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Tempers flare at D.C. United practice as losing streak marches on

Luciano Acosta walked away from practice after a disagreement with Steve Birnbaum

With D.C. United mired in a six game losing streak that seems to be getting worse with each successive game, practice on Tuesday morning was heated more than normal. There were several disagreements between teammates, and frustrations were audible throughout the practice session.

The most notable part of Tuesday’s practice was a disagreement between Steve Birnbaum and Luciano Acosta during a scrimmage. No harsh words were exchanged, but Acosta was frustrated enough that he abruptly walked away, leaving practice before it ended.

“We’ve lost a few in a row and I think frustration is pretty normal. I’d be a little bit frustrated if we weren’t frustrated,” head coach Ben Olsen said after practice. “Everybody goes about it in different ways, and that’s where the manager comes into play. I think [Acosta] be okay.”

In the grand scheme of the team, the moment likely won’t mean much. Acosta and Birnbaum will in all likelihood take the field on Saturday against Toronto FC, and will get on as if nothing had happened. But as the team winds down what has become a lost season, the rising tension on the practice field is a sign of how 2017 has played out thus far for United.

But even though there will continue to be disagreements, it’s not necessarily a bad sign.

“The frustration, we got to try to not take it out on each other,” winger Lloyd Sam said after practice. “Sometimes it's good to have the hard conversations, and have some fiery moments with each other first. And then get together, and take it out on the other team.”

For United though, that’s been tough of late. Losses to end June and start July weren’t all that unexpected, even after the Black-and-Red’s win over Atlanta United. Philadelphia Union have always been a tough out for United, as have the Montreal Impact. And a 4-2 loss on the road to one of the best teams in league, FC Dallas, wouldn’t have been out of line for a team destined for the playoffs.

Since then though, United’s season has crumbled, as they came out of the Gold Cup break poorly. They threw away a three goal advantage against the Seattle Sounders, the first time ever in league history that a team winning by three lost a game in 90 minutes. That was followed up by a flat performance at home against a weakened Houston Dynamo team. And on Saturday, United were outclassed by Minnesota United, a tough pill given that the Loons just one point ahead of the last place Black-and-Red.

Put that all together, and it’s really no surprise that some tempers are starting to flare, even in front of media at an open practice.

“Agitation is going to be part of this. It’s not a fun time. I’m not going to sugarcoat that,” said Olsen. “But again I get back to, who are you? How do you respond in these moments? Not only for the now, but in life. Stuff isn’t always going to go the way you planned it.”

“It’s been tough going,” Olsen added. “But what do we do about it? What’s our response? And that’s what I’m looking for out of these guys and myself and the staff. Do we sit around and point fingers? Do we start feeling sorry for ourselves? Or do we respond? Claw, fight, scrap and do everything, and everybody show up on game day and everybody show up on training.”

In addition to the play on the field, another source of frustration right now for United has been the lack of movement during this current transfer window. With just over a week remaining, United have still yet to bring in a player, with Alhaji Kamara and Jose Ortiz let go. Deshorn Brown has shown promise having signed just before the opening of the window, but the team clearly is need of help all over the field.

Rumors popped up this weekend that United were in talks with Nigel de Jong, and interested in also acquiring Krisztian Nemeth and Marcus Olsson. Those potential signings have drawn mixed reactions, but the fact remains that United, desperate for help this season and for future seasons, needs help quickly. Olsen wouldn’t comment about specific targets, but reiterated that team is still hard at work trying to improve the squad.

“I’m not going to get into too much specifics on it,” said Olsen. “All I can say is it’s constant, it’s fluid. We’re trying to make this team better both in the short term and the long term.”

“You guys aren’t on the inside of this stuff, it’s fluid, right?” added Olsen. “There’s a lot going on. You put a lot of effort and focus into one and then it doesn’t always happen. And then the next one. What I would say is we’re working very hard to improve this team right now, with the short term and the long term in mind.”

For now, it looks like United will face Toronto this weekend with the same group of players that have been available the past couple of weeks. But now that a trip to the playoffs are unlikely, the team might be feeling less pressure, which could help them against one of MLS’s best teams.

“Everyone has written us off now. Which takes the pressure off,” said Sam to a question asked by B&RU. “It should allow you to go out there and express yourself. We got to hope that’s the way things go. We don’t have too much pressure on us.”

As for what helps the team going during these tough times? For Sam, it’s the fans, that continue to support the team, no matter how poorly the results are on the field.

“As long as our fans are coming, we aren’t going to give up on any game,” he said after practice. “They’ve been amazing. They are still out there singing. As long as they’re still coming, we’re still going out and try to win every game. So credit to them. They keep singing for us.”