WASHINGTON D.C. — For MLS Commissioner Don Garber, the groundbreaking for new D.C. United stadium Audi Field on Monday was a relief … and puts him one step closer to being able to walk away from the job with a legacy he feels good about.
On a cloudy, chilly day on Buzzard Point, the spot on D.C.’s southwest riverfront where United hopes to open its new stadium in summer 2018, hundreds of fans, media members, and city employees gathered to break ground on the site that will become Audi Field. Moments after putting shovel to dirt, Garber spoke about the club needing to finally get its own home.
“Our league needed one of its most historic — if not its most historic team — to be a frontrunner as opposed to being one of those teams that just couldn’t get it done,” Garber said.
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“So we have one more to do in New England,” Garber said, smiling. “I think that’s the one where I might hang up the cleats, at that groundbreaking.”
Garber turns 60 this year, and has been serving as MLS Commissioner since 1999, a tenure of 18 years.
The process for D.C. United to get a soccer-specific stadium in the District has been near Kafkaesque: Negotiations with the city have gone on for years. United co-owner Jason Levien brandished an actual machete during the groundbreaking ceremony, which was given to him years earlier as a gift by United fans, who understood better than anyone the amount of bureaucracy and red tape that would need to be cut through to make the stadium real.
“You have to give Jason Levien a lot of credit,” Garber said. “This is a guy who didn’t have a lot of connection to our league when he bought the team …but he got it done, man. He cut through a lot, all the political challenges, all the regulatory issues, all the environmental issues with the site. …He had laser focus.”
For Garber, United getting a new stadium is a massive win for a league trying to cement its status as viable and growing, and put to bed ideas that the league would lose sight of its original clubs with a focus on expansion.
“I don’t believe there is an old MLS and a new MLS,” Garber said. “I believe that there are teams that finally figure out how to be successful.
He pointed to the success of Kansas City, which was an MLS 1.0 team and then crafted a new brand, built a new stadium, and is now one of the league’s biggest success stories.
“There’s not a market in our league today that won’t get a stadium done eventually. If you wait long enough and work enough.”
While getting a soccer-specific stadium for New England would put the bow on his tenure, Garber is still committed to expansion. The league recently made public its desire for 28 teams (it currently has 22, with LAFC set to join next season), and Garber said that they’ve made progress with several possible expansion cities, including St. Louis.
But on that cloudy Monday, Garber was just content to see a stadium actually be built in Washington D.C.
“I think that every owner, every executive, every player is smiling today. This is the one I think we wanted most.”