Contextualizing Ben Olsen’s standing as D.C. United’s head coach coming into 2018 was fairly straightforward. A dire 2017 season, the pressure of making a good impression with a new stadium opening, and the expectations that come with United finally having some money to spend on players all combined to give most observers the feeling that this might be a “one last chance” sort of scenario. A winning team was a must, a spot in the playoffs was probably a requirement, and more compelling soccer was not much further down the list.
He wasn’t handed an easy task. Audi Field’s construction timetable meant the Black-and-Red started the year off with a very odd schedule that featured little chance to build a rhythm most teams treasure in the early going, and with only two “home” games (which weren’t at home, or even a place similar to home) to gain some momentum. Historically, MLS teams that start poorly tend to miss the playoffs, and Olsen’s teams have been a particularly strong adherent to that trend.
To Olsen’s credit, the early attempts to play a more attractive brand of soccer were not without moderate success. The results weren’t great: United only picked up two draws in their first five games, and both of those were arguably more frustrating than the losses, which all came away from home against strong teams. D.C.’s draws, however, included being completely dominated after halftime by a ten-man Orlando City side (who scored an equalizer in stoppage time) and a fortunate escape after falling down 2-0 in an absolutely vital “home” game against the Houston Dynamo at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
That said, the approach was not really the problem. Olsen returned to the 4141 formation that did well in the back half of 2016, deploying new midfield utility player Ulises Segura in a central role to bring some physicality in the absence of the injured Russell Canouse (whose absence, it turned out, would last well into the summer). Likely due to both the schedule and personnel, Olsen sent out a counterattacking team, but not necessarily the long ball, safety-first version we’ve seen in the past.
Where United struggled early was on two fronts: overall defensive structure, and individual mistakes. The former involved a confluence of factors: Canouse was hurt, David Ousted was new (and not convincing anyone), as was three quarters of the back four. Canouse’s minutes were split between another newcomer (Junior Moreno) and a teenager who had previously not seen any time in MLS (Chris Durkin). However, it must be said that United’s ability to get into a solid defensive shape was lacking, and though they were consistently able to be dangerous going forward, they simply couldn’t restrict chances at the back.
That’s not to say Olsen was entirely struggling early. Darren Mattocks, previously cast as a winger/forward and never able to produce consistently, was terrorizing MLS defenses on a regular basis. Olsen loudly backed his new striker in the preseason, and his faith proved to be more well-founded than just about anyone expected. Before his arrival, Mattocks had never scored more than seven goals in a season, but under Olsen he had 7 goals in his first 12 appearances for the Black-and-Red.
Olsen also got creative during this spell, turning the bad news of Paul Arriola being suspended for an April trip to Philadelphia into an unexpected tactical wrinkle. Arriola was asked to mimic Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya in training, and confided in his coach that he felt quite comfortable. Needing to boost his team’s mobility in the middle, Olsen carried it over from the RFK auxiliary fields to gameday, and United’s performances improved as a result.
“Improved” wasn’t quite good enough, though, and yours truly dubbed United MLS’s most frustrating team after they managed to lose 3-2 to a New England team that they largely outplayed. This came a little over two weeks after a 4-4 draw at Toronto FC that nearly derailed the whole season. On the surface, a high-scoring road draw against the defending champions is a good outcome, regardless of the fact that TFC was clearly a declining force by this point in the season.
However, context is king, and this time the context was brutal. United went up 2-0 by the 17th minute, and added what should have been a game-ending third on the stroke of halftime. TFC predictably went to a 352 and just threw numbers forward with abandon, and suddenly nothing worked. Toronto got on the board, and Olsen decided to add a second defensive midfielder and move to 4231. The real objection people had was not that Moreno was brought in, but rather than he replaced Luciano Acosta, who made his anger clear. Things might have been fine if United had closed up shop, but TFC made it 3-2 just four minutes later, then equalized late. DCU astoundingly re-took the lead in the 90th minute with their first attack in ages, but once again managed to squander the lead.
We’re spending a lot of time on this one game because it’s a clear inflection point. Frustrated with several things, Acosta asked for a meeting with the club where his departure was brought up. He probably wasn’t the only player in a bad mood, and the fanbase was not having a lot of fun. Everything could have gone sideways.
“To manage [United] throughout that period was not easy,” said Olsen while speaking with media after the season ended. “It was touch and go...we tried to prepare the team for that emotional turbulence. We knew some of the results weren’t gonna go our way, and we had the baggage of the year before. That was a tough time, and I think we managed, as a group — not me, we managed as a team and as an organization — we got through that.”
Olsen could have lost the team in June, before Wayne Rooney’s signing was confirmed and before the boost of playing at a brand new stadium was there to lift his team. United was in last place, which is tough enough for a team full of competitive, demanding players. They were also showing a particularly crushing tendency to do a lot right, but to make enough big mistakes to undo all their good work. They were an acutely tough team to follow as a fan, and one can only imagine how frustrating it must have been to be involved as a player or coach.
