It's hard to remember how things felt around D.C. United a year ago. The stadium deal was on the ropes. The roster overhaul hadn't started yet. The fever dream that was the 2013 US Open Cup was tremendous fun, but it only momentarily distracted from the fact that United didn't win a single league match after August 3rd, a run in which United scored one or zero goals in eleven of twelve games.
For the diehard fan, it was particularly sad to see a club legend like Ben Olsen working hard to keep the team from disintegrating in the locker room. It was the one thing MLS pundits could say for the Black-and-Red last season: They kept fighting, even as it was completely obvious that the cause was lost. That's not a small thing to pull off, and it doesn't take much reading between the lines to figure out that ownership's decision to give Olsen another chance was largely based on that subjective accomplishment.
However, it would be completely false to say that the most ardent Olsen fans were willing to accept another season of watching their side enthusiastically tilt at windmills. It's hard to say whether the club's decision-makers or the club's fans were giving Olsen the shorter leash at the time, but what was obvious to all was that United had to start the season well or a change was coming.
With all that in mind, the turnaround sounds almost too good to be true. United finished atop the Eastern Conference - and in third place overall - and ended up being the only American club to advance past the CONCACAF Champions League's group stage. Olsen was easily and deservedly named MLS's Coach of the Year. In 2012, the sense was that United simply got hot at the right time and rode that to the Eastern Conference final; this year, it appears that the framework is in place for last year's success to be something more than a one-off.
United finished the season with 59 points, a club record (note: it's not the best if we go points-per-game, as the 1998 team managed 58 points in 32 games, but that team was impossibly stacked in a far different era). Across all competitions, Olsen coached his team to a record of 22W-8D-11L and a +18 goal differential, though you may subtract one of those wins since he didn't travel to Panama for the 1-0 win over Tauro FC. In a league designed for every team to finish 10-11-10, that's a great year by pretty much any measure.
Olsen's successes aren't just illustrated by the standings. The combustible Fabian Espindola had a career-best season both in terms of tangible production and in terms of his importance to his side. The man-management challenge that is Eddie Johnson certainly didn't go well at the start, but EJ's second half of the season was actually quite strong and free of outbursts. The formerly erratic Luis Silva became a consistent threat in a new withdrawn forward role, combining with Espindola to create what is MLS's least conventional strike pairing.
It's not just success with his forwards, either. Olsen's faith in Taylor Kemp after a nightmarish game in Houston can be argued to have changed the young left back's entire career trajectory. A different coach may have given up on Kemp, who in that case would likely be trying to find himself a new club this offseason. Instead, he'll enter 2015 as a likely starter for a contender. Obviously plenty of that comes down to Kemp's own resilience, but it's hard to ignore that sort of backing - both the public statement and the decision to start him and not pursue trades - at what could have been rock bottom.
Olsen's faith in his players made a big difference elsewhere, too. Remember how Steve Birnbaum struggled in the preseason with getting pulled out of position? Olsen had enough trust in him to give him a starting role when Jeff Parke's unfortunate run of injuries began; Birnbaum ended the season as a candidate for Rookie of the Year while playing a position that requires the sort of smarts that come from experience.
There's also the Chris Rolfe angle. Rolfe came from Chicago and served as an instant catalyst for a team that needed one more attacking threat. Olsen played Rolfe in a left midfield role he hadn't been used in much on these shores, and the results were immediate (Rolfe scored on his debut).
There are also things like coping with the unexpected departure of Christian, or continuing to win games with Espindola missing two months injured. United became a better set piece team, which is as much a function of work on the practice field and in front of a video monitor as it is acquiring guys like Bobby Boswell and Davy Arnaud (who, let's not forget, played well in his first full season as a central midfielder).
This piece is about Ben Olsen, but it's also about the coaching staff as a whole. Chad Ashton was given credit for the early-season set piece that saw Arnaud score early against the Red Bulls. Preston Burpo surely played some significant role in Bill Hamid's leap into the top tier of MLS goalkeepers. The contributions of Enzo Concina and Amos Magee are harder to quantify, but it's hard to imagine that they weren't a big factor in the team's overall organization and cohesion. Those things don't just happen because United had smarter, more experienced players; much like a successful relationship, they require daily work and a real focus.
