After watching his D.C. United side end the season with a playoff defeat - for the second year running, no less - against the New York Red Bulls, their arch-rival, Ben Olsen asked the key question of last year’s offseason: "Are we peaked out?" This question covered a lot of territory. Was United’s roster, even at their best, only capable of simply making the playoffs rather than going on a run? Was the club’s grind-it-out, long ball-heavy style of play too easy for playoff teams to shut down? Was there any other viable plan with this group?
The acquisition of Luciano Acosta pointed towards a new approach, but in the early days, what we saw was less of a true shift and more of a move back to something resembling the successful pairing of Fabian Espindola and Chris Rolfe in 2014. United was still playing with two banks of four, and the hope was that Espindola and his fellow Boca Juniors product Acosta would create some attacking magic up front by being unpredictable. Olsen had tweaked things from 2015, rather than make a wholesale, top-to-bottom change.
It would be harsh to get too upset about the CONCACAF Champions League defeat. Even in the best of times, defending MLS Cup champions and Supporters Shield winners struggle badly starting off with the CCL before the preseason is over. United was not coming into the CCL on the back of a major trophy win, and on top of that they were playing without Bill Hamid and started a midfield that went, right to left, Patrick Nyarko, Marcelo Sarvas, Nick DeLeon, and Chris Rolfe That’s two players who were making their competitive debuts for United, and DeLeon was playing his first game as a "full time" central midfielder. Acosta was floating between that group and Espindola. Olsen gave debuts to Rob Vincent and Julian Buescher on the night as well.
United did well for about 65 minutes at Queretaro that night, frustrating their hosts and having arguably the best of the rare looks on goal, only for that lack of familiarity to play a major role in the home side’s first goal. A mistake followed, and that was basically all she wrote. A similar script played out in the MLS opener, with United taking a 1-0 lead into halftime and frankly dominating the LA Galaxy only to concede an avoidable goal and then crumble from there.
This more or less summed up United in the early going: capable of frustrating opponents, but also regularly frustrating to watch going forward. Acosta’s place in the lineup was unclear, while Espindola’s unpredictable nature - so often a gift in the past - was instead leaving his teammates puzzled as to how to play off of him. By the tenth game of the season, United had posted three shutouts, but had been shut out themselves four times.
Olsen was trying to solve the problem. There was at least one change in the lineup in each of the first six games. When one group did the business (4-0 win over Vancouver), they got three straight games as a starting unit. Nonetheless, United’s basic approach was very similar to what we saw in 2015, and the results were not encouraging. The Black-and-Red finished their fifteenth game of the season (0-0 at Houston) with a shrug-worthy 4W-5D-6L record. If not for the whole Eastern Conference’s fumbling start to the year, United might have been in a deep hole.
Just before that trip to Space City came arguably the low point of the entire season. United, usually a dependable bet to advance at least a couple rounds into the US Open Cup, faced a Ft. Lauderdale Strikers side at the Maryland Soccerplex. The Strikers had played on turf in Edmonton three days before. Their smaller roster left no room to rotate. It later came out that their players were not being paid in a timely manner.
And yet, despite an accomplished performance by then-new homegrown midfielder Chris Durkin, the Black-and-Red could not break down a Strikers side that came to sit very deep and compact. It wasn’t a complicated game plan, or even an energetic performance from Ft. Lauderdale, and yet they could point to the best chance of the opening 90 minutes (a header sent wide by former DCU striker Maicon Santos).
Certainly it’s not entirely, or even mostly, Olsen’s fault that the game went as it did. United had most of the possession, and with a summertime trip to Houston looming in three days (not to mention an eventually rescheduled game against the Revolution at home originally slated for four days after that), his rotation policy was defensible. However, the fact is that United burned one sub to give Andrea Mancini his only appearance, and between the planned move to let Sean Franklin and Taylor Kemp split the game in half, the Black-and-Red only had one sub to try and snatch a win with. Credit the Strikers for their eventual triumph on penalties, but this felt like an opportunity wasted.
