The last person most people think of when D.C. United plays the Red Bulls is a soccer dad named Ed Arena, but he was the president at the University of Maryland the last time the team played the New York team.
That was in 1998, the last time a major soccer league in the United States fielded two or more D.C. teams, and Arena’s university was his alma mater as well. The former U.S. national team coach, who started his coaching career at Maryland, wasn’t around for MLS’s record-setting expansion season that followed, in 2004, but for the Red Bulls’ most recent record-setting season, in 2013. In between, he served as Maryland’s athletic director for 15 years and left in 2012 to become the head coach at USL’s Saint Louis University.
Before any fans’ thoughts turn to the spreadsheets of league commissioner Don Garber, a look at Arena’s career at a larger-than-life college and university — where he remains an honorary assistant men’s soccer coach along with two other members of his staff — should help dispel such concerns.
UMD has a total athletic budget of more than $30 million and averaged more than a 10,000-seat stadium attendance of 26,000 in three seasons with Arena as athletic director. The men’s team won two national championships under Arena, setting records for both wins (92) and margin of victory (35.38 points) in the process.
But not since the soccer era has Maryland — located in suburban Washington, D.C. and ranked 16th in the most recent Academic Progress Rate report — had a marquee team on the field. The last Big Ten Conference team to do so was Penn State in 2004.
“Football and basketball, there has been a big rivalry for the last decade with Notre Dame,” Arena told reporters on the sidelines Saturday. “So that is something that definitely will give us a chance to enhance the relationship with Washington and put it on the map.”
Given all of the bright-lights opportunities available to a championship team, any team other than D.C. United — or, more realistically, the league’s other current two contenders, Los Angeles and Seattle — is bound to face limits on its ability to build a season-ticket base. D.C. United is so close to the team that won the 1996 MLS Cup — Colorado — that some fans joke “D.C. United lost to Colorado when it was a franchise, but the team never won a cup,” before derisively noting they have more titles in, say, school marching bands than sports.
The team has averaged less than 17,000 per game at RFK Stadium since moving there in 2007. Despite falling slightly below that mark — to 15,762 — for its past three games there, the majority of the home fans appear to still support United, as evidenced by the color purple jerseys the team wore for Saturday’s game, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the 1996 MLS title.
Regardless of whether D.C. United draws a larger crowd at RFK, Arena seems poised to have a hand in making it so at Maryland next fall, under the new leadership of interim President Wallace Loh, who replaced Larry Bernhardt after he resigned in October.
Although Maryland had to be talked into the pending sale of MLS’s San Jose Earthquakes (headed by former Marylander Lew Davidson), Maryland and the league have yet to ink a deal for a permanent home for a franchise, and Arena has been sought out for the role of president on almost every league expansion bid that has come up since his university left the Big Ten for the Southeast Conference. Even more to the point, Arena is one of the three men that MLS would consider as the next leader of one of its D.C. or California teams — in addition to United COO Adrian Heath, who also heads Vancouver Whitecaps.
“They’re good people, good business people,” the Red Bulls and New York Times’ Bob Raissman noted of Arena and Heath, both of whom were interviewed by the Earthquakes and interviewed by Garber. “They are who they are because they are good coaches. . . . If you call [Garber], ask him to interview [Arena], he probably will, because they are not scared of people who are good at what they do.”