“When we match up against these teams playing for their playoff lives, the difference between us and them, it’s not that far off. It’s not. It’s some players, it’s some key players. It’s a little savvy, it’s a little class in the final thirds. I have a lot of faith in a majority of these guys and, with the things that are given to us from the league, we are going to have a very competitive team next year and I am looking forward to it.”
— D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen, in his postgame news conference Sunday
Let’s go through these comments, piece by piece:
“…against these teams playing for their playoff lives, the difference between us and them, it’s not that far off.”
There is some truth to this: In the last nine matches, United faced seven playoff contenders. It failed to defeat any of them, but aside from a 3-0 loss to Chicago, D.C. caused problems for the opponent in the others: first-half leads against New England and Philadelphia, first-half equalizers against New York and Houston before losing, and two comebacks against Los Angeles resulting in a draw.
Conclusion: United played hard and was competitive in inconsequential matches. It’s a thin line between success and failure in soccer, but no matter how determined, United couldn’t cross that line.
“It’s some players, it’s some key players.”
It’s difference-makers. More specifically, a shutdown defender, creator and menacing striker. United thought it had those areas covered: the Brandon McDonald-Dejan Jakovic partnership in central defense; Dwayne De Rosario mixing with Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon to infuse the attack; Young Rafael and old Carlos Ruiz popping in a few goals to compensate for the absence of a prime scorer. Everything failed. Injuries were a factor, but they are a factor for every club every year.
Conclusion: United overvalued some players and was blindsided by substandard performances of others.
“I have a lot of faith in a majority of these guys…”
If this is to be believed, Olsen thinks 2013 was an anomaly for several once-dependable regulars (Pontius, DeLeon and Jakovic). He would also maintain faith in Bill Hamid’s maturation process continuing, Perry Kitchen emerging as a two-way impact player, Luis Silva and Jared Jeffrey contributing over a full year, Lewis Neal staying injury-free and Chris Korb polishing his game at right back.
Conclusion: Faith or blind faith?
“…things that are given to us from the league…”
With United finishing last overall, MLS has bestowed the first choice in the re-entry (free agent) drafts in December and college draft in January; awarded the top position in the allocation order for some U.S. national team players and internationals returning to the league; provided additional allocation money for acquisitions and contract adjustments. (United will also collect funds as reward for CONCACAF Champions League qualification.)
Conclusion: United has been handed ample tools to strengthen the roster. It can’t afford another series of poor personnel decisions. Beyond league mechanisms, the organization will need to decide whether to increase the budget for international signings. Trade opportunities will also come into play.
“…we are going to have a very competitive team next year …”
Overly optimistic? Not necessarily. Redemption is sometimes just a winter away. Here’s how, over the previous 10 seasons, the worst club fared the following year:
FC Dallas: 23 points in 2003, 36 in 2004 (+13)
Chicago Fire: 33 points in 2004, 49 in 2005 (+16 but with 2 additional matches)
Chivas USA: 18 points in 2005, 43 in 2006 (+25)
Columbus Crew: 33 points in 2006, 37 in 2007 (+4 but with 2 fewer matches)
Toronto FC: 25 points in 2007, 35 in 2008 (+10)
L.A. and San Jose: 33 points apiece in 2008, 48 and 30 respectively in 2009 (+15, -3)
New York Red Bulls: 21 points in 2009, 51 in 2010 (+30)
D.C. United: 22 points in 2010, 39 in 2011 (+17, but with 4 additional matches)
New England and Vancouver: 28 apiece in 2011, 35 and 43 respectively in 2012 (+7, +15)
Toronto FC: 23 points in 2012, 29 in 2013 (+6)
Conclusion: After winning just three of 34 matches, there is nowhere to go but up. How far, however, will depend on this winter’s critical decisions.
“…and I am looking forward to it.”
There’s no questioning, after 16 seasons in Washington, Olsen’s zest for the sport and his love of the badge. He is under contract in 2014. Sources suggest, despite the brutal record this year, he will return. Management was encouraged by the U.S. Open Cup championship and the general camaraderie under trying circumstances. The postseason review process of the coaching staff and roster has begun.
Conclusion: Olsen will probably survive the 2013 mess. Many others won’t be so lucky.