For a team stuck at the bottom of the standings two months into the season, D.C. United has somehow kept a bright disposition. Players were loose and laughing at the start of Tuesday’s training session, their first since a 3-0 loss at Columbus.
That is not to suggest United isn’t taking its 1-6-1 record seriously or players are not angry about the situation. Quite the opposite. But at a time when morale is threatened and teammates could turn on one another or form divisive cliques, Coach Ben Olsen has, from outward appearances, been able to maintain harmony.
As Tuesday’s session concluded on a misty morning at the RFK training grounds, Olsen gathered the group for an emotional pep talk.
“These guys don’t hang their heads too long,” he said in an interview afterward. “We are in this together. We got in this position as a group and we are going to find a way out as a group.
“I reminded them several times there have been plenty of teams that were in the same spot as we are right now and changed their fortunes and ended up either in the [MLS] Cup or playoffs.”
Los Angeles, for instance, began 3-8-2 last year and ended up winning the league title. The difference, of course, is a gulf in personnel. Olsen’s broader point, though, is that United has time to get it right and make a push for one of the Eastern Conference’s five playoff berths.
“I am not making it all rosy,” Olsen added. “It’s a tough stretch and guys should be frustrated and questioning themselves and questioning what we are doing — it’s a natural thing in this situation.”
Olsen lightened the mood with a drill in which players were broken into three groups: U.S. players, Latin Americans and other foreign-born players. (The divisions weren’t even, so some players took cross-cultural roles: Indonesia’s Syamsir Alam, for example, speaks Spanish and joined the Latin Americans.)
Not everyone participated in Tuesday’s session, though. Aside from a set of injured midfielders, Brandon McDonald and Carlos Ruiz were out.
Neither is hurt; emotionally, though, they needed a break, Olsen said.
UPDATE: Ruiz is battling illness and may miss a few days, Olsen said. His absence was completely unrelated to McDonald’s off-day.
“It was a long couple of days for some guys. It’s an emotional time and every guy has different needs,” Olsen said. “I wouldn’t read anything into it. It’s certainly not a punishment. I think [McDonald] needed another day to get back.”
McDonald, complicit in the Crew’s three goals, had a halftime meltdown in the locker room Saturday and didn’t play in the second half.
“It was tough to see someone go through that” in the first half, captain Dwayne De Rosario said. “But he had to go through that [in the locker room] and the team needed to see that and see the passion and really feel what we are going through. What he expressed was how everyone was feeling inside and everyone has a different way of expressing it.”
Although United was off the previous two days, Olsen said he thought McDonald
, as well as Ruiz, needed additional time to gather himself.
“We’ve been through a lot with this group and I’ve been through stretches like this with some of these guys before,” Olsen said. “I have a good pulse of what the group needs, and today they needed to put some smiles on their faces and try to enjoy the game together.”
McDonald is expected to resume training Wednesday. (United does not play again until next Wednesday night against the Houston Dynamo at RFK Stadium.)
As for the on-field issues, United continues to fall short of a complete performance. Much of the season, the defense has outperformed the attack. The past two games, however, the defense has faltered badly.
“From an offensive standpoint, there were some good attacks, some good build-up,” Olsen said of Saturday’s effort, which included five quality scoring chances and a disallowed goal. “The offense is growing, ironically, from game to game. Defensively, it’s hurting us.”
United has not scored in four away matches and suffered its fifth shuout Saturday.
“Sometimes the hardest part is creating. We did create, now we’re fighting to score,” De Rosario said. “We did string together some good football at times and some creativity going forward, but you still need to have that killer instinct, not only going forward but all over the field.”
United did not receive any help from referee Sorin Stoica, either. He waved off Perry Kitchen‘s apparent equalizer, indicating the United midfielder had pushed off before winning a header in the box.
“The refereeing was horrendous — calls I don’t know what he was seeing, constantly disrupting the play,” De Rosario said. “That is what happens when things aren’t going your way. Everything goes against you.”
*While Chris Pontius and Lewis Neal watched from the stands, nursing groin injuries, Nick DeLeon (hamstring) participated in drills and did sprinting exercises on the side. John Thorrington (knee) jogged around the field.
*Alam injured a shoulder in a collision or fall near the end of practice and required medical treatment. The team did not offer an immediate update on his condition. UPDATE: Likely shoulder separation. Will see doctor Wednesday.
*Defender Taylor Kemp, who accompanied the squad to Columbus as left-side reinforcement, returned to his loan assigment with third-division Richmond. The Kickers will visit Wilmington on Friday and host Charlotte on Saturday.