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D.C. United sees ‘an opportunity’ in unusual MLS is Back opener against Toronto FC

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Head coach Ben Olsen and midfielder/defender Russell Canouse gave a glimpse into United’s mindset ahead of their first game in months

Xavier Dussaq / D.C. United / Courtesy of Major League Soccer

After a long break, D.C. United has just one sleep between their return to play in Major League Soccer. The 127 days have included major crises dominating the news, a lengthy break where players couldn’t train together, and will take place within the MLS is Back Tournament structure rather than simply a traditional regular season.

That strangeness extends to the setting: a field generally used for youth tournaments in Orlando, where United will play the role of “visitor” against their “host” Toronto FC. MLS has moved its teams to a bubble at a Disney resort, with games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.

Speaking to media yesterday, head coach Ben Olsen said “life here in the bubble is fine,” and praised the facilities, but added a serious note. “The biggest hurdle you need to jump over is getting your team to have negative [Covid-19] tests.”

Midfielder/defender Russell Canouse expressed similar thoughts, saying that “it’s been very unusual being down here, there’s kind of a weird feeling,” but also crediting MLS for assembling an unprecedented, ad hoc tournament on the fly. “I think the league’s done a pretty solid job in putting this together. Protocols in place to get us down here safely and while we’re down here, making sure we’re taken care of as a staff, players, and a team... I haven’t found it being too difficult being down here.”

Despite the league’s efforts, there have been issues. FC Dallas and Nashville SC have both been pulled from the tournament lineup, though both clubs are still in quarantine at the resort. Both Olsen and Canouse took time to express their sympathies for those sides, and the idea of staying safe from the novel coronavirus came up repeatedly during their remarks, which being on Zoom also reflect the new post-Covid-19 reality.

“There’s a lot going on in the world. We have our families at home. It’s a difficult situation. But we’re trying to take it day by day and do the best we can,” explained Canouse. “I think internally with the team we’ve done a pretty solid job up until now, and we want to continue doing a good job of making sure we take care of ourselves and do everything to have complete safety within the hotel... I just pray that we stay safe in our team and we do everything possible to make it through the tournament okay.”

From a purely soccer perspective, United is in an odd place. They entered the season attempting to take on a new identity both tactically, and in terms of the team’s personality following the departures of Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta, and several others. The big moves made to execute those changes, including Edison Flores and Julian Gressel, got just two games to bed in before training and league play were both suspended. Building the understanding in games, especially on the attacking end, took a back seat as players were restricted to individual work and online video chats.

With that in mind, Olsen said that the Black-and-Red are “in a very similar spot to where we left off the season.” While Olsen is confident the team is well-versed in their defensive concepts, he said that the new-look attack is “going to be a little bit of a work in progress,” though he added that most teams in the league are going to have that feel after such a long gap between games.

While no one has any experience with these circumstances, Olsen cited some past international tournament experience he had during his playing days as a possible resource. “Going through the Olympics, and the World Cup, and a few [youth] World Championships...this tournament schedule is somewhat familiar, and I’m trying to draw back on how some of the successes and fall-backs that I’ve experienced through these month-long tournaments.”

The first test since a scruffy 2-1 victory over Inter Miami back in March will be Toronto FC, a side that has played in three of the last four MLS Cup finals. It’s a jump right into the deep end for United, but it is at least a familiar foe. With a chuckle, Olsen said “we’ve had plenty of time — almost too much time — to dissect Toronto,” before describing TFC as being “as good as anybody in this league.”

As this game has approached, United has not been shy about the fact that they want to use their final game of 2019 (a 5-1 loss at TFC that saw D.C. force extra time with a late equalizer, only to collapse in extra time) as motivation. “We’re looking forward to playing them again,” said Olsen. “We remember being knocked out of the playoffs by them. Not that that we need any extra motivation, but [we] certainly wouldn’t mind getting back at them.”

As for what qualities United expects to be tested in their Group C games and beyond, Olsen cited the grit and mental strength his teams are often associated with. “Digging in a little bit, and the 80th minute when it’s 95 degrees in Florida is going to be part of it,” said Olsen, who added that he is going to lean on his full roster. “You need everybody... We’re gonna rely even more now on some of our bench players to get through this because we’re not 100% fit, like like almost every team here. And so that that’s also a lot opportunity for players that haven’t seen a lot of minutes and maybe even some young guys.”

United’s mentality will also be tested by a completely new kickoff time. For the first time in club history, they face a 9:00am kickoff time. While that’s not all that far from when a typical training session begins, it’s still a major change for players and coaches who build their professional lives around routine.

Olsen said the early kickoff is the one truly “new” thing about gameday at MLS is Back. “Players are up at 5:30 and eating by 6:00, and that’s new. Most of these players haven’t done that since [they were] probably 12 years old, playing for their local club teams,” said Olsen.

However, the long-tenured coach isn’t spending any time complaining about it, and says DCU has come up with a plan to deal with the situation. “We think we have some type of rhythm spelled out for them the night before, and how we eat [pre-game], what the cadence of that morning looks like. And we’ve asked around a little bit about some of the teams that have had the early games and what they did, and how that looks. So the scheduling part, we feel confident in.”

Still, it’s uncharted territory, and Olsen concedes that even a perfect plan will leave United dealing with something they’re not familiar with. “Ultimately, it’s early. They’re not going to get a great night’s rest, and they’re gonna have to have an extra cup of coffee and get out there and compete.”

Canouse added that he’s taken it on himself to prepare, having altered his normal schedule as gameday approaches. “I’m already adjusting my sleep schedule, trying to get to bed earlier, waking up earlier in the morning to go to breakfast so I’m prepared as best as I can for the game.” Canouse also emphasized that he sees the situation “as an opportunity to be able to go out and be mentally stronger than them, and really perform, give our best effort, and come out with the win.”

In other words, United is discarding any thoughts of using the bizarre nature of this game as an excuse. “I can promise that the mentality will be there, and the commitment from our boys to compete, and go after this game with everything we have.”