Soccer in the United States has become “more ubiquitous,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Thursday.
“And I think that’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 D.C., for all the history that it’s had and the success that it’s had for a generation.”
And so on Thursday, MLS returned to its roots, announcing that the 2023 All-Star Game will take place at Audi Field, D.C. United’s four-year-old playhouse. The date is July 19.
The league has not decided whether to keep the current format — select players from MLS facing counterparts from Liga MX, the Mexican first division — return to MLS against a famous club or something entirely different.
The last time the All-Star Game was held in Washington was 2004. MLS Cup was last played here in 2007, before the league began awarding the game to the highest-seeded finalist. Because United has 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 U.S. women’s national team has never played at Audi Field, though the sides almost struck a deal this past spring. The men have stopped by for two low-key matches in 2019. And in the biggest setback, FIFA scoffed at FedEx Field as a potential 2026 World Cup venue, then last week passed over D.C.’s joint bid with Baltimore.
The MLS All-Star Game is no World Cup, but it’s something. The city has not hosted an All-Star Game of any kind since Major League Baseball’s in 2018 at Nationals Park.
“I am looking forward to the All-Star Game, all-star week and everything that we can do together to promote sport, show off our city, get more people excited and engaged,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in a speech at Audi Field. “There is a real economic benefit to it, but there’s also just a happiness and pride benefit to it, and we are proud to welcome the All-Star Game to Washington, D.C.”
MLS selected Washington not out of nostalgia, but because the league has gotten in the habit of rewarding cities that build soccer stadiums. This year’s match is in St. Paul, Minn., which opened Allianz Field in 2019, and last year’s was in Los Angeles, site 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 along 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, drawing laughs from his former teammates.
He and Olsen, the former D.C. midfielder and head coach, said they would like to see a legends game as part of the all-star festivities. Eskandarian, MLS’s senior director for player relations and player development, said he is pushing for it. Such a match would accompany a skills competition and community events surrounding the match.
Moreno, who was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame last year, said that it’s been so long since an All-Star Game or MLS Cup was played in Washington, “I totally forgot we had [the all-stars] here” in 2002 and 2004. “It’s great for the fans. It means a lot for the city. So it’s about time.”
Moreno said such events are important to raise interest in soccer beyond the weekly grind of the men’s and women’s pro leagues. While the Washington Spirit won the NWSL trophy last season, United has failed to win a playoff game since 2015 and this season is tied for last in points among MLS’s 28 teams.
“We are big in soccer here,” said Moreno, a native of Bolivia who settled in Northern Virginia. “D.C. United isn’t doing very well, but fans still love the game. They believe in the team and they believe in the sport.”
Garber said the league is eager to spotlight Audi Field and Washington’s MLS roots, dating from 1996.
“D.C. United was really the first national MLS brand, where you didn’t have to live in this city to be a D.C. United fan because of their early success,” Garber said. “It was truly the epicenter of soccer in America, particularly during the early days in Major League Soccer.”