A picture-perfect early autumn day saw D.C. United return to training Wednesday morning. Coming off of a 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders, a third straight victory without conceding, spirits were high as players took the pitch at Audi Field as they start building towards into an important road clash against the New York Red Bulls.
“I think the guys are excited about what the rest of the season has to offer, and the opportunities that we have,” said head coach Ben Olsen. “We get back to work today, it was a little bit of a re-entry day [after two days off], but still pushing the guys. Some sharp stuff.”
It’s a far cry from where United were at a month ago, coming off of a 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union. While they’ve only climbed up one spot in the standings since then, arresting a long slide into mediocrity that lasted for the entire summer has been critical in giving D.C. the inside track on the final guaranteed home game available in the Eastern Conference.
The key? Re-establishing the team’s identity.
Olsen said that right now, that means being “a tough team to beat, a defensively committed group that looks after each other. And we have some guys that can make plays on the offensive end.”
Elaborating further, Olsen made a point to praise his side’s newfound consistency on the defensive side of the ball. “Everyone’s showing up on the defensive end, and everyone’s giving max concentration, max effort when we don’t have the ball. That’s a good start. We’ve defended the box very, very well. Our understanding of who we are defensively is much better over the last couple weeks. We’ve also made a lot of little plays: blocks, tackles. All these little things add up, these extra effort plays.”
“You see the energy and the fight that everyone has, the determination, whether it’s been offensively, defensively, it’s been great,” concurred midfielder Paul Arriola. “The determination, the willingness. It’s not just in games, it’s in training. It’s the competitiveness, it’s the will to get on the field and make an impact. It should be like that all year, but the reality is for most teams, it’s not like that. You go through times where you’re in a slump as a team, as individuals, but it seems like we’re heading in the right direction at the right time.”
Player and coach were both quick to add that while United is clearly improved, they aren’t yet at their very best. “I think right now our identity, we’re not quite there yet, but we’re pretty dang close, especially compared to three games back, when we were questioning what type of team we were,” said Arriola.
Olsen emphasized that the team has made major progress out of possession, but must continue to advance once they get ahold of the ball. “[The emphasis] has been over the last two weeks on how we get better with the ball.”
Another factor in United’s rise has been a change in Arriola’s role. Having spent the large majority of the season (and his career) as a winger, Arriola has been moved inside as the Black-and-Red’s central attacking midfielder for all of this successful late-season run. Adding some speed, mobility, and ball-winning ability in that spot has helped United become stronger defensively, and less predictable going forward.
“It’s an interesting dynamic. I wouldn’t necessarily say I have the freedom to go anywhere, but I tend to float around,” said Arriola in describing his new role. “It does give me the opportunity to kind of read the game a little bit better and pick a side to overload, see where we have more possibilities... I’m getting more comfortable being able to stay in pockets, find the ball and turn and run at players, which is obviously what you want in your number ten.”
United is hoping to keep making progress heading into what is turning into a very important game on Sunday against the Red Bulls. United’s old rival has also picked up their form in the last couple of weeks, bouncing back from a three-game losing streak by posting two straight 2-0 wins.
“The New York game always has a little punch to it, but now it has even a little bit more zip with both teams looking to keep that momentum and shoot for that home game in the playoffs,” said Olsen. United holds the 4th place spot that gets that home game, but they’ve only got a one-point edge over NYRB at the moment. “This will be a big step to get that game that we want here at Audi Field. [A win] doesn’t lock it up, but it helps us keep moving forward.”
In the last meeting between the sides, United fell 2-1 in a game that saw both teams have a player sent off, with the game-winner coming via a penalty kick that appeared very dubious. However, it can’t be ignored that United was overwhelmed early by the physicality of Chris Armas’s high-pressing side.
“It helps to have played them once. Every time you play them for the first time, they’re unique in what they do and how high they press, how little time you have on the ball, so it’s always a little shock to the system, the first 20 minutes when you play them each year, because there’s new guys coming in seeing it for the first time,” explained Olsen, who was frustrated that his team wasn’t ready for that fact after that August 21 defeat. “The fact that we saw it helps, but the concepts of how to go about [beating] them are the same. You still have to be sharp, still gotta be physical in the duels, but you’ve also gotta understand when to play. Play quickly, and get to the other side as quick as possible. Punish them for some of the aggression.”
It’s reasonable to expect Olsen to retain the lineup that has won three straight, but it increasingly looks like he’ll have a selection dilemma due to Ola Kamara’s progress. A tight hamstring kept him out of wins over Portland and Seattle, but the Norwegian striker (3 goals in 236 minutes played) was able to get through the entire training session without any issues.
“He got through a tough training today. [We’ll] see how he responds, just go day-to-day. That he was out here and got through a strength [oriented] day, that’s a positive sign. We’ll also see tomorrow morning how he responded, and if all is good, we’ll keep pushing.”
Kamara’s return would be a classic “good problem” to have, a boost for a team that has finally found some momentum. Still, while United is pleased to be making progress, they’ll be the first to tell you they’re not the finished product. “We find ourselves in the postseason, which is the first goal to hold any silverware. I’m proud of these guys, that they’ve put themselves in this situation, but I think there’s more,” said Olsen. “I think there was an expectation that we would be in the postseason, and that this team is hopefully ready for more.”