Football in the United States has “become more ubiquitous,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber on 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 MLS returned to its roots on Thursday, announcing that the 2023 All-Star Game will be held at Audi Field, DC United’s four-year-old playhouse. The date is July 19th.
The league has yet to decide whether to keep the current format – select players from MLS will meet counterparts from Liga MX, Mexico’s first division – and 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 struggling to keep up since winning four titles in their first nine league seasons, hosting the title game these days is pure fantasy.
The US women’s national team has never played at Audi Field, although the teams nearly reached an agreement last spring. The men stopped by for two unremarkable games in 2019. And the biggest setback was when FIFA mocked FedEx Field as a potential 2026 World Cup venue and last week dropped DC’s joint bid with Baltimore.
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The MLS All-Star Game isn’t a world championship, but it is something. The city has not hosted an All-Star game at Nationals Park since Major League Baseball in 2018.
“I look forward to the All-Star Game, All-Star Week, and all we can do together to advance the sport, showcase our city, and inspire and engage more people,” said Mayor Muriel E .Bowser (D). a speech at Audi Field. “It has a real economic benefit, but it also just has a luck and pride benefit, and we’re proud to welcome the All-Star Game to Washington, DC.”
The MLS chose Washington not out of nostalgia but because the league has a habit of rewarding cities that build soccer stadiums. This year’s game will be held in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Allianz Field opened in 2019, and last year’s game was held 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. Seated 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 out there in uniform,” Eskandarian said, causing his former teammates to laugh.
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 celebrations. Eskandarian, senior director of player relations and player development at MLS, said he’s pushing for it. Such a match would accompany a skill contest and community events surrounding the match.
Moreno, who was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame last year, said it had been so long since an All-Star Game or MLS Cup had been played in Washington: “I completely forgot we did it [the all-stars] here” in 2002 and 2004. “It’s great for the fans. That means a lot for the city. So it’s about time.”
Moreno said such events are important in raising interest in football beyond the weekly routine of men’s and women’s professional leagues. While the Washington Spirit won the NWSL trophy last season, United have not won a playoff game since 2015 and this season they are tied on points among the 28 MLS teams.
“We’re big in football here,” said Moreno, who is originally from Bolivia and 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 keen to highlight the 1996 MLS roots of Audi Field and Washington.
“DC United was really the first national MLS brand where, because of the early success, you didn’t have to live in this city to be a DC United fan,” said Garber. “It really was the epicenter of soccer in America, especially in the early days of Major League Soccer.”