D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen tried to temper any overconfidence following his team’s 3-2 win over the New England Revolution on May 26. In his postgame press conference, Olsen said he was disappointed in his team’s on-field play. He sensed a possible letdown coming.
But United was riding momentum it had not seen in nearly four years, and Olsen could not completely stifle the excitement in the locker room. D.C. had won three consecutive games for the first time since June 2008, and sat atop the Eastern Conference for the first time since July 2009. Beyond those streaks, United (8-4-3) was simply playing its best soccer in recent memory.
“For us to be not believing in ourselves and being happy with what we’ve accomplished so far would be false,” defender Brandon McDonald said.
Three weeks have passed since that last league game, as Major League Soccer took a break — the first of three this season — to accommodate the international soccer schedule. How United reacts to such an interruption will be measured Saturday in Philadelphia, where it meets the Union (2-7-2).
On one side, the sense of momentum is gone. D.C. played two U.S. Open Cup games over those three weeks, and the letdown Olsen felt coming occurred in a 2-1 loss to Philadelphia on June 5.
Countering that is the sense that the layoff could not have been more perfectly timed for a number of United players battling minor injuries. Forward Chris Pontius (glute), defender Robbie Russell (hamstring), and midfielders Nick DeLeon (hamstring) and Danny Cruz (hamstring) are healthy options for Olsen to consider on Saturday.
The more important question, however, may be found in Olsen’s words after the New England game – a message he reinforced more sternly after the Open Cup loss to Philadelphia.
United still seeks a consistency in its identity. Beginning Saturday against the Union, it can begin to show whether that image is the one Olsen envisions.
“We understand when we’re good and when we’re not good and what makes us win games,” Olsen said. “A lot of times it’s not the X’s and O’s, or the soccer side. It’s the commitment and out-competing teams. When we do that, we tend to have good results. When we start to believe that we are a great team, that’s when we struggle.”
With a full roster available, United has a number of attacking options. Its on-field style can shift depending on who is plugged in at different positions. More important, Olsen said, is maintaining the same mentality regardless of the lineup.
Pontius said the loss to Philadelphia, which led to several team meetings, served as a lesson and inspired renewed purpose. A full roster of healthy players competing for a starting job has only added to that urgency.
Against a Philadelphia team that will be playing its first game since coach Peter Nowak was fired and replaced by interim coach John Hackworth, United must be quick to reassert that energy.
“We have the players here capable of doing it on the pitch,” McDonald said. “But if we don’t have the mind-set and mentality, the style is not going to be there.”
United notes: Olsen said midfielder Dwayne De Rosario and defender Dejan Jakovic are both available on Saturday after returning from international duty with Canada. . . . United sent defender Ethan White on a weekend loan to the Richmond Kickers of the third-division USL Pro to get in-game experience, Olsen said.