United remained capable of being both very good and very bad in the same game after the TFC draw. They crashed out of the Open Cup at home against Orlando, there was the aforementioned loss to the Revolution, and just days after announcing that Rooney had signed, they fell behind 2-0 early against the LA Galaxy before clawing themselves back level. One suspects that this is more or less how the season would have gone on if Rooney had opted to play elsewhere. United would have surely won more often due to their home-heavy schedule, but would they have had the quality, the consistency, and the mental toughness to get enough wins to make the playoffs? It seems pretty doubtful.
Rooney did sign, though, and Olsen had a clear vision for him from day one. While the rest of us pondered all sorts of roles for a versatile player, Olsen saw through the fog and chose the simplest, but also clearly the best, option: start him up top, and let the man work.
That simple tactical plan for Rooney did mean a significant change for United, though. Playing a ton of balls in behind the defense worked like a charm for Mattocks, one of the fastest players in MLS. For Rooney, a player trying to build his fitness after cutting his offseason short and who was never that fast to begin with, this approach would be a total waste of his qualities as a player. United had to find a different way to play to get the most out of their biggest-ever signing.
The different approach was obvious from Rooney’s debut against Vancouver on the night Audi Field was officially opened. United wanted to control possession, relying less on transition and more on the technique and off-the-ball movement of their attacking players. The fullbacks pushed up high, forcing the Whitecaps to spread out and deal with more numbers. This was markedly different from anything Olsen had set his teams of the past up to do.
This tactical shift was not an instant hit, even if it was the right move. United followed up a stylish win with losses at Atlanta and at home against the New York Red Bulls, who dominated the first half of that meeting in particular. Signing Rooney and getting a bunch of home games did not, it turned out, guarantee much of anything. There was still work to be done.
Slowly but surely, the Black-and-Red chipped away at the task. The turning point might have been an in-game switch from 4141 to 4231 against the Colorado Rapids. This was far from the first time we’d seen this move, but from a fundamental level it appeared to be the way forward. United should have finished the Rapids off far more easily than they did on the night, but Olsen saw enough to carry the 4231 into the next game, a crucial visit to Montreal. United wasn’t great on the day but got a draw, denying the Impact a huge chance to increase their lead over the playoff-chasing pack.
The 3-2 win over Orlando followed, and we’ve spent plenty of time on that surreal night. Again, it wasn’t perfect: United struggled to open Orlando up, then struggled to contain them even after Cristian Higuita’s red card, then still came up with what was easily the single moment of the MLS season to win anyway.
Tactically, United’s approach was sound, but something was missing. This game served as the emotional catalyst. Olsen’s team went 9W-3D-2L from that point on, including a ten-game unbeaten streak to close the regular season (which included a 6W-1D-0L stretch that matches any run of form in the club’s history). This included a superb tactical performance in defeating Atlanta, the focus to break down FC Dallas and score late in another vital home victory, and turning a must-win home game against Montreal into a 5-0 rout.
This late-season rally was glorious, but it wasn’t perfect. Olsen probably didn’t rotate enough on short rest on a couple of occasions, most notably in a 2-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union. There were also questions about Segura getting more minutes than Zoltan Stieber down the stretch, though in that case it’s fair to note that Stieber’s performances when he did get in weren’t exactly strengthening the argument that he should have been getting the starts.
In the playoffs, United came up short against the Columbus Crew. Much was made of Gregg Berhalter’s gameplan, though personally I think the bigger story was that the Crew’s defensive midfielders and center backs executed at a higher level than anyone else had on visiting Buzzard Point. On the night, Olsen decided to roll with the approach that had taken United up the standings, and it’s hard to blame him for doing so. While there’s still an argument to be made for Stieber entering this game in regulation rather than after United fell behind 2-1 in extra time, Columbus has to be given credit for playing at an extremely high level, and it’s not like United got played off the field. They were the marginally better team despite facing the very best version of the Crew, but couldn’t quite come up with enough in front of goal. As far as coaching in the playoffs goes, it was a damn sight better than Chris Armas losing his nerve in Georgia.
Olsen spent a lot of time in the fall deflecting credit from himself onto his players as a group, and onto Rooney specifically. This is typical of his approach, and in this case was also pretty wise. A player like Rooney brings things you can’t recreate as a coach, and pretending otherwise might not have gone over well in the locker room or within the fanbase. United probably didn’t need a self-aggrandizing Jose Mourinho sort of approach this year, and we’re talking about a team that made the playoffs despite having a 17-point gap to overcome. It’s safe to say that, from a man management perspective, Olsen had a pretty good year.
Perhaps his biggest challenge was the potential kerfuffle over the captain’s armband. Initially, declining to formally name a captain while having Steven Birnbaum function in the role on gamedays drew plenty of raised eyebrows, but in the end it seems to have worked quite well. Birnbaum played like someone freed from an unwanted burden, and when Rooney arrived, there was no armband debacle as seen with other MLS clubs landing an international superstar mid-season. It’s better to dodge a problem like this than to run into it and then cope, and Olsen deserves credit for the foresight he showed in a situation he’d never had to grapple with before.
It appears clear that he’s going to carry on with United in 2019, though it is worth noting that he’s in the final year of his contract. As is the case with all of our reviews, we want to know whether that’s what you want to happen.
Do you want Ben Olsen back for the 2019 season?
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