After a long wait, D.C. United has finally arrived at its new home. Audi Field opened on Saturday, marking the club’s debut at a new soccer-specific stadium that reflects many current design trends among MLS facilities.
Audi Field was built in a 17-month construction window before opening this summer, and its completion is a milestone of sorts for United. The club spent years searching for a new facility to replace RFK Stadium—the venerable multipurpose venue that was its home from 1996-2017—and has found its modern replacement in the soccer-specific Audi Field.
Given that it is moving into the venue during the season, it will take time for United to familiarize itself with the facility and fine-tune operations. However, upon its opening, it was apparent that Audi Field has some unique features that could position it favorably among MLS stadiums.
While some outliers to this trend—such as Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium—have emerged in recent years, MLS has increasingly favored the soccer-specific design model for new facilities. Audi Field fits the soccer-specific mold and leverages some of its features to create a unique environment.
The stadium was built on a site of less than 10 acres. The small site creates a certain intimacy—Audi Field’s capacity is listed at 20,000—and some design features allow the facility to make the best use of site. A steep seating bowl allows for action to be focused on the pitch, while standing areas in parts of the concourse—predominantly on the south end—give fans an up-close look at the action. Along its west side, Audi Field features field-level suites that blend the features found in the premium areas with the stadium’s overall focus on the pitch.
Audi Field features 31 suites spread across three different levels, with the Heineken MVP Club and EagleBank Club highlighting its premium areas. The emphasis on premium areas certainly fits standards for modern MLS stadiums, but Audi Field finds a way to blend the interests of suite holders and club users—who may follow the action on the pitch casually—with those of the hardcore fans within the seating bowl. Perhaps the best example of this blend is the Heineken Rooftop, a social space on the north side of the stadium.
The Heineken Rooftop sits atop a larger structure that includes the private Heineken MVP Club on a lower floor. The rooftop area is open to all fans and proved to be a popular destination on opening night. It follows the seating bowl’s design by providing a good view of the pitch, but it emphasizes the social aspect of attending the game by featuring pub tables and a bar area where fans can congregate.
Located next to the rooftop is the Supporters’ Section. With a capacity of 1,500 and steep sightlines, the area is built to amplify the stadium’s atmosphere. In a sense, it works in tangent with the rooftop to create a discernable energy on the facility’s north side.
Over time, what could become more evident is Audi Field’s role in an area that is rapidly changing. The stadium’s site is located near Nationals Park, which has seen plenty of development in its surrounding area in recent years through the construction of new apartments, restaurants, retail, and other amenities.
If the development continues to unfold as expected, Audi Field will become an increasingly urban site. Some of this is already reflected in the stadium’s transportation—it does not feature a dedicated on-site public parking area, instead emphasizing access via bicycles (it offers a bike valet), foot traffic, and public transit—but the addition of future development will make the surrounding area increasingly urban.
With those factors, Audi Field reflects a lot of current desires for MLS facilities. It is an intimate, compact soccer-specific stadium that offers a generous mix of social, seating, and premium hospitality areas. The design also emphasizes the stadium’s surroundings in an urban environment, while its location should help to foster future development over the coming years. And, of course, D.C. United and Populous are seeking LEED Gold Certification with this new facility.
It took United years to get to this point, but the club finally has a modern MLS facility in Audi Field. The initial excitement over Audi Field will likely give the club a boost for the remainder of 2018, but the stadium’s design and potential for continual development in the surrounding area give it an intriguing future as well.
Images by Zach Spedden.