D.C. United owner says new stadium deal could pay roster dividends this summer

In recent years, as MLS teams began pouring greater resources into player acquisitions and salaries, D.C. United fell further behind. As one of the few organizations without a stadium of its own creating revenue streams, the technical staff was left to mix and match odd parts, take chances on lesser players from abroad and develop young hopefuls.

But following the city’s approval Thursday of a stadium project at Buzzard Point, United could start to make up ground.

Jason Levien, United’s managing general partner who headed the stadium campaign since 2012, said Friday that the club will explore opportunities to acquire marquee players that were previously out of its price range.

“We’re going to take a hard look at it this summer for the second half of the year,” he said, “and certainly at the end of the year.”

While in a stadium holding pattern, United maintained one of the lowest payrolls in the 22-team league and tempered ancillary spending fees associated with international acquisitions. Only D.C. and expansion side Minnesota do not currently have a “designated player” — someone whose high-end contract is paid, in part, by team investors instead of the centralized league.

General Manager Dave Kasper and Coach Ben Olsen have squeezed the most from a tight budget, assembling overachieving teams that have advanced to the playoffs four of the past five years.

The 20,000-capacity stadium in Southwest D.C., tentatively slated to open in June 2018 as Audi Field, “certainly leads to more resources — and more opportunity for resources — and more opportunity to monetize investments in the squad that we didn’t have before,” Levien said.

The new venue will include 31 private suites, half of which have been sold, chief revenue officer Mike Schoenbrun said. (RFK Stadium has none.) United will also control a greater share of concessions than it does at RFK. Naming rights will yield several million dollars annually.

“We’ll build that into our internal budgeting numbers and look to invest in players,” Levien said. “We’re going to start now, taking a long hard look at it, what the right time is and when to do it.”

With an upbeat vibe surrounding the current squad, which will open the season March 4 against visiting Sporting Kansas City, United is not looking to make drastic changes just because resources become available.

“We actually have a squad that we really like right now,” Levien said. “So we want to be smart about it from a chemistry perspective.”

When the Houston Dynamo moved from Robertson Stadium, a college football venue, into BBVA Compass Stadium in 2012, “we experienced a massive shift,” team President Chris Canetti said, citing not only fresh revenue streams — “business doubled” — but an improved image and brand in the local sports market.

At the time, the Dynamo was championship-caliber and decided to keep its team intact. Three losing seasons prompted changes this winter.

MLS’s most popular figures include designated players earning multimillions, such as Kaka (Orlando City), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), David Villa (New York City FC), Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC) and Giovani dos Santos (Los Angeles Galaxy).

For a long time, the gap in payroll and star power was not large enough to create an MLS upper and lower class. But as some teams have increased spending in recent years, separation has begun to show. Last year’s finalists, Toronto and the Seattle Sounders, had the maximum of three designated players apiece.

United’s next opportunity to sign players will be during the summer transfer window, July 10 to Aug. 9. The performance of the team over the first four months of the campaign will influence those decisions, Levien said.

Levien credits Olsen and Kasper for keeping United’s head above water.

“They’ve had to be very resourceful. We’re in a good place because of what they’ve done,” he said. “We’ve worked within our reality. It’s been challenging, and we’ve responded to that challenge. But having additional resources will only help us in our mission to win championships. Now we’ll have an opportunity to build on what we’ve already established.”

United will stage a ceremonial groundbreaking Feb. 27 with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and MLS Commissioner Don Garber. Construction is slated to begin the first week in March, Levien said. Despite a tight timetable, he said he is confident that the facility will open in 16 months. United will probably end up playing about a dozen games on the road to start the season and maximize a full 17-match home slate at Audi Field.

Clearing the final bureaucratic hurdle Thursday brought joy and relief for Levien, a former Williams and Connolly attorney, Democratic strategist and NBA executive.

“I remember very vividly the moment at the W [Hotel] in 2012,” Levien said, referring to when he and chief investor Erick Thohir were introduced as part of the new ownership group. “I was asked about the stadium. Since that moment, I’ve been carrying that responsibility, that burden with the fans and community, that we need to get this done. I could never totally relax because we had to deliver. We knew it was going to be a slog. It’s a big sense of relief.”

At that news conference, Levien said that, to reach a stadium deal, “We see a pathway, and we also know we’re going to have to use our machete to get there.”

Weeks later, a leader in the Barra Brava supporters’ group presented him with an actual machete.

On Friday, Levien said he will bring the blade to the groundbreaking ceremony.

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