By Steven Goff
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
D.C. United plans to decide within a month whether to offer a new contract to Coach Tom Soehn, who has failed to guide the club to the MLS playoffs the past two seasons. Meantime, United seems intent on retaining Dave Kasper as general manager.
In a wide-ranging interview two days after United was eliminated from contention on the final weekend of the regular season, club President Kevin Payne said Monday that he and Kasper have begun evaluating the players and coaching staff and will discuss Soehn's future with chairman Will Chang in the coming weeks.
"We have to determine whether we believe, for the immediate long term, if Tommy is the guy to lead the team," Payne said. "We don't go into this with our minds made up. We want to almost treat it like a blank slate."
Payne hopes to reach a decision by the time MLS Cup is played, Nov. 22 in Seattle, but didn't rule out a longer timetable. Besides missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2001-02, United fell short in domestic and international tournaments.
"Tommy's year was like everybody else's year: Some good things and some things that weren't as good," Payne said. "He is still a fairly young coach, and he did some things very well and made some mistakes."
United was burdened by a congested schedule, key injuries and officiating decisions that were later ruled incorrect by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Nonetheless, with a series of home matches late in the year and a chance to secure a postseason berth, D.C. played uninspired and disorganized soccer. The team was booed by fans who, through chants, banners and Internet message boards, demanded Soehn's removal. After losing to Seattle on Sept. 2 in the U.S. Open Cup final at RFK Stadium, "we lost confidence. We started questioning ourselves," Kasper said. "It took us until the Columbus game [Oct. 17] to get it back. We still dropped really important points before the Columbus game. We tie one of those games, we're in the playoffs. We were a point away. It's disappointing how close we were."
The season came to a close last week with elimination from both the CONCACAF Champions League and the playoff race. Knowing a victory would essentially clinch an MLS quarterfinal slot Saturday, United (9-8-13) failed to protect a late lead and settled for a 2-2 tie at Kansas City.
"In some ways, that game was a little emblematic of our season," Payne said.
The busy schedule and injuries caused Soehn to rotate the lineup almost every game, an approach that disrupted rhythm and left some players grumbling.
Said Payne: "We had certain games where it reminded me of the way we looked in 2002 and 2003, where our players weren't sure what they were supposed to be doing out there. I don't blame that on the coaches; it was because we were playing every three days and playing a different system," which was triggered primarily by central defender Dejan Jakovic's hernia surgery in September.
United won't have to worry about a busy schedule next year: By failing to retain the Open Cup title and missing the playoffs, D.C. won't participate in any international events.
As for the status of Kasper, who has been in a player personnel role since 2002, Payne said: "We're very pleased with Dave. We think Dave is the best in the league at his job."
Kasper was instrumental in the team selecting Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace in the first round of the MLS draft last winter. Both started most of the season and were among the top rookies in the league. The acquisition of Jakovic and central defender Julius James worked out favorably, but the team went through four starting goalkeepers and didn't receive enough production from high-salary veterans Luciano Emilio, Christian Gómez and Fred.
Since winning its third league title in four years in 1999, United has advanced to the title game just once and has missed the playoffs five times.
"With our past and the expectations, it's very disappointing the way things ended this year," Kasper said. "You have to ask yourself: 'Why?' And that's a big part of our evaluating process."