When it comes to the MLS Coach of the Year award, winners tend to fall into three categories. There's the "His team won the Shield, so that's that" winner, the "So many injuries, still made the playoffs" winner, and the "Wow, they sucked last year" winner. D.C. United's head coach Ben Olsen is probably the all-time strongest candidate in that last category, and has put in a strong bid to take home the honor less than a year after many figured he would be fired after a three-win season.
Olsen is certainly not the only coach in the running here. There will likely be a vote or two for Sigi Schmid, whose team won the Supporters Shield despite having to face down an LA Galaxy team capable of reaching heights few sides in MLS have been able to match. However, the "Shield winner" voters appear to be few in number this year - mostly due to the fact that Schmid is essentially playing by a different set of rules given Seattle's riches - and the likely winner will come from playoff teams with lower seeds.
Here in the East, Olsen is joined by Gregg Berhalter, whose major defensive changes were undercut a bit by the logical decision to sell Giancarlo Gonzalez for a lot more than he's worth after the World Cup. The midfield and front line went largely unchanged on paper when Berhalter came in, but he's gotten so much more out of a group that Robert Warzycha took to bland mediocrity. His candidacy is based around completely changing the Crew's style of play and accelerating the development of young players like Wil Trapp and Ethan Finlay.
Out west, Carl Robinson deserves plenty of credit for taking a young team that lost their captain to a midseason retirement to the playoffs. It's also worth noting that Vancouver lost Golden Boot winner Camilo in a bitter transfer on the eve of the preseason and never replaced him. Nonetheless, Robinson has gotten the job done without a real goalscorer and with a revolving door at center back all year long.
It must be said, though, that Robinson and Berhalter are likely fighting for the third nomination rather than the award itself. The biggest challenge to Olsen is undoubtedly Oscar Pareja. Dallas entered the season planning on basing their entire team around Mauro Diaz, only to see him pick up a knee injury at the end of April at RFK. Diaz's comeback from that injury has been delayed numerous times, and he's barely played a role since. Pareja, on the fly, changed his team from more of a possession side to a direct team that plays track meet soccer and has more set piece goals than anyone in MLS. He's gotten that done despite both hyped offseason signings (Andres Escobar and David Texeira) needing about 75% of the season before finding their feet, and with George John missing the entire year injured.
The case for Ben Olsen
Olsen has steered his team to the greatest one-season improvement in MLS history. In 2013, United won three times; in 2014, they won seventeen games. We don't have to overthink this one.
He's done that despite losing projected starter Jeff Parke midway through the season and having to replace him with a rookie at a position that youngsters usually aren't ready for. United won the East despite not getting the 13+ goals they likely expected out of Eddie Johnson, and despite the fact that Chris Pontius has only been healthy enough to play over the last month or so.
Coming into the season, few listed United as one of their playoff teams; even the optimists out there likely saw this as more of a 2011 season, where United competed for a playoff spot until October but couldn't quite get over the finish line. If a coach's job is to maximize the talent at his disposal, it's hard to put together an argument that anyone is even in Olsen's ballpark. On paper, United's squad as a whole might not even be in the top three in the East, and yet he carried his group to the top three in MLS.
Let's not forget that, tactically, Olsen gets little credit - locally and nationally - for his clever, unusual version of the 442. United's best soccer was played with no conventional striker and with abnormal roles for both wide midfielders. Olsen keeps his tactics simple for his defenders and central midfield, and often baffles opponents with his front four. Even when United plays with a target man in Johnson, he has repeatedly produced good things for the team by occasionally peeling out to the touchline.
It's also valuable to note that United had the season it did despite a brutally packed August and September. August is generally a rough month in many parts of the eastern half of this country due to the humidity, and in that time United had cross-country flights to LA and Vancouver (both happening in an eleven-day span sandwiching a road game against United's most hated rival, no less) as well as a trip to Jamaica. MLS's schedule was more unkind to United than the average MLS side, and despite all that United has finished atop the East as well as winning their CONCACAF Champions League group.
Finally, there are the results. United gave up seven goals in their final fifteen home games, a nearly impossibly low total in a parity-driven league like MLS. Further, per Steve Goff's post yesterday, United has MLS's best record both when scoring first (16W-1D-0L) and when leading at halftime (14W-1D-0L). Those two figures are an indicator that Olsen has been excellent at coping with the tactical moves and substitutions made by opposing coaches all year long.
The case against Ben Olsen
There is one issue here: In a parity-driven league like MLS, regression to the mean is a strong force. Teams like the 2012 Earthquakes can't sustain scoring all their matchwinners after the 85th minute, and teams like United would be hard-pressed to be as bad as they were last year. Even institutionally awful teams like TFC only have one "we're the worst team in the world" season. MLS makes it really hard to be terrible, so at least some of United's turnaround has to be credited towards MLS's structure and culture.
However, you can't selectively apply regression to the mean. If it applies to United, it also applies to Dallas, Columbus, Vancouver, and everyone else who got better this season. As much as it must be acknowledged that MLS's allocations and early draft picks made Olsen's job easier, the fact is that entering the season this was still a team people thought would get to somewhere in the 40 point neighborhood rather than one result - that midseason 1-0 home loss to Seattle - away from the Supporters Shield.
The other issue is one of aesthetics. United doesn't play the breakneck game Dallas does, nor do they have a true #10 like Vancouver, nor are they the possession experts that Columbus has turned into. United plays more long ball than most of MLS's elite teams, and winning with defense has never been sexy in any sport. Regardless of the intricate patterns that Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva weave, or being permissive enough to trust Chris Rolfe as a starter, the league-wide perception of Olsen's United is that they're a team of grinders who grind and grind and sometimes Bill Hamid bails them out. It's a caricature, but caricatures tend to stick.
Chance of winning
75%. For Olsen to lose this award, people would have to choose Pareja, who while doing a wonderful job has taken a more attractive roster to lower heights. There will be a pocket of voters that admire Berhalter, and Robinson may just get himself in as a nominee thanks to a great finish to the year from the Whitecaps, but this is ultimately a two-horse race.
Pareja has had a wonderful season managing some complex problems and getting results with his kids, but to vote for him seems to require what I like to think of as the Breakaway Dilemma. You know when strikers have so much time that they get too many ideas on an easy chance and end up wasting it? Voting against Olsen would fall into the same category. This one is so straightforward and has been for long enough that there are voters focused on nitpicking or playing Devil's Advocate.
Obviously this is a United blog, so we're biased, so I'm tempering that percentage down from what it should be (which is 100%, or maybe even 105% somehow). There are smart people who are toying with Pareja's candidacy, and to be fair I admire Pareja in general and this year specifically. However, of all the postseason awards this is the one United has the best shot at, and the one that is most deserved.