United put the extra days of training they gained due to that New England game being pushed back a few days to make some major changes, and this is where we have to start talking about Olsen’s next step as a manager. DC came out in a 4141 against the Revs, clearly building around Acosta first and foremost. Espindola was forced to play left midfield rather than be the focal point of the attack. United was still in a hurry to get forward, but the ball was kept on the ground, and the quick raids from midfield helped them to a 2-0 win that was a lot less close than that sounds.
The club’s problems weren’t entirely solved yet, of course. A four-game road trip followed, in which United alternated between two smash-and-grab 1-1 draws and probably their two worst performances of 2016. A 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union saw Acosta argue with Olsen on the sideline - that apparently turned out to be more of a thing for us chattering classes to worry about than anyone in the DCU locker room - and Kofi Opare red carded. A 4-1 loss to TFC ended the trip, with Sebastian Giovinco in unplayable form and United having no real idea how to get a foothold.
However, Olsen crucially stuck with the new system, and the tide started to change. Patrick Mullins debuted for DC in that Toronto loss, and took over as a starter eight days later in a 1-1 home draw with Montreal. Lloyd Sam arrived in time to start the next game, a 2-2 draw with Philadelphia in which both teams were left arguing that they deserved a win. Arguably, the real turning point - the game that proved this more open, more attack-minded approach could actually get the job done - came on August 13th against the 2015 MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers. United raced out to a 2-0 lead just 29 minutes into the game, and never looked stressed from then on. Acosta was showboating, and the pieces were falling into place. Olsen had found a better gameplan for his squad, and had the willingness to play with an attacking mindset.
You probably remember how things went from there. United scored 34 goals in their final 14 games; when you’ve seen several consecutive years of low-scoring, defense-first soccer, you don’t forget a thing like that. There was also a new-found belief in the squad, perhaps best exemplified by the fact that United scored six of those goals in the 90th minute or later (plus two more in the 89th minute). Olsen also made a difference with his subs, getting 7 goals from players coming in off the bench during that late-season run.
The expectations for United were mixed going into the playoffs. No one was quite willing to call them a true contender, and it was probably down to the downside of this new, attacking mindset. United was lighting up the scoreboard, but they also gave up 22 goals in those final 14 regular season matches (managing just two shutouts). Sure, four of those came when United opted to rotate nearly the entire starting lineup for the regular season finale, but DCU also let the lowly Chicago Fire get two goals in 90 minutes against them twice during this run. It’s certainly something that needs to be worked on.
Even with that in mind, the playoffs came and went faster than anyone expected. Conceding an early header to Laurent Ciman allowed Montreal to execute a defend-and-counter gameplan to perfection, and United simply couldn’t solve the puzzle. That will be one of the tests for next year: United wants to get out and run, but what do you do when the opposition is disciplined and willing to sit deep? Can United show the patience and passing ability to pry that sort of team open?
All in all, though, Olsen’s move away from the 442 and towards a more positive style of play has to be seen as an encouraging development for United fans, especially since it also resulted in wins as well. United managed a four-game winning streak at the perfect time, sealing a playoff spot a week early rather than needing a result on the final day of the season.
In the 4141, United went 7W-8D-5L with a +6 goal difference, and crucially they got better and better as time went on. United went 1W-4D-2L in their first seven outings playing this new style, and finished their final 13 games (including that playoff loss) on a points-per-game pace that would give them 57 or 58 points over a full season. If United can sustain that form - and it seems harsh to reduce it to a hot streak, since 13 games is nearly 40% of an MLS season - they’ll be in the Supporters Shield race.
Personally I think this answer is pretty easy. Olsen is improving as a coach, and he did pretty well during the back half of 2016. He shifted gears to better suit talented attackers, and his in-game tactical changes (both subs and formation changes) changed several games into better results for United. There are still challenges, but the team is, for me, clearly moving in the right direction.
That brings us to the final, long-delayed vote of our series: