Ben Olsen: DC United are "fragile" and "not very good" right now as losses pile up

Ben Olsen - D.C. United - tough look

Addressing the media after D.C. United’s 4-0 loss Saturday night against Atlanta United – the club’s third straight defeat, no less – there was a palpable sense of emotion from head coach Ben Olsen.

It was the club’s largest margin of defeat during the 2020 season, leaving them rooted in the league table’s basement. It also included a Frederic Brillant red card in the 85th minute and a bizarre sequence just after halftime where Russell Canouse was forced to leave the match minutes after initially entering as an illegal substitute (wasn’t on the matchday roster).

The operative word? Fragile.

“We're fragile, we're a fragile group emotionally right now and we are, from a soccer standpoint, not very good either,” Olsen said matter-of-factly. “So it's a bad combination. What we can do right now is be a better defensive group and be tougher to play against tonight, and we can stay together. I've been down this road once or twice before in my 10 years. It's not an easy thing to get out of, but it's possible.”

D.C. have now lost three straight and are winless in six, though they end the night just six points out of the Eastern Conference’s final Audi MLS Cup Playoff spot. The East’s top 10 teams all make the postseason this year, an expanded field that was developed after schedule imbalance amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet Olsen is reportedly on the “scalding-hot seat,” according to a Steven Goff article in The Washington Post. A result like this might add pressure, even if Olsen looks forward with rays of optimism, placing part of the blame on his shoulders. 

“We need to start acting and playing in a better way, both sides of the ball, being mentally tougher, being more combative and just frankly have more quality, and of course better coaching,” Olsen said. “That's always part of this, so it's on the staff as well and myself to put the right group out there. We're doing a lot of changing, whether it's personnel through injuries, a lot of structure changing.” 

HIGHLIGHTS: D.C. dominated by Atlanta

Veteran center back Steve Birnbaum also addressed D.C.’s mindset, calling it one of the worst losses he’s been a part of. He described a snowball effect of sorts, where an early goal like Jon Gallagher’s 4th-minute strike is compounded by how they’ve scored just 11 times in 15 matches.

“If you look at our past games, I think we’re mentally a little soft in that way because we’re not scoring a ton of goals,” Birnbaum said. “So we feel as if it seems like if we get a goal scored on us it’s tough because goals aren’t flowing for us right now. We’re struggling to score and obviously tonight we were struggling to defend, but I think it takes a toll on us as a group when we can’t score a ton of goals and one goes in and then we’re chasing the game – and it’s already tough in the beginning if we haven’t scored a ton.”

So where does D.C. go from here? They’ll have a quick turnaround when traveling to face New York City FC on Wednesday, and Olsen knows which direction needs to emerge (8 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada).

“It's been not the easiest year for the guys,” Olsen said, “but I'm confident that they will stick together and we'll lick our wounds and try not to feel sorry for ourselves and get back out there and try to change course here."