D.C. United has conceded a flood of early goals this spring, but the problems began sprouting soon after the club arrived at training camp in Florida more than three months ago.
“It was an epidemic even before the season started,” Coach Ben Olsen said Friday. “It was an issue we preached about the second week in the preseason because we all smelled it and didn’t like the vibe we had from the start.”
The issue subsided at the start of the regular season before resurfacing with devastating effects.
A 15th-minute goal by Columbus on March 23 helped launch United’s six-game losing streak — tied for the longest in club history.
United blanked Kansas City until the 89th minute but surrendered early goals in each of the subsequent four matches: New York scored in the 29th and 36th minutes and Philadelphia in the seventh, 11th and 26th. Columbus struck in the 15th and 26th followed by Houston in the 16th and 28th.
In all, United (1-7-1) has allowed nine goals in the first 30 minutes of matches and 11 in first halves.
“There is still an anger I don’t think we have,” Olsen said. “We don’t have that chip on our shoulder from the [opening] whistle, and that is very disappointing from a team I am in charge of. That is on me, but it’s very disappointing, because that is the easy part — it should be. I don’t like our spirit in the last several games.”
The spirit will need to change drastically Saturday night when United faces FC Dallas, MLS’s points leader, in Frisco, Tex.
D.C. was outscored 12-2 in the past four outings and has not scored in four away games. The seven-game winless streak is its fourth longest behind an 0-7-3 skid in 2008, an 0-6-4 run in 2002 and an 0-5-3 stretch a year later.
This year’s bumbling starts have created not only deficits for a goal-starved team, but changed the tone of matches and destroyed United’s tactics.
“It’s mind-boggling, especially with the record we have that we can’t start games well,” midfielder Chris Pontius said. “There has to be some urgency. Guys have got to be playing for their jobs now.”
No one has lost their job yet, but Olsen is promising changes to the starting lineup against Dallas (6-1-3).
Would he alter the backline? Each of his center backs performed poorly in recent matches, but Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic are the cornerstones of the unstable defense.
How about the goalkeeper? Bill Hamid has started every game and rescued United countless times but seems strained by the team’s troubling course. The usually accommodating Hamid declined an interview request Friday. Joe Willis (13 career regular season starts) is the alternative.
The lineup changes are likely to include the addition of Chris Pontius or Nick DeLeon (or perhaps both). Pontius missed two matches after injuring a groin muscle, while DeLeon played 20 minutes Wednesday in his return from a 6½-week layoff caused by a hamstring injury.
The attack has been shut out in six of nine games, prompting Olsen to look for other combinations. Nothing has worked, and the “switching in and out of forwards is difficult to build the rhythm and the chemistry,” said Dwayne De Rosario, who started alongside Rafael on Wednesday against Houston after pairing with the ineffective Lionard Pajoy the previous two matches.
“You’ve got to be able to go out there and play with confidence,” Pontius said. “That is what we did last year [in reaching the Eastern Conference finals]. It’s a lot of the same pieces as last year. We got things done last year. We played with more urgency. We played with more confidence. We’ve got to get back to that.”