By Ridge Mahoney
In the storied yet occasionally rocky history of D.C. United it has tried to deal with the constantly metamorphosing entity that is MLS while sticking to its traditions of flair, commitment, and success.
The hiring as head coach of Curt Onalfo, a former D.C. player, assistant coach, and director of youth development, was hailed at a Tuesday press conference as confirmation of the club's Hispanic persona as well as its ambition. Onalfo speaks fluent Spanish, played professionally in Mexico, and as a cancer survivor has conquered tough opposition on a very personal level.
Three years spent as an assistant coach with the U.S. national team and former D.C. coach Bruce Arena certainly doesn't hurt.
"One of the skills that we really believe is perhaps the most important skill of a successful coach is that ability to communicate," said team president and CEO Kevin Payne. "And while we didn't make it a requirement, it was absolutely a tremendous asset and a real advantage for Curt that he is bilingual."
Upon being interviewed by D.C. last month ago, Onalfo expressed great respect and admiration for the D.C. organization, and perceptions of the game simpatico with those of general manager Dave Kasper.
With United, he expects the support and backing he felt had eroded in his final season with Kansas City; Wizards technical director Peter Vermes dismissed him in August, compiled a 3-6-3 record as interim head coach, and appointed himself as the permanent choice in November with several other teams interviewing numerous candidates.
"I love D.C. United," Onalfo was quoted at a press conference Tuesday officially announcing the hire. "I like the D.C. area, I have a house in Herndon [Va.] and kind of made my family here. My daughter was born here. My son wasn't, but pretty much grew up most of his life here. From a family perspective it's really a great fit and from a career standpoint, for me it's a dream come true."
He had to endure a rather arduous wait for fruition of that dream.
United's latest coaching chase took it in several directions: from former United midfielder and interim Red Bulls head coach Richie Williams, to being rebuffed by San Jose in an effort to talk with former D.C. assistant coach Frank Yallop, and being embarrassingly turned down by Akron head coach Caleb Porter a day after the end of the collegiate season. Early in the process, incumbent Tom Soehn took his name out of consideration, a clear criticism of United's handling of the situation from his perspective.
As is always the case, team executives - in this case Payne and Kasper - expressed their great satisfaction and confidence United is headed in the right direction. Onalfo, though, not only comes "home" with a sub-.500 record at Kansas City, he also tied more games than he won or lost (27-29-32).
In his first two seasons with the Wizards, he ended several years of missing the playoffs. That will be his immediate task this time around, as D.C. missed the playoffs in 2008 and 2009, and United fans were disgruntled in 2006 and 2007 when their team stumbled in the postseason. So just returning to the top eight will hardly be heralded as a success.
"We have enormous work ahead of us," said Onalfo. "But make no mistake about it, priority No. 1 is to get this team back in the playoffs and also to get this team qualified for the international tournaments that we're so well known for."
The roster makeover is well underway. As per the Washington Post's Soccer Insider, forward Luciano Emilio is seeking employment outside MLS and United declined the option on Christian Gomez. It picked up the option on Fred and is negotiating a new deal with Jaime Moreno. Recently retired midfielder Ben Olsen has signed on as an assistant coach.
"We have several players identified -- throughout the world, really -- but we've focused again on Central and South America," said Kasper. "There's some players we're having conversations with so it was obviously very important to make sure that Curt was completely on board."