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With D.C. United struggling, Coach Ben Olsen is sitting on a ‘scalding-hot seat’

Ben Olsen, second from left, has a 2-7-7 record in United's past 16 competitive matches, dating from last September. His assistants, from left, are Chad Ashton, Nolan Sheldon and Zach Thornton. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Amid a fractured season and badly unbalanced schedule, MLS has set a low bar to qualify for the playoffs. Eighteen of 26 teams, four more than originally planned, will proceed after the regular season ends Nov. 8.

For D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen, the stakes go beyond participating in the postseason.

A failure to advance is all but certain to end his tenure after more than 10 years, people close to the organization said this past week. And crossing the playoff threshold might not be enough to save his job, either; he would probably have to win at least one game, said those people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Ben is not on the hot seat,” one person said. “He’s on a scalding-hot seat.”

A coaching change before the season ends appears unlikely, even though United is 2-6-5 with 11 points, tied for fewest in both the Eastern Conference and the overall standings.

Team officials, including chief executive and co-chairman Jason Levien, said they did not want to speculate on coaching and roster decisions. Levien and co-chairman Stephen Kaplan would have the final say on Olsen’s future.

Injuries continue to pile up for D.C. United during a challenging season

Olsen and team officials said their focus is squarely on key players returning from injury and reversing the team’s direction with 10 games left, starting Sunday night against the New England Revolution (4-3-6, 18 points) at Audi Field.

Asked whether he has discussed a specific goal with his superiors, Olsen said, “The expectations are no different than last year or the year before that. It’s to get yourself in the postseason and make a run at this thing. It’s pretty simple.”

With 10 of 14 teams in the Eastern Conference qualifying for the playoffs, D.C. sits three points out of the last slot and six from sixth place.

“This is the MLS, man,” Olsen said. “You’re three wins away from being in a playoff spot and feeling really good about yourself, so the 10 games is an eternity. Make no mistake: Our urgency has to be on very, very high right now. There are a lot of points out there.”

Management, though, seems to be losing patience. The 1-0 defeat at expansion Nashville SC on Wednesday was arguably the team’s worst performance of a bad year. “Unwatchable,” said one front-office official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

After the game, Olsen panned his starters, calling them “a bunch of frauds” during an aimless first half. “It looked like we were still on Sun Country Airlines or whatever we flew here.”

On Friday, goalkeeper Bill Hamid said: “We’ll see the reaction on Sunday. That’s the biggest telltale sign of how people react to what the manager said in the media.”

Olsen, 43, is under contract through the 2021 season. A clause allows him to remain with the organization in a different role at a lower salary, should management decide to make a coaching change before the deal expires.

Olsen’s association with United traces to 1998, when he left the University of Virginia a year early to sign with MLS. Hampered by ankle injuries, he retired after the 2009 season and became an assistant coach. Late in 2010, Olsen was named interim head coach. That offseason, at 33, he received the permanent gig.

Operating under tight budget constraints for many years, he has a 113-134-84 regular season record. United qualified for the playoffs six of the previous eight years but hasn’t won a postseason game since 2015 and last appeared in the conference finals in 2012.

Olsen is second in MLS coaching seniority, behind Sporting Kansas City’s Peter Vermes (11th year). No previous D.C. coach logged more than three years.

Although the pathway to the playoffs this year is not difficult, United is, from a psychological standpoint, in urgent need of a victory. Since late last year, including the playoffs, D.C. is 2-7-7 with a minus-11 goal differential. Since MLS resumed in July, United is 1-5-5 with eight goals scored and five scoreless performances.

Injuries have taken a toll: Paul Arriola has yet to play this season, and the other high-priced designated player, Edison Flores, has appeared in six matches. Several other regulars have missed long stretches.

D.C. United hopeful Paul Arriola returns from ACL injury before MLS season ends

“We’ve been dealt a bunch of hurdles that have halted some of the progress we’ve liked to see,” Olsen said. “It’s been a tricky year, but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in this group.”

Before training Friday, the first session after the Nashville defeat, captain Steven Birnbaum said players “aired things out. … We can’t wait much longer. We need to have that desperation. We feel like this New England game now is almost a must-win game for us, especially for our team morale.”

Notes: Yordy Reyna, a Peruvian national team forward acquired from Vancouver last week, is likely to debut Sunday, Olsen said. … Midfielder Russell Canouse will serve a red-card suspension.

D.C. United vs. New England Revolution

When: 7 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Audi Field.

TV: WJLA 24/7 News. Live stream:

Records: United 2-6-5, 11 points; Revolution 4-3-6, 18 points.

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