Article by Leanne Elston
“We’re not as good as we think we are.”
That’s just one of the things Ben Olsen had to say after his team lost last week to the Philadelphia Union. The loss ended DC United’s run in this year’s US Open Cup, which has seen a slew of MLS sides crash out to lower-division opposition. While Philadelphia were a fellow MLS team, they were a team that sits near the bottom of the Eastern Conference table and has been anything but stable so far this season.
DC United entered a two-week break from league play as first in the East. With 27 points from 15 games, they are ahead of the New York Red Bulls (26 points from 13 games) and Sporting Kansas City (25 points from 12 games). However, DCU’s place at the top is nowhere near secure.
Important to remember is that with such an unbalanced schedule, DC United have played more games than any other team in the conference. They may have the most points, but they have also had the most opportunities to get those points. It doesn’t make the wins any less vital, but it does mean that New York and Kansas City are hot on United’s heels. It’s easy for fans -- and the team itself -- to be excited about sitting top of the table, but it’s a precarious position. One loss and they’re out of there.
Is DC United as good as first in the East? It’s an interesting question, and what Ben Olsen is saying is: well, not necessarily. DCU earned that top spot, but it doesn’t mean they’re invincible. After all, they only barely won their third-round Open Cup match against the Richmond Kickers and they lost their fourth-round match against Philadelphia. The Open Cup is not to be taken lightly no matter who the opponent is -- just take a look at tiny Cal FC ousting the Portland Timbers in the third round. But DC United didn’t take the competition lightly; in the match against the Union, Olsen fielded a starting eleven that, with perhaps the exception of Josh Wolff, we’d be likely to see in MLS play. After the game, Olsen made it clear that dwelling on the absences of players like Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Pontius was useless: “I’ve got enough players out there to beat Philadelphia.”
Except he didn’t. Worse, the loss to the Union came from a goal in the first period of extra time. That kind of loss -- losing concentration right at the end -- reeks of 2011’s DC United. It’s a wake-up call for the team.
Somewhat appropriately, then, DC United’s MLS action resumes with a match away to none other than the Philadelphia Union on Saturday. The Union have parted ways with coach Peter Nowak after three up-and-down years, with assistant coach John Hackworth taking over in the interim. With zero wins in their past five games (except for their Open Cup win over United, that is), Philadelphia is looking to turn things around. It is crucial for DC United not to allow them to do that. United must maintain focus over 90 minutes and demonstrate why they are first in the East. Anybody who makes it to the top wants to stay there.
As mentioned, the beginning of DC United’s 2012 MLS season was heavy. Before the two-week break, DCU showed signs of slowing down. While they rounded things out with three home wins, their last win felt like a lapse in form that had been long coming. After going into halftime 2-0 up, United allowed the Revolution to mount a speedy comeback with two goals at the start of the second half. Maicon Santos reclaimed DCU’s lead with a goal on 60 minutes and United held on for the three points, but the win still had an air of luck about it.
In that sense, it was positive for DC United to have two weeks to regroup and get the injured players back up to fitness. Ben Olsen will likely have a full roster to choose from for the upcoming game against Philadelphia, and anything less than a win will be a disappointment. A reserve game versus Toronto saw DC outscore their opponents 4-3, with goals from Stephen King, Maicon Santos, Chris Pontius, and Hamdi Salihi. That sort of dangerous offense will be necessary to keep hold of first place, although a tighter defense will also be crucial. With Emiliano Dudar back healthy, the center of defense is undoubtedly stronger, while Daniel Woolard will surely continue to stand out at leftback.
Hopefully, the recent elimination from the Open Cup, combined with a physical and mental break from the league, will recharge DC United’s batteries. And hopefully, the team has gained some perspective. A top team must remain at the top of its game consistently. No more giving up goals late, no more getting cute all over the pitch, as Ben Olsen likes to put it. If DC United wants to seriously contend for the Eastern Conference title -- and rest assured, they do -- then this next stretch of MLS for them will need to be not only consistent, but persistent. DCU have to show what they’re made of, and all those cheering for the Black-and-Red? They’ll be hoping their team is made of winners.