A year ago, Ben Olsen’s unemployment seemed all but a certainty. On Monday, his employer, D.C. United, re-upped him for the foreseeable future.
A contract extension might seem a strange move for a coach whose lifetime record is 20 games under .500 (44-64-33) and whose teams have reached the playoffs just once since he took over in 2010. Yet in professional sports, where the constant theme is “what have you done for me lately?,” Olsen and United are trending in the right direction.
The four-time champion hasn’t done much winning recently but after years of dwindling crowds and widespread angst regarding a crumbling facility and almost comical efforts to build a replacement, the mood is upbeat. One of the franchise’s most accomplished and popular players has revived its persona.
United holds a three-point lead atop the Eastern Conference and is within one result of clinching a playoff spot. Its only Designated Player, forward Eddie Johnson, is one of many players cast off by other MLS teams as unwanted or unaffordable. Of the 10 field players who have played at least 20 games, six finished the 2013 season with other teams. D.C. is on course for the most dramatic reversal in league history and as such, could earn Olsen the Coach of the Year Award.
Watch just about any D.C. United game, regardless of venue or opponent, and you’ll see the same grit and determination and spirit he brought to the league as a player for a dozen seasons. But you’ll see more than ruggedness and stamina and perseverance. You’ll see Luis Silva unhinging defenses with guile and technique, you’ll see Fabian Espindola slashing his way into a dangerous spot, you’ll see Perry Kitchen breaking up an attack and getting forward to support a counter, you’ll seek keeper Bill Hamid stymying the opposition by stabbing out a foot or flying full-length to fingertip a ball past the post.
You’ll see a team extensively rebuilt from 2012, when Olsen guided United to a 17-10-7 record and second place in the Eastern Conference. United beat New York in a bitter conference semifinal series before losing to Houston. Olsen was a finalist for Coach of the Year honors, but aside from Kitchen, Hamid and Chris Pontius, most of the starters from that team have moved on or been replaced in the first XI.
Moves made during a busy offseason last winter took a little time to take effect. A weak start to the 2014 season of two losses and one tie sparked flashbacks to last year, the worst season in league history. United finished 3-24-7, 33 points out of the playoffs and an astonishing 43 points behind Eastern Conference and Supporters’ Shield winner New York. But Olsen and technical director Dave Kasper, whose own stature at the club has come under fire sporadically during his 13-year tenure, mapped out a plan that convinced the team’s ownership group to keep them around. More importantly, the players didn’t quit.
This year, the Red Bulls are struggling to make the playoffs and a recent run of bad results has dragged defending champion Sporting Kansas City out of the top spot. Offseason signings by Toronto FC generated huge buzz but mediocre results. New England has regained the form it displayed last year to edge back into the playoff tier but it’s D.C. in the pole position to take the conference title.
United doesn’t have stars nor glittering individual stats, it just has the best record among Eastern teams. Though three United players -- Boswell, Hamid, Sean Franklin -- were named to the All-Star team, there might be zero United players named to the MLS Best XI. It has excelled this season without two of its most prominent contributors in 2012.
Pontius led the team that year with 12 goals; he’s recently returned from hamstring issues that required two surgeries to play 53 minutes in the last two games. Dwayne De Rosario, who won the league’s MVP award in 2011 during his second stint with D.C., left for Toronto last winter. He had led United with 12 assists in 2012.
Silva is top goalscorer this season with 10 and Espindola has matching totals of nine goals and nine assists. Chris Rolfe, formerly of the Fire, is among the team leaders with six goals and six assists. Hamid is fourth amongst MLS keepers with 95 saves and tied for second in shutouts at eight. The only league leader on the roster is Kitchen – albeit with 10 cautions. He is second in MLS with 60 fouls (Portland’s Diego Chara is the runaway leader with 74). Yet Kitchen has also chipped in offensively with four goals and four assists and has proven that along with anchoring the middle, he can float right to deliver a killer cross or get into the goalmouth on a set play.
United has beaten Sporting Kansas City and New York twice this season yet wasn’t able to beat Columbus in any of their three meetings. The MLS playoffs are always a crapshoot yet regardless of whether or not United finishes in first place, it has the chops to end a decade without an appearance in MLS Cup.