Weeks have passed, and almost nothing has gone right for Ben Olsen and D.C. United.
The losing streak climbed to six — seven, if you count a nonleague match. The scoring drought began to subside when the defense started conceding goals at a profane rate. Players returned from long-term injury, then others departed.
Inclement weather canceled two flights and forced the team to travel on the day of games. There was a failed penalty kick in a one-goal match, an own goal in a landslide defeat and the greatest collapse in MLS history.
There was a three-goal deficit before a home game was even one-fifth complete and a shambolic performance against the second-worst team in the league. The U.S. Open Cup campaign, a nice distraction during awful years, ended early.
At 5-14-3, dead last in the Eastern Conference and 14 points out of the last playoff slot, United would have to win most of the remaining 12 matches to sniff postseason contention.
In other words, this season is over.
And yet Olsen, a seventh-year head coach channeling the zeal and energy from his tireless playing days, refuses to concede.
“We’re not the first team in the league to lose six in a row,” he said defiantly after Tuesday’s training session. “We can get out of this. It’s not time to close up shop.”
Accordingly, Olsen said he has no immediate plans to sit his faltering regulars. He’s plotting a game plan to stop the best team in MLS, Toronto FC, on Saturday at RFK Stadium. He and General Manager Dave Kasper are seeking help for both the short and long term via the international and trade markets before next Wednesday’s roster deadline.
Still, he’s got to be crazy to think United could reverse course this year.
“There are different types of crazy,” Olsen said. “You just hope to keep your crazy to a minimum and stay balanced and understand that there is a way out of it.”
Is there, though?
“It’s our jobs to get out of it. And getting out of it has different definitions: building momentum for next year, making a real run to make the last months relevant. And there’s pride. I’m asking the players: ‘What do you got? What are you made of?’ We’ll find out.”
If anyone isn’t willing to put in the effort, he warned, “We’ll look for options elsewhere for you.”
Olsen is convinced the current roster is better than its dreary record.
“We have a lot of quality pieces here,” he said of a squad that remained largely intact after finishing the 2016 regular season with one of MLS’s most potent attacks. “There’s no reason we should be in this position.”
Injuries to key figures, Olsen said, are no excuse. After all, in preseason, he had trumpeted team depth. The primary issue is that few players have enjoyed quality seasons. Most notably, captain Steve Birnbaum’s form in central defense has fallen substantially and playmaker Luciano Acosta has failed to replicate his late-season impact of 2016. The team has gone scoreless 13 times, including four straight at home over May and June.
With one of the lowest payrolls in the league and less high-end talent than many other teams, United carries a slim margin of error. And so, Olsen explained, when a few players aren’t performing up to standard, the machine grinds to a halt.
And confidence wanes. “We’re in a lack-of-belief phase,” he said. “We’re a touch fragile.”
As for inserting young blood into the lineup, “I’m certainly not there. I want to win games right now. That is my first priority. That’s it. That is my sole focus. That, and keeping this group together and moving in the right direction. Or changing the direction, because we’re not moving in the right direction.”
Olsen faces a challenge keeping the group together. As defeats pile up, tempers grow short. On Tuesday, as practice was winding down, Birnbaum barked at Acosta.
“There was a lot of chatter because guys are frustrated,” Olsen said. “It’s summer, it’s 95 degrees out there. That’s going to be the norm. It’s an emotional time. Losing streak, the heat — oh, there’s going to be bitching. Up to a point, it’s a healthy release.”
Olsen does not absolve himself of responsibility for United’s failures.
“We need everybody to be playing at their best, and ultimately, that’s on me,” he said. “I’ve got to get these guys to play at their best. I’m part of this equation. I’m not scapegoating the players.”
Despite the season-long shortfalls, Olsen is in no danger of losing his job. Management appreciates what he has done with a frugal budget — a playoff berth four of the previous five years — and believes he will prosper when greater resources are available for player acquisitions. (Olsen’s contract runs through 2019.)
The opening of a new stadium, Audi Field, next summer will help create the revenue streams necessary, the club says, to compete in a league that has left United behind.
“If we hadn’t seen the progress the last three or four years, it might be different,” executive Jason Levien said of Olsen earlier this summer. “We have a lot of confidence in him.”
This isn’t the first time Olsen has gone through a terrible season. Four years ago, United’s three victories in 34 matches were the fewest in MLS history. He survived. A year later, D.C. finished atop the conference race and third in the overall standings.
In 2013, “I grew and learned a lot about myself, what I’m good at and where my deficiencies lie,” he said. “Can I apply those lessons now? I think so, but it doesn’t make it easy. I have a better grasp how to get out it, but time will tell.”
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