D.C. United hires Curt Onalfo as head coach

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

D.C. United's search for a head coach spanned the country and reached overseas, explored the college ranks and the fraternity of MLS assistants, but with Monday's announcement that the club had hired Curt Onalfo, United turned to someone who understands firsthand the demands in a soccer-sophisticated city to rejuvenate what has become a stale organization.

"I've been part of it and appreciate the expectations and responsibility to win," Onalfo said in a telephone interview. "D.C. set the standard in this league and the goal has got to be to return to that level."

Onalfo, 40, was a reserve midfielder-defender for United in the late 1990s and served as an assistant for three years before joining the U.S. national team staff. The University of Virginia graduate helped establish United's youth academy and created an independent development program in Northern Virginia that trained hundreds of aspiring players.

Onalfo returns to Washington after 2 1/2 seasons with the Kansas City Wizards in his first stint as a head coach. Inheriting a struggling club, he guided the Wizards to the playoffs twice, including to the 2007 Eastern Conference final, before being dismissed last summer because of lackluster results and philosophical differences with management. His overall record in regular season play was 27-29-22.

"I have experience turning around a team that hasn't made the playoffs," he said. "I know how to tweak mentalities and get the most out of players."

Following Tom Soehn's departure as United coach Nov. 3, Onalfo was one of the first candidates interviewed. United's top choice, however, was Caleb Porter, 34, a rising star on the American coaching scene. Two weeks ago, when Porter declined D.C.'s overtures to remain at the University of Akron, Onalfo reentered the picture.

"Having played and coached here, Curt understands the culture of D.C. United," club president Kevin Payne said in a written statement.

Onalfo, who recovered from Hodgkin's disease in his mid-twenties, will be formally introduced next Tuesday at RFK Stadium. Terms of his contract were not disclosed but are believed to include at least two guaranteed years and a base salary of $200,000.

Besides his understanding of United and the Washington area, Onalfo speaks Spanish fluently, a trait not shared by any of his five predecessors. United has traditionally employed players from Latin America, and just last week signed Salvadoran midfielder Cristian Castillo.

He and United officials say language skills will strengthen communication with the players and, Onalfo believes, "help unite two communities" -- a reference to soccer's following in a culturally diverse city.

His primary concern, however, is restoring United's winning ways. The four-time league champion has advanced to the MLS Cup just once in the past 10 years, missed the playoffs the past two seasons and repeatedly fallen short in international competition.

Onalfo's aim is to play "beautiful, attacking, quick soccer," he said. "We want to play with style and send players forward -- that is what D.C. United has always been known for."

The makeup of the roster is far from set as the club prepares to make decisions about high-profile veterans Luciano Emilio, Christian Gómez, Fred and Jaime Moreno. With Josh Wicks recuperating from shoulder and knee surgeries, United is also in need of an established goalkeeper for the start of training camp in February.

"It's a solid team, not a team that needs an absolute overhaul," Onalfo said. "There is something to build on, but having said that, we have a lot of work to do."

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