United hopes to change its tune, though the tune is starting to sound familiar


New York’s Teemu Tainio, left, misses his slide tackle on United's Josh Wolff, center, in United’s 4-0 loss on April 21. (JOHN McDONNELL/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The words and phrases invoked by D.C. United coaches and players this week are meant to galvanize a listing operation, but they’re also conjuring memories of last year’s ruinous campaign when the same terms were futilely tossed around.

Unacceptable. Correctable. Accountable. Urgency and commitment. Fight and aggression. Not panicking. In this together. Part of a process.

Seven matches into the 2011 MLS campaign, United is a long way from reaching the depths of last year’s squad, whose 6-20-4 mark was the worst in club history. But United has conceded four goals in consecutive league defeats, won just twice in the past eight games in all competitions (one of the wins coming on penalty kicks) and lost its most expensive player to a long-term injury.

With the next three regular season matches at RFK Stadium, starting Wednesday night against the surging Seattle Sounders, United (2-4-1) has reached a critical early juncture.

“We’re not in a state of panic,” midfielder Santino Quaranta said, “but it’s real worrisome.”

With several young players in key positions and a new group needing time to bond, Coach Ben Olsen had braced himself for rough patches. Indeed, he has witnessed many of them. He has been most disappointed, though, in baffling lapses in concentration and lack of resolve and energy.

“The urgency and commitment — that part should be automatic,” he said. “The soccer isn’t going to be great all the time — we’re going to foul up plays — but the fight and aggression has to be there. If it’s not there, I’ll find guys that have it.”

As it did two weeks ago against the New York Red Bulls, United allowed four goals in Houston last Friday. Unlike two weeks ago, United barely put up a fight against the Dynamo and conceded goals on a through ball, a cross, a free kick and, most alarming, on a throw-in.

As a player, Olsen was known for expressing emotion and intensity. At practice Monday, the first gathering since the Houston debacle, those traits surfaced in his coaching personality. With an imperfect gait shaped by countless ankle injuries, he marched into the middle of a workout to express displeasure and point out mistakes. His voice rose and cracked.

The tone of practice reflected his mood as players performed with renewed purpose.

“You are going to see a team with a different mentality,” said captain Dax McCarty, adding that the team should secure between seven and nine points in this home stretch against Seattle, Dallas and reigning champion Colorado. “First and foremost, the heart and desire has to be there.”

United displayed just that in the season opener, a 3-1 victory over Columbus, and ran circles around Toronto in a 3-0 win on April 16. But the club was outclassed by New York, fell behind New England by three goals in a U.S. Open Cup qualifier and then offered little resistance in Houston.

In those two regular season matches, D.C. faced a deficit in the 12th and fourth minutes, respectively. In Houston, it yielded the go-ahead goal two minutes after scoring the equalizer and then conceded goals five minutes apart early in the second half.

Despite his disappointment, Olsen has tried to maintain perspective.

“As emotional and fiery as I am, it’s important to step back and understand and remind myself that this is still a process,” said Olsen, who celebrated his 34th birthday Tuesday. “I know [reporters] are going to be sick of me saying that, but we need to keep growing and learn and continue to get better.

“I’m glad some of this stuff happened now, so we can get it out of the way and make sure they understand where I’m coming from and I understand where they are coming from.”

The players are also looking at the big picture and understand that a couple of victories during this homestand would alter the course of the season.

“I realize the past couple games we haven’t been good,” McCarty said. “It’s not just from a soccer standpoint but a mentality standpoint. We’re not going to let this head in the same direction as last year.”

United notes: Midfielder Branko Boskovic sought a third opinion on the MRI exam results that showed a torn knee ligament and hairline fracture. However, United expects him to undergo surgery soon and miss four to six months. The club has some financial flexibility to add a new player, United President Kevin Payne said. . . .

Defender Jed Zayner, who missed five weeks with a hamstring ailment, aggravated the injury in his return at Houston and is sidelined again. . . .

The Sounders are 3-0-3 since losing their first two matches.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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