I may be speculating here, but I can't shake the suspicion that Olsen's trip last November to observe Borussia Mönchengladbach manager Lucien Favre was important as well. Olsen acknowledged that he had things to learn and worked at fixing it as fast as he could. Most people, after a season like 2013, would have wanted to take a long vacation. Olsen put his nose to the grindstone, trying to learn whatever he could from a guy with decades of experience at a higher level.
We can't say for sure what Olsen learned there, or what the new drills and thought processes that came in with Concina and Magee contributed, but there is circumstantial evidence that these things didn't just produce a more organized team. United suffered far fewer muscle strains than they have in past years, and those are the injuries that cutting-edge fitness trainers insist are down to proper methods and intelligently-planned training sessions that take into account the body's ability to recover and when more or less intensity is required. To put it plainly, I don't think it was an accident that United had one of the healthier rosters in MLS in 2014.
Tactically, people have their complaints about Olsen. Some of them are based on the recent idea that the 442 is hopelessly outdated (never mind that this same issue is never brought up when people talk about Bruce Arena or Sigi Schmid). Some people feel that United is an ultra-conservative team, which is occasionally true but is hardly the case week-in and week-out. Perhaps the least debatable issue would be United's overuse of the long ball, which may make defending more simple but also hurts United's possession game.
The counter to that is to look beyond how the formation looks on paper, which is always the wise thing to do. Olsen's 442 involves the aforementioned bizarre Espindola-Silva forward pairing. Espindola leads the line yet is also United's playmaker and has a pronounced tendency to drift from central positions out to the wing. Silva, meanwhile, is a converted playmaker who now picks his runs entirely based on where everyone else is going, and who often ends up manning the central channel despite not having the build for it. When Johnson isn't on the field, United deals with the lack of a traditional #9 by creating danger from other angles. Despite facing two forwards, opposing center backs often have no one to mark. It's unorthodox in MLS, but that's also a big factor in why it works.
It doesn't completely make up for United's admittedly less-than-thrilling overall approach, but it does make arguing that "Bennyball" is too simple much more difficult. Even when the supposedly traditional striker Johnson is on the field, he also tends to wander out wide. We also see Rolfe (or Chris Pontius) regularly cutting inside from the left, and Nick DeLeon's narrow play at right midfield ends up helping United's double pivot neutralize the three-man central midfields they usually come up against. You can argue that United should improve the aesthetics - particularly on the road - but the idea that this is a pedestrian team tactically is quite flimsy. First impressions go a long way, though, so that idea is going to continue until Olsen starts spouting about Bielsa or Zeman while also winning in the style of Ray Hudson's Miami Fusion sides.
I'm trying to avoid a hagiography here, so we should look at some things that weren't so great. United gave up six goals in the 90th minute or later, which was tied with KC for the worst mark in the league. More importantly, United lost five points in the standings thanks to those second half stoppage-time goals, which was the worst total in MLS. Was this about fitness? Focus? To me at least, it was a byproduct of United trying to cling to late leads by defending too deep more than it was mental lapses or a lack of stamina. While a coach can only do so much in those moments - shouting at your players to step their line up isn't the magic cure-all that Football Manager or FIFA have taught us they are - it's certainly not something that can be completely excused.
United was also a pretty lucky team, which I completely admit is as subjective as it gets. Still, it's worth noting that injuries to opposing players dismantled more than one team's tactical approach early in matches against DC this season. Teams inexplicably missed chances that, in most years, were buried. Shots hit the post or crossbar. United had four own goals in their favor in MLS this season. The Black-and-Red landed in what I regard as the weakest CCL group the competition has ever produced. Remember, the same kind of lineup that struggled badly against the Rochester Rhinos in the Open Cup (quick aside: United's one-and-done USOC is also a negative here) won uneventful games in CCL play.
Sure, good teams create the circumstances where lucky outcomes go their way, but there are plenty of good teams who didn't get the good fortune that they might have expected. Sometimes the soccer gods look in someone else's direction; this year, United was on their good side.
However, on the balance it's fair to say that Olsen took a roster that was not among MLS's top five on paper - maybe not even top seven or eight - and got just about everything he could out of it. This is why I felt he was MLS's best coach in 2014. MLS's cap structure means that it's hard to buy your way to success; in the end, the gap between the worst squad and the best squad is nowhere near as large as we see in European leagues. Any coach's job is to maximize the talent at his or her disposal, but in MLS that requirement is even more pronounced than normal. It's hard to argue that any coach in MLS could have taken United's 2014 roster further.
That's where I land, anyway, but you know by now what's next: