D.C. head coach Ben Olsen, you may have heard, is officially on the hot seat – a “scalding-hot seat,” to use the precise phrasing of an anonymous D.C. United source quoted by The Washington Post’s Steve Goff in a piece that ran over the weekend.
I use “officially” not because the club made an announcement (they didn’t), but because a high-ranking official offering such a specific choice of words to the local major daily is about as close as it gets to full confirmation that a coach’s job is on the line.
It now seems clear: After more than a decade at the helm, United’s longtime midfield heart and soul must lift his last-place team out of the doldrums over the next six weeks or there is a chance he's replaced. According to the reports, even reaching the playoffs won't be enough for the second-longest-tenured head coach in MLS.
“There's no playbook for dealing with the emotional toll of a season like this,” Olsen told reporters on Thursday. "Not only the season and the results are traditionally emotional, but then yet you still have the backdrop of the world that we're in right now outside of the game. So I do the best I can with making sure they understand that there's 27 points left and we're four points out of a playoff spot ... the mentality of the group is one that we get back to work and we keep chipping away until things turn for the better. So I don't feel like it's a locker room ready to turn on each other or point fingers.”
His current contract runs through next season and reportedly assures him of a different role within the club in the meantime should he be removed from the head coaching post. That, though, might be just as bitter a pill to swallow as an outright firing for the ferociously driven D.C. lifer.
What's gone wrong in 2020
Things aren't great for the capital club lately. D.C. now sit rock-bottom in the overall league standings with a 2W-7L-5D record. Most Black-and-Red fans are aggravated by the club’s backslide since Wayne Rooney’s early exit was confirmed last summer and patience is wearing thin for a coach who was once their most beloved idol on the pitch.
Still, the timing of this week’s sort-of-ultimatum has raised eyebrows. Because less than two weeks prior, an unnamed United source of seemingly comparable placement and knowledge told Goff that “barring endless embarrassing defeats,” Olsen’s spot was safe for the time being.
Though they’ve lost two more matches since then, the underlying conditions haven’t changed all that much. United remain viciously injury-plagued; their two Designated Players Paul Arriola (6g/2a in 29 appearances last year; DNP in 2020) and Edison Flores (0g/0a in 6 games/375 minutes) have missed much of the season, and myriad others’ availability has been drastically curtailed:
When fit, Flores hasn’t shown much of the quality that led D.C. to make him their club-record transfer in a deal with Morelia over the winter. Much the same can be said of other acquisitions like Julian Gressel, Yamil Asad and Erik Sorga. Olsen has shifted through several different formations and combinations to unlock the code, to limited avail. Gut-punch ACL tears for both Arriola and midfield linchpin Felipe robbed the squad of personality and leadership, and everyone's training time has been impacted by the District's stringent COVID-19 restrictions.
Hampered by multiple soft-tissue injuries, Ola Kamara’s productivity slackened. The Steven Birnbaum-Fred Brillant center-back pair slipped from two years of dominance and consistency as the former missed time with an ankle knock. Bill Hamid’s goals-against average has climbed as his save percentage dipped; personal reasons sidelined him for four matches. A homegrown movement is underway via Moses Nyeman, Kevin Paredes, Donovan Pines and Griffin Yow, though it could take another year or more to truly take root.
No one has come close to replacing the creativity and class of the “LuchoRoo” partnership Rooney struck up with Lucho Acosta over their 18 months together. The team's output ebbed from 1.24 goals per game in 2019 to 0.78 in 2020. United have grown goal-shy to the point that their expected goals numbers match their place in the standings, as they compete with FC Cincinnati for the attacking equivalent of the Wooden Spoon. Only Vancouver (116) have taken fewer shots than D.C. (118).
Some context here: Over the years Olsen has shown a penchant for parking the bus when United hit the skids, seeking to firm up the foundation before addressing other areas. This season's version peaked with a scoreless home draw vs. NYCFC on Sept. 6 in which D.C. conceded 70% of possession and took nary a shot nor corner kick. This conservatism can stop the bleeding; it also tends to make the Black-and-Red a less appealing entertainment product, which cannot have escaped the notice of an ownership group keen to keep Audi Field (a major investment which opened just two years ago) full whenever fans are finally permitted to return.
The club's current predicament also draws scrutiny to the roster-building of GM Dave Kasper, who took over the role in 2007 and has worked side by side with Olsen since the latter assumed the coaching reins in the middle of the 2010 season. Though Olsen and Kasper might point to the club's modest salary outlays: Rooney held the only million-dollar wage D.C. have carried on their books in recent years, according to MLS Players Association documents.
What comes next
It’s tempting to deconstruct this apparent sudden shift in urgency from club leadership, to wonder what really changed in the 11 days between “barring endless embarrassing defeats” and “scalding-hot seat.” Setting postseason qualification (and possibly even a win once they get there, to boot) as a perceived target for the coach’s survival is a bit arbitrary, and risks ignoring the long, hard years of service Olsen contributed during the club’s darkest days. The responsibility is also a shared one with the club's other decision makers.
The problems facing Olsen and United are not new. And they point to a bigger question, one that may still be tricky to answer for all parties. What kind of club do D.C. really want to be in 2021 and beyond? A rugged crew of grinders and gamers? A "Play Your Kids" club powered by their academy? A more open and explosive attacking dynamo like the glory years of old, with the augmented investment that implies?
“We understand how quickly things can change. A win or two changes the course of the season and the standings in MLS change very quickly,” Olsen said on Thursday. “It's a fine balance, because there has to be urgency behind that, there has to be understanding that it's not doom and gloom and there's a lot of games left and we’re not far out of a playoff spot, especially with the new rules and the new format. ... We can sit here and say hey, we have seven, eight guys that are injured, that are starters, but that's not going to do us any good right now.”
Olsen may very well succeed in rallying his squad to make a final push into the 2020 postseason over their nine remaining games. Either way, it seems that D.C. United could be in for an eventful next few months and co-chairmen Steven Kaplan and Jason Levien will have a big say in deciding what happens next.