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Despite abysmal season, DC United's Ben Olsen calls 2013 "better than last year" after Open Cup title

WASHINGTON – As the first wave of D.C. United players made their way from the training grounds near RFK Stadium to the basement of the old concrete structure on Thursday, an unfamiliar sound boomed off the white cinder block walls in the hallway that leads to the home locker room.

Laughter.

Two days after winning the 2013 US Open Cup championship with a gritty 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake, United are still riding the high of the joy and sense of accomplishment during an otherwise turbulent and miserable campaign.

“It’s tough to get the smiles off the guys,” United coach Ben Olsen told reporters. “And that’s a good thing, but it’s also a little challenging when you’re trying to go after a game tomorrow [vs. Chicago] that we’re taking very seriously.

“It’s a better year than last year, somehow, ironically. We didn’t have a trophy last year. We didn’t get one. And last time I checked, that’s what this is about.”

And so it is that in one of the more unique occurrences in club history, United’s four wins in Open Cup play – compared to three during the MLS slate – have led Olsen to label this season better than a year when his club reached the Eastern Conference Championship. All because of trophy No. 13.

“I’m under no illusions of who we are and what we need to do going forward, that we need to get better and improve this group,” Olsen said. “But we got a championship this year and we didn’t get one last year. It’s important [the players] understand that this is a great accomplishment by this club.”

United’s four remaining MLS matches all come against teams currently in or on the fringe of making the postseason, beginning Friday against Chicago at RFK (8 pm ET, NBCSN).

“We’d like to continue with the energy that’s in the building right now,” Olsen said. “You combine that with the hangover, if you will, of winning a big game and trying to balance that for tomorrow and it’s going to be interesting. I hope the guys that do get opportunities understand that we’re still in last place and they’re still playing for jobs and for opportunities for next year.”

One thing United will attempt to do Friday is snap their eight-match losing skid and establish positive momentum heading into what’s expected to be a busy offseason. Olsen cited his club’s recent inability to string together favorable results as something that needs fixing as United continue to look toward the future.

“After consecutive wins in a row, that’s always been tough in the last four or five years – that mentality, of bringing it every day,” Olsen said. “We know we can bring it on any given day, but can you sustain that concentration and commitment that we need?

“And now we have this huge high. How do we respond? That’s what we’re preaching right now and we’ll see which guys understand that this is what it’s about.”

Nick Cammarota covers D.C. United for MLSsoccer.com.