Soccer in the United States has become “more ubiquitous,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Thursday.
“And I think it’s a very positive development for our league and for the sport,” he continued. “At the end of the day, we all have a soft spot for DC, for all the history that he’s had and the success that he’s had for a generation.”
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And so on Thursday, MLS returned to its roots by announcing that the 2023 All-Star Game will take place at Audi Field, DC United’s four-year theater. The date is July 19.
The league hasn’t decided whether to keep the current format (select MLS players taking on their counterparts from Liga MX, the Mexican top division), return to MLS against a famous club, or something else entirely.
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 began awarding the game to the highest-ranked finalist. With United having struggled to keep up since winning four titles in the league’s first nine seasons, hosting the title game these days is pure fantasy.
The US women’s national team has never played at Audi Field, although the sides nearly reached an agreement last spring. The men stopped by for two low-key games in 2019. And in the biggest setback, FIFA mocked FedEx Field as a potential 2026 World Cup host, then last week passed over DC’s joint bid with Baltimore. .
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The MLS All-Star Game isn’t a World Cup, but it is something. The city hasn’t hosted an All-Star Game of any kind since Major League Baseball’s 2018 game at Nationals Park.
“I look forward to the All-Star Game, All-Star Week and everything we can do together to promote the sport, showcase our city, excite and engage more people,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in a speech at Audi Field. “There’s a real financial benefit, but there’s also a happiness and pride benefit, and we’re proud to welcome the All-Star Game to Washington, DC.”
MLS selected Washington not out of nostalgia, but because the league has made a habit of rewarding cities that build soccer stadiums. This year’s game is in St. Paul, Minnesota, which opened Allianz Field in 2019, and last year’s game was in Los Angeles, home of Banc of California Stadium, which debuted in 2018.
Thursday’s ceremony brought out some of the biggest names in United and MLS history. Sitting in the front row were Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian, Ryan Nelsen and Ben Olsen, members of United’s last MLS Cup-winning team in 2004.
“Give us six weeks to prepare and we’ll be there in uniform,” Eskandarian said, eliciting laughter from his former teammates.
He and Olsen, the former DC midfielder and head coach, said they would like to see a legends game as part of the All-Star festivities. Eskandarian, MLS senior director of player relations and player development, said he is pushing for it. Such a match would accompany a skills competition and community events around the match.
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 has been played in Washington, “I completely forgot we had [the all-stars] here” in 2002 and 2004. “It’s great for the fans. It means a lot to the city. So it was time.
Moreno said such events are important to increase interest in soccer beyond the weekly grind of 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 are tied for last in points among the 28 MLS teams.
“We’re big on soccer here,” said Moreno, a Bolivian native who settled in Northern Virginia. “DC United is not doing very well, but the fans still love the game. They believe in the team and they believe in the sport.”
Garber said the league is eager to highlight Audi Field and Washington’s roots in MLS, dating back to 1996.
“DC United was really the first national brand in MLS, where you didn’t have to live in this city to be a fan of DC United because of their early success,” Garber said. “It was truly the epicenter of soccer in the United States, particularly during the early days of Major League Soccer.”