In the wake of a miserable 2013 season (Open Cup Championship not withstanding), DC United fans have high expectations for 2014, after an unexpected slew of signing over the last few weeks. No sooner had MLS Cup concluded, than United General Manager Dave Kasper started a rebuilding process that has yet to let up. While the quality of players has undoubtedly improved – even if we have not seen them on the field yet - the key to bringing all of these pieces together is Ben Olsen. Now at the start of his fourth year as DC United head coach, Olsen will be challenged to take all of these pieces and forge a team. To do this, Olsen will need to manage locker room personalities, mold young players into usable players and - most urgently - win.
To start, Eddie Johnson comes to DC United with a reputation as a selfish player with a negative locker room attitude that impacts on team performance. His "show mean the money" bit last year is a key example. Despite his expression of satisfaction upon learning that Clint Dempsey would be joining him in Seattle, he was upset about Seattle digging deep to bring Dempsey in. Even so, Kasper believes that criticisms of Johnson overstate the negative impact, that Johnson is a nice guy "deep down" inside, and that Johnson's relationships with both Olsen and Scouting Director Kurt Morsink will help to prevent any locker room blow-ups. This would be a tough task for any head coach, even for a coach on an established team. But Olsen’s challenge will be not only to manage Johnson and his impact of the team, but also to bring together an influx of players from across the league (and possibly abroad once the transfer window opens in January). On paper, DC United’s players may be better than they were last year, but they need to develop chemistry, teamwork and character.
If reports of Enzo Concina coming to DC United from Inter Milan are true, Olsen will also need to manage a relationship with a new assistant coach, someone he has never worked with. An established assistant coach in Italy, especially one who was rumored to take over the reins for another MLS team (Montreal Impact), is desperately needed. If this comes to pass, it will be a direct result of team majority owner Erick Thohir's ownership-stake in Inter. But how will Olsen view Concina's arrival? Will he rely on Concina to help organize the back line, or will he marginalize Concina as a potential challenger to his head coaching position? So far, there are no whispers about Concina wanting to coach United. But that does not mean that Olsen will take kindly to an unfamiliar voice, brought in to assist through an ownership arrangement.
United will have a few veterans in 2014 - most brought in from other teams - but in they can only win consistently if managers and coaches develop players. Sadly, United's track record on this has been poor under Olsen. United's most recognized academy player so far has been Andy Najar. But Najar was not developed by United's academy; his skill and ability came from countless hours spent playing in his Honduran hometown and training by himself in northern Virginia fields. Despite the large number of academy players United has signed (Ethan White, Conor Shonosky, Michael Seaton to name a few), none was a regular starter - or even challenger for starting positions. Part of this is because of the players' short time in the league, and White at least started to challenge to make the game day roster at the end of 2013. More damning than this, none of our young players improved last year. They regressed as more experienced players failed to perform and got injured, as other younger players over-compensated for other players short-coming. Perry Kitchen for example, a stand out defensive midfielder in 2012 and arguably the best player currently on the roster, got worse over the 2013 season. If Olsen wants to put a stamp on this team as more than last year's record-breaking losers, he will have to find a way to develop young players without over-burdening them and allowing them time to grow.
Olsen and DC United will be judged on wins. Not just a slight increase that takes DC from a three win year to a six win year. Beyond a turn around in MLS, DC will need to play more games next year, and need to win many more than that. Victory in the US Open Cup helped fans stomach the debacle of our MLS season. But a good run in MLS and the CONCACAF Champions' League next year, will go a long way to restoring fans' faith in Ben "Heart of a Lion" Olsen.