nine seasons, hosting the title match is now pure fantasy.
The US women’s national team has never played at Audi Field, although the teams nearly struck a deal last spring. The men dropped by for two quiet games in 2019. And in the biggest setback, FIFA mocked FedEx Field as a potential World Cup venue in 2026, bypassing DC’s joint bid with Baltimore last week.
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The MLS All-Star Game is not a World Cup, but it is something. The city has not hosted a single All-Star Game since the 2018 Major League Baseball in Nationals Park.
“I’m looking forward to the All-Star Game, All-Star Week and everything we can do together to promote sports, showcase our city and get more people excited and involved,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said. D) in a speech at Audi Field. “It has a real economic benefit, but there’s also a happiness and pride benefit to it, and we’re proud to welcome the All-Star Game to Washington, DC.”
MLS chose Washington not out of nostalgia, but because the league has gotten into the habit of rewarding cities that build football stadiums. This year’s game is in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Allianz Field opened in 2019, and last year’s Los Angeles, the site of the Banc of California Stadium, which debuted in 2018.
Thursday’s ceremony brought out some of the biggest names in United and MLS history. In the front row were Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian, Ryan Nelsen and Ben Olsen, members of United’s last MLS Cup championship squad, in 2004.
“Give us six weeks to get ready and we’ll be there in uniform,” said Eskandarian, laughing at his former teammates.
He and Olsen, the former DC midfielder and head coach, said they’d love to see a Legends game as part of the star festivities. Eskandarian, MLS’s senior director for player relations and player development, said he is committed to it. Such a contest would be accompanied by a skill contest and community events surrounding the contest.
Moreno, who was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame last year, said it’s been so long since an All-Star Game or MLS Cup was played in Washington: “I completely forgot we [the all-stars] here” in 2002 and 2004. “It’s great for the fans. It means a lot to the city. So it is time.”
Moreno said such events are important for sparking interest in football beyond the weekly grind of the men’s and women’s professional leagues. While the Washington Spirit won the NWSL trophy last season, United have failed to win a playoff game since 2015, and this season is last in points of MLS’s 28 teams.
“We’re big on football here,” said Moreno, a Bolivian resident who has settled in Northern Virginia. “DC United are not doing very well, but fans still love the game. They believe in the team and they believe in the sport.”
Garber said the league likes to highlight Audi Field and Washington’s MLS roots, dating back to 1996.
“DC United was really the first national MLS brand, where because of their early success you didn’t have to live in this city to be a DC United fan,” Garber said. “It really was the epicenter of soccer in America, especially during the early days of Major League Soccer.”