Metropolitan Washington DC has quickly grown from a Southern accented backwater which happened to be the nation’s capitol before A/C, to perhaps the most cosmopolitan and public transit friendly metropolitan area in the United States. The area that contains the nation’s capital as well as a vibrant private sector also boasts a more vibrant culture around football than any other in the country. With many immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America, the DC Metro area has a leg up on developing talent over just about any other US area.
Other areas including (but not limited to) Chicagoland, New Jersey, Southern California, St Louis and South Florida do develop their fair share of capable amateurs and professionals. But the DC area stands apart not only in its development of players from immigrant communities, but also because of the local support and infrastructure in the region related to the game.
DC United has been the most successful franchise in MLS since the league’s inception. With great intensity of fan support than any other franchise that began play in the league’s first decade, better local media penetration than any other MLS side, better access to the games through public transit and more international achievements than the rest of the league’s teams combined, United is without question except from very biased fans, the signature team of Major League Soccer. In fact, to steal another team’s slogan, United is the true gold standard for MLS and the professional game in America.
As someone who has worked my entire adult life either in or with the public sector, Washington DC was for many years like a second home to me. I know the area like the back of my hand, and believe the cultural and ethnic makeup of the area is a large reason why DC United is so successful (the stadium controversy not withstanding) and why the area provides the most fertile proving grounds for the game both professional and amateur in the United States.
Consider the capital of the United Kingdom, the country we take perhaps too much of our footballing inspiration from: Football support isn’t as a fanatical in London as it is in English parts further north, but club sides of different sizes and quality exist throughout the city and its surrounding areas. Washington DC represents the closest facsimile we have to London in the United States: a national capital, a global cosmopolitan mix of peoples and very good public transit. New York City also comes close but the area is in many ways too busy and public transit not good enough in parts of New Jersey to represent the same model.
Much of London’s footballing support is local even though some front runners in the city prefer to cheer on Manchester United or Liverpool. The point is that Washington DC is developing neighborhood support for what are essentially neighborhood sides. New York has the same potential thanks to the Red Bulls and with FC New York entering USL-1 play next year as well as PDL sides spread across Northern New Jersey and Long Island. But the Washington area is further along also because of the fantastic success of local colleges and the fertile ground they provides for PDL and USL sides.
The Washington/Baltimore Metro area currently has the best supported US based MLS team, two USL-2 teams and several top college programs as well as PDL sides that feed off the local colleges. Here is a list and the part of the region they represent.
United, the most successful professional club in the United States draws fans from all over the region and as far south as Florida whose MLS teams were contracted in 2001.
The USL-2 club operates out of Montgomery County drawing a largely suburban Maryland audience. The team also has the best TV coverage for any USL-2 side.
Crystal Palace USA
Based just outside Baltimore and affiliated ironically with London’s oldest professional club, Palace USA has developed a following in just four seasons of active play.
Northern Virginia Royals
A PDL side based in Manassas that has been highly successful since its inception the club’s 1998 inception. The Royals draw fans largely from Fairfax County, and has developed through the years a relationship with DC United. Troy Perkins in fact was loaned to the Royals from United when he was backing up Nicky Rimando in 2004.
About 45 miles south of Washington DC but much closer to the suburban sprawl of Northern Virginia, this club began PDL play in 2006.
The WPS Washington Freedom and the USL W-League’s Northern Virginia Majestics support the local woman’s game as do countless college programs.
JUST OUTSIDE THE AREA
The former US Open Cup Champions are just over an hours drive from the District of Columbia, but much closer to some of Virginia suburbs. The former A-League power which featured among other Dwayne DeRosario and has also won the US Open Cup, now plays in USL-2.
Founded in 2002 and plays in the PDL
Hampton Roads Piranhas
The successor team to the longtime A-League Virginia Beach franchise.
Among the most successful college soccer programs in the nation, the University of Maryland is located inside the Capital Beltway in College Park. Other major college soccer programs in the area include George Mason, Georgetown, America, Howard, James Madison, Maryland-Baltimore County, and Navy. The powerful Virginia Cavilers and William& Mary programs are not far from Washington DC either.
With so many local club and college sides to support, many playing at a very high level in their respective leagues, the Washington DC metropolitan area has proven it can support the game at a level previously unknown in the United States. The DC area can provide a model having a massive Major League franchise complimented by several smaller local club and amateur sides in neighborhoods and father flung parts of the metropolitan area.