By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; 12:26 AM
Barely seven months into Curt Onalfo's tenure as head coach, D.C. United executives had grown alarmed with more than just the team's mounting losses, defensive follies and attacking shortcomings. They said they saw a team that hadn't taken sufficient pride in the MLS club's heritage and had become unresponsive to Onalfo's attempts to direct and inspire.
"We weren't moving forward," United President Kevin Payne said. "We were actually moving backward..â.â. I really felt that we had no choice."
So on Wednesday, with the team on pace to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive year and finish with the worst record in club history, United fired Onalfo and installed assistant Ben Olsen, one of the franchise's most accomplished and beloved players, as the interim coach.
Olsen, who retired last fall after 12 seasons, inherits a squad that has been shut out a dozen times while compiling a league-worst 3-12-3 record. His debut will come Saturday against the New England Revolution in Foxborough, Mass.
Assistants Kris Kelderman and Mark Simpson retained their jobs, and technical director Chad Ashton, top deputy to previous coach Tom Soehn, will return to the staff after moving into a personnel role.
"I was gutted for Curt," Olsen said. "He is a friend, someone who has taken me under his wing and taught me a lot about soccer and coaching."
Olsen, 33, will guide the team through the end of the season in October and be considered for the regular job, Payne said. However, the process of identifying other candidates "begins now," General Manager Dave Kasper said.
The most intriguing name to surface is U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, a D.C. assistant in 1996-97. The U.S. Soccer Federation has yet to decide whether to offer him a new contract for the next World Cup cycle.
Payne, in consultation with team owner Will Chang and Kasper, made the move Tuesday before informing the players early Wednesday at RFK Stadium.
"Curt has worked tirelessly to get it right, but once you get to a point where we were, you knew that inevitably there was going to be a change in the team of some kind," midfielder-forward Santino Quaranta said.
Despite United's poor results, Onalfo seemed blindsided by the move. In December, he signed a three-year, guaranteed contract valued at about $300,000 annually. Never before had United made a coaching change in the middle of a season.
"I am extremely disappointed," said Onalfo, who was dismissed by the Kansas City Wizards last summer. "It takes a long time to build something, and having had seven short months, it was a limited amount of time. But I understand the profession. This is what I signed up for."
Onalfo, 40, also said that, amid numerous roster moves and injuries, he faced "enormous adversity" in trying to rebuild the club. "Keeping it all intact," he said, "was a monumental task."
United lost its first five league matches and was 1-8 before a 2-1-3 stretch restored hope. However, the club lost its next three regular season games, culminating with a 3-0 defeat at Real Salt Lake last Saturday. In nonleague play, United has a 7-0 record (four in the U.S. Open Cup tournament and three international friendlies).
"The players just didn't seem to be responding," Payne said. "Honestly, I think that is more of a failing on the part of the players than on Curt's part, but you have to do something to change."
An admirer of Olsen's determination and passion on the field, Payne said the former midfielder would bring "fire and pride." In an odd declaration, Payne also said that he wanted Olsen "to have the opportunity to be fully prepared when he does someday become our head coach."
Out of respect for Onalfo, Olsen declined to discuss lineup or tactical changes that he deems necessary.
"The Open Cup title is a realistic goal and [the playoffs] would be a pretty epic run if we did make it," he said.
While club officials acknowledged their own shortcomings - several acquisitions did not fulfill expectations - Payne also put the players on notice. The final 12 league games, as well as Open Cup play, will help United "figure out who wants to be here next year," he said. "There are very few players who I would say are absolutely safe."
Reflecting on a season that has turned to rubble, Olsen said: "There are consequences to having these types of seasons. You can see it in the players' eyes. Did they play a part in this? Sure. Have I played a part in this? Absolutely. It's been a long year for everyone. We can only start anew, look to this weekend, and move from there."