This may or may not be the make-or-break match for D.C. United head coach Tom Soehn when he sends out the worst team in MLS, by virtue of its 2-7-0 record, against Toronto FC Saturday night at RFK.
United lost, 1-0, at BMO Field Wednesday night despite an improved performance in several areas. If Fred puts away a perfect cross from Marcelo Gallardo, either on the first attempt or the rebound of a point-blank header he aimed right at keeper Greg Sutton, maybe a 1-1 tie buys the team some confidence and Soehn a bit more wiggle room. Still, a four-game losing streak -- during which it has scored one goal -- for the four-time league champ is pushing matters close to the edge.
But is it fair for Soehn, in his second year as a head coach, to bear all of this burden? Coaches are judged by results, yet in the D.C. United hierarchy, general manager Dave Kasper also bears responsibility for evaluating, scouting and signing players. President and CEO Kevin Payne and his staff, including executive vice-president Stephen Zack and senior vice-president/ business development David Cope, run the numbers side of things. Like Soehn, Kasper goes on scouting trips, and so dire is the team's situation he headed down to South America again early in the season.
If the player personnel duty is to be shared, surely the blame should be as well. Somebody decided that a league-best 16-7-7 regular-season record didn't make up for a first-round playoff elimination and at least a partial house-cleaning was in order. Payne runs the show, and has never been shy about assessing players and team performance, or taking drastic measures if his standards aren't met.
The key to the team's immediate future is if Payne still believes Soehn is capable of reversing the slide no matter how many personnel moves are made. A few of the offseason additions have yet to prove themselves, and with several returning players struggling to measure up on a consistent basis, more moves are pending, but the salary cap and guaranteed status of certain contracts will restrict just how much change can be implemented when the domestic transfer window re-opens June 15.
Coaches are fired in-season to shock and shake up the troops as much as punish the man deemed most responsible. Yet if Payne has granted Kasper, who has been with the team since 2002, a significant share of the responsibility, and doesn't feel Soehn has suddenly turned into a poor coach during the offseason, he can rattle the D.C. cages yet maintain some continuity by firing or demoting Kasper and giving Soehn more time to get things right.
This is not a point of advocating such a move, merely an illustration of how United's structure has landed it in this mess.
A rough stretch is coming up for D.C., with a trip to New England, a home date with Houston and a tough match at Chicago to follow the TFC return leg. Counting the Wednesday defeat, that's five crunch games in 17 days. Regardless of tactics or formations or personnel changes, too many players aren't getting the job done, and as the man on the field, Soehn is ultimately responsible.
It may behoove D.C. to stay the course in any case, but if United can't win any of its next four, Soehn's time will probably have run out, whether or not Kasper keeps his job. But jettisoning just the head coach may not solve anything.