With DC United’s season spiraling painfully into the abyss on a weekly basis, the dismissal of head coach Curt Onalfo was inevitable. And though he made a significant contribution to that final conclusion over his seven month stay, a closer, deeper examination shows that it’s really not all his fault.
Assistant Ben Olsen, one of the clubs most popular and accomplished players, takes charge of a club at the bottom of the league table at 3-12-3 (12 points) and in danger of missing the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
United have lost three in a row and are winless in their last six league matches. The latest loss, 3-0 at Real Salt Lake last Saturday, was the 12th shutout loss of the season, tying a club record set in 2001 and a record that will surely be eclipsed in their 12 remaining matches.
At the end of the day, the team was inconsistent not only from game to game but during games as well. They never had all 11 players put in a consistent effort for 90-minutes in any one game this season and consequently, the team did not improve and in many ways regressed.
President Kevin Payne, after consulting with Owner Will Chang and General Manager Dave Kasper made the move on Tuesday and informed the players early Wednesday morning.
“Yesterday was a pretty heavy day for all of us with our coach being let go,” said Olsen after Thursday’s training session. “Today was about putting that behind us and doing our jobs now and getting ready for New England and try and start getting results.”
The match Saturday at New England will be the first ever game that Olsen has coached. So why is Olsen, the least experienced coach on the staff, getting this opportunity? Olsen was a high IQ player and respected by all of his teammates so the soccer part should not be an issue.
But more importantly, Olsen is more marketable. He has the personality and cachet the others don’t and should United play well and get a result at New England, it’s an easy promotional campaign to put some butts in the increasingly empty seats of RFK Stadium.
Technical Director Chad Ashton, who was Tom Soehn’s right hand man last season, returns to the bench as well, in many ways, as an advisor to Olsen.
“We’ve asked for more commitment, more passion a lot of things that have been lacking throughout this year and that is my fault as well,” added Olsen. “That’s all of our fault’s; it’s the player’s fault’s, it’s my fault and we feel responsible for Curt being let go and now it’s time to fix it.”
With that, Olsen immediately altered the training mentality and structure focusing more on repetitive functionality in what they might actually see during an actual MLS match. Olsen, along with Ashton, were active in the middle of training stopping play at critical times to distinguish and identify situations that frequently occur during matches and how to exploit them on the attacking end and sort them out to make them predictable in the defensive third.
“We are dealing with some stuff on the field and we’ll see if it gives us an advantage,” Olsen said. “This is obviously new for me and our focus right now is just on, how we can get a result. We’ve got some ideas about how we can do that, the staff and myself, and we will move forward with those ideas.”
But the loss at Salt Lake more than anything, was a microcosm of a season that is easily on pace to be the worst team history. Setting aside that it may have been the worst performance in goalkeeper Troy Perkin’s career, the game was even both statistically and on the field.
However, Salt Lake was more consistent from start to finish than United as they did what all winning teams do in all sports-their best players made the plays at the critical times that won the game. And, oh yeah, United lost another player, Clyde Simms, to injury.
Onalfo, who is the first United coach to be fired in the middle of the season, made a tactical decision in the second half that perhaps contributed directly to their undoing. After conceding an early goal and chasing the game, United did well to seize back the match around the 60th minute and looked poised to equalize the match. In the 78th minute, Onalfo decided to remove a defender in favor of Jaime Moreno, leaving Andy Najar alone on the flank with very little defensive help.
One minute later, Salt Lake extended the lead, and perhaps not coincidentally, on a play down Najar’s side of the field. While the 17 year old is a colossal attacking talent, his naiveté and inexperience were exploited.
But the bigger question is, was that substitution and tactical adjustment even necessary when your team had most of the play at that point and the chances were about even? No. While you have to love the mentality of going with three in the back and attacking in hopes of equalizing and getting a well-deserved point on the road, tactically the game didn’t need it at that point.
The injuries, enigmatic starts and inconsistent performance were a constant dark cloud over Onalfo’s tenure. To his credit, he never used injuries as an excuse and neither did the players so again, not Onalfo’s fault.
The injuries forced the insertion of more youth and inexperience into the team and with that youth comes inherent inconsistencies in effort and decision making. Consequently, opposing teams made the appropriate adjustments and more times than not, United were punished for poor decisions and bad play.
But when you really break this roster down, is it really championship worthy even if Onalfo had been been able to put his best players on the field consistently? They would have been good and competitive but not a championship team. Not yet anyway. MLS is very balanced so chemistry becomes ultra critical and in reality, for this team to contend it had to be greater than the sum of its parts. For some reason, this team played as a group of individuals and not anything that even resembled a cohesive team and it cost Onalfo his job.
“Every single player needs to take a look at themselves and what is going on this year,” said midfielder Chris Pontius. “All of our jobs are on the line. Obviously if things don’t get turned around, there are going to be a lot more changes so everyone needs to take it to heart to know that a lot of us are lucky to still be here and that we need to get things done for the organization and these fans.”
United seemed to go into every match “hoping” for something…hoping to get a consistent effort out of their back line, hoping for that early goal, hoping to put away the precious few chances they mustered in each game, hoping to get a result for the fans.
Now I am no fan of the fans, but the supporters groups need to be commended for standing the post every game and loyally watching what has been often, unwatchable soccer.
While Payne acknowledged that many of the personnel moves have not worked out this year, most notably the acquisition of Salvadoran international Christian Castillo, he also put the players on notice that their jobs are not secure either.
“ Right now we are fighting for our pride and for DC United as a club and we need to win our fans back, we need to prove to our fans and prove to ourselves and prove to our management that we deserve to be here next year and that we can get it done with this team,” said Pontius.
“I think we as players, we can only control what happens next season by how well we play this season. Decisions will be made at the end of the year and what influences those decisions is how you do right now” added Talley.