For D.C. United, it’s not quite a lost season

Posted By Harrison Hamm on September 18, 2020

At some point, for D.C. United, the Ben Olsen system just isn’t doing the job.

Olsen has run good teams and bad teams over the course of his decade-long tenure in D.C., and right now he’s at the helm of a bad one. DCU have taken just 10 points from 11 matches and have scored only nine times, putting them in a group of lower-tier Eastern Conference clubs that are averse to putting the ball in the net. BennyBall, the name for Olsen’s pragmatic, sometimes tough-on-the-eyes style of play, doesn’t seem to be solving their issues.

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Attacking losses hurting DCU

In the six games D.C. have played since the season restarted in home stadiums, they have five points and just three goals. The loss of three key attackers is hurting them: Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta left in the offseason, with essentially no one to fill the void. Winger Paul Arriola tore his ACL at the start of the season. The lack of attacking difference-makers is one of the main reasons for their problems.

Julian Gressel, a versatile wingback whom D.C. traded for in the offseason, was supposed to be a big part of a contending team. But Gressel hasn’t made much of an attacking impact. His style of play requires other players around him who can receive his passes and engage in quick combination play. He’s a ceiling-raiser, not a floor-raiser, making him a tough fit in a spiralling D.C. team. 

Designated player Edison Flores, a highly-touted attacker, is missing games with a facial fracture, and has yet to get on the scoresheet in the handful of injury-marred games in which he’s appeared. Other parts of the roster look like everything you’d expect from a rebuilding team: a mix of older, average veterans (Frederic Brillant, Ola Kamara, the injured Felipe) and developing youngsters who need playing time (Donovan Pines, Kevin Paredes, Griffin Yow). 

Steven Goff at the Washington Post reported that D.C. passed on signing superstar Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain, who ended up signing for Inter Miami for $7 million. Apparently, the cost was too much for D.C. For similar reasons, DCU is reportedly hesitant to part ways with Olsen, because letting a coach go would force the team to spend money on a new one. In a troublesome economy, with lost attendance revenues and fewer games, D.C. have to make tough decisions.

Can Olsen turn this around?

But the question remains how good D.C. can be with Olsen at the helm, and whether it makes sense to entrust him with another turnaround. There’s no such thing as a “trust the process” rebuild in MLS, so it’s not like United has to invest years in improving the roster. Teams just have to get a few things right: make savvy roster moves, be willing to spend smartly on DPs, and get some production out of young players. You can rise up the standings within a year. 

Of any team, Olsen and D.C. know that well. They’ve fluctuated between hyped contender and bottom-dweller for years. Most notably, they were awful in 2013 before winning the Eastern Conference in 2014, with Olsen winning coach of the year. It is possible to turn things around quickly.

DCU might still make the playoffs this year — inexplicably, they are one point off the red line right now. MLS pretty much lets everyone into the playoffs. For all we know, this conglomeration of a team could fall backwards into a lucky playoff win or two and turn this season into a success. 

In this weird season, nothing is impossible,but that doesn’t erase long-term concerns. D.C. seem reluctant to spend money right now, making it difficult to find a Rooney/Acosta replacement (they hope Flores can show some positive signs when he returns from a facial fracture). Their future will depend on how long their deep trust in Olsen goes, and whether they can scrap together some above-average players at some point. It very well might not be a long process.

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