Tuesday, May 3, 2011

DC United's Growing Pains

Everyone understood at the beginning of the season that this would be a tough year for DC United. Coach Ben Olsen warned about it. Commentators noted the club's lack of experience regularly. Fan sites expressed positivity that this year's team would be better than last year's (setting the bar extremely low). So a rough spot early in the season, with 27 matches left is not something to be alarmed about. What is more interesting is how the players and coaches deal with this adversity.

DC does not have reliable offensive playmaker. Charlie Davies though leading the race for the Golden Boot, has been better in drawing goal kicks than scoring in the run of play. Attacking midfielder and team captain Dax McCarty his served as the proverbial engine to make the team go. But he has not been the creative player that teams need in that position. Moreover, he's been losing about a million balls per came. To make matters worse, DC seems to have lost Branco Boskovic to an ACL injury, leaving him sidelined for four to six months. Over the last 2-3 games Bosko played, he alone provided an offensive spark, getting several quality shots on goal and scoring twice in Open Cup game last week (where he was later injured). Options are now limited, and it is unclear how Coach Olsen will address the midfield-especially since the team was believed to possess a strong midfield at the start of the season.

During the off-season, Onstad agreed to come to DC United to help develop the extremely young defense. However, an injury to goalkeeper Steve Cronin forced Onstad to come out of retirement to play in goal for several games. In week one the defense looked strong and reliable. By week 4, serious cracks were starting to show. United have allowed 11 goals in the last three games. Now that Onstad has returned to coaching, is it possible he will be able to rebuild the defense's ability and restore some of their confidence? Before that, DC will have a very difficult home game on 4 May against Seattle, followed by a home game against Dallas. Whether Onstad is able to start guiding the defense down a brighter path remains to be seen.

According to Washington Post reporter Steven Goff, Coach Olsen spent much of the practice on Monday 2 May yelling. Unlike during other weeks with short rests between games, United a a full two hour long practice. Throughout the practice, Olsen often stopped the team to reinforce learning points and video footage on the team's website shows him running up behind Charlie Davies and yelling at him about what looked like making a run off the ball. Is the yelling a sign of desperation? Clearly, if DC lose on Wednesday, the team could start to lose faith in their leader and as we saw in 2010, once the team loses faith in the coach the season is done.

DC United's players, coaches, management and (dare I say it?) fans, need to stick to their guns this season. Unlike in other leagues, salary restrictions in MLS require that the team endure a patient building process over a few years. Dallas FC, New York Red Bulls and especially Real Salt Lake are good examples of the process. If Coach Olsen turns the team around by the end of the 2012 season, he will have done precisely what was expected of him. But he will never get a chance to achieve that goal if he is forced to resign in the middle of this season.

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