At 39 years old, Ben Olsen remains one of the youngest coaches in MLS. But after more than six years in charge of D.C. United, he’s run the gauntlet of ups and downs.
Three consecutive trips to the playoffs have seen Olsen’s squad enjoy status as a perennial contender in recent years. But he hasn’t forgotten the 2013 campaign, when the club tied a record for MLS futility with three wins in 34 matches.
So with United off to an 0-2-1 start, Olsen is keeping the skid in perspective.
“Fortunately, I’ve been doing this for a few years now and I’ve been through a lot worse than this,” Olsen said. “There’s certainly no panic button around here.”
After most of MLS took off last weekend for World Cup qualifiers, United returns to RFK Stadium on Saturday for a match against the Philadelphia Union (0-1-2).
With United coming off a 2-0 home loss to the Columbus Crew, the early-season bye week presented an opportunity for the club to ramp up the intensity in training and iron out some tactical wrinkles.
“As moody as it was last week, I think we got better — we pushed each other and raised the competitive spirit around here,” Olsen said. “Usually as a coach you can make an argument for [the bye week] either way, whether you’re winning or not getting the results. You can always spin it however you want to spin it, but I do think it came at a good time for us.”
United’s attack, which topped MLS with 33 goals over the final 13 matches of 2016, is the only unit in the league without a goal this season. An ankle injury saw influential playmaker Luciano Acosta sit out the first two matches, while the likes of striker Patrick Mullins and winger Lloyd Sam have yet to replicate their fine form from the second half of 2016.
A retooled back line has had issues as well, allowing four goals in a loss to New York City FC before conceding a pair of tallies off penalty kicks in the defeat to Columbus.
“Obviously we need to get some goals going, and I think that will come,” United captain Steve Birnbaum said. “We’re not too worried about that. We’ve got a good group of guys that can score some goals. On the defensive side, we just need to be a little sharper in the box, man marking, picking up second balls — easy things to clean up.”
Veteran Bobby Boswell is one of several reserves in contention for playing time as Olsen considers adjusting his lineup. The 34-year-old, who had sat out just four MLS matches over the past three years, has yet to play this season after losing his role in central defense to converted right back Sean Franklin.
In the attack, newcomers Jose Guillermo Ortiz and Sebastien Le Toux are vying for their first starts with the team as Mullins recovers from a hamstring strain suffered against the Crew.
Yet lineup changes are only one factor for Olsen, who indicated he’s more focused on getting the most out of the group he’s leaned on thus far.
“The message is to keep getting better and improve, as we do every year,” Olsen said. “It’s a long season and a long journey ahead of us, and the important part is to learn about ourselves and keep pushing each other and keep getting better — and usually the results come.”
Considering there are 31 matches to go and 12 of the league’s 22 clubs make the playoffs, United is taking a measured approach.
The Seattle Sounders’ run from ninth place in the Western Conference last summer to MLS Cup champion in December remains fresh in minds across the league, after all. United enjoyed a turnaround of its own last year, going from eighth place in July to the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed in the postseason.
“There’s a lot of games left,” Birnbaum said. “We’re not worrying too much about what’s going on, but we know there’s a little bit of urgency. We need to get things going and need to win some games.”
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