WASHINGTON – Ben Olsen called it a “circus.” For Steve Birnbaum, it was a “gut punch.”
With two red cards, one questionable penalty-kick decision for the game-winning goal, myriad heated flashpoints and one late-game rain shower to soak the whole thing, Wednesday’s 2-1 Atlantic Cup loss to the New York Red Bulls was full of drama, sound and fury.
Unfortunately for D.C. United, it also extended, and encapsulated, their prolonged summer swoon and further eroded what was once a comfortable position among the MLS Eastern Conference elite. It’s left the Black-and-Red in fifth place, with little to no margin for error as they enter the rugged home stretch – their next three games are road trips to Philadelphia (Saturday, 7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; DAZN in Canada), Montreal and Portland and they must visit RBNY on Sept. 29 – in a season that began with championship aspirations.
“It’s difficult now,” admitted winger Paul Arriola. “We’ve put ourselves in a situation a little bit lower in the Eastern Conference and now we face Philly [on Saturday], who’s obviously a good team. So we don’t have too much time to talk about what we should’ve done, what we could’ve done. Got to look forward to Philly now.”
Noted Birnbaum: “We have to snap out of it.”
D.C. were dominant for long stretches of the spring, looking the part of a top MLS Cup contender with both the attacking star power of Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta and a cohesive collective approach to possession and team shape. So what happened?
Birnbaum noted their propensity to fall behind early in matches, especially at home, a habit that contributed to dropped points in four home draws as well as the loss to the Red Bulls. Veteran reserve Quincy Amarikwa cited complacency.
“It’s a slow process that eats at you, especially when you start off so good at the beginning of the year. You can tend to get high on your own supply a little bit. And that’s part of the process,” said Amarikwa. “It’s a gut check, it can go one of two ways. It either goes spiraling down or you use that as fuel to catapult you forward.”
Rooney alluded to an inability to create and finish scoring chances with regularity.
“We need to refocus,” said the English superstar, whose second red card of the season left United shorthanded against RBNY. “Obviously three tough away games coming up, and we need some points from them games. I think if the lads show what they showed today with 10 men, we’ll be OK.
“For a lot of the games we’ve struggled to score goals or create the chances we want. So that’s something we need to try and improve rapidly going into this last run of games. it’s been frustrating for us all,” he added. “We’re in a tough spot at the moment in terms of, it’s tight now for the playoffs, very tight.”
Many on the outside looking in would expect a destabilizing effect from Rooney’s unexpected decision to return to England at year’s end to join Derby County, combined with uncertainty around Acosta, who is in the final months of his contract and could leave on a free transfer come winter.
“To be honest, I don’t think so,” said Arriola. “Losing key players is difficult, but it’s also part of the cycle of football and part of being a professional player – players come in and out. I think we came into the season with the right mindset, the right attitude, with the belief. We still have the belief – our focus right now is obviously getting ourselves together and pushing ourselves into a top spot into the Eastern Conference.”
With a clock ticking above the heads of his two most prominent attackers, Olsen faces the delicate task of getting the most out of Rooney and Acosta without compromising the group dynamic. Acosta has been left out of the starting XI in three straight matches, while Rooney has not scored or created a goal in D.C.'s last six games and has missed or exited early in three of them.
Olsen said that Rooney has “been business as usual” since his Derby County decision, though conceded that “some of these things are popping up” when asked about the combination of illness, ejection and personal time off that have limited the Designated Player’s impact during that span.
United’s long-serving head coach asserted, however, that his team’s trajectory can turn upward even more quickly than it declined.
“You can change the course of a season in a game,” said Olsen. “It can happen really quickly. So we go to Philadelphia and we try to win that game, and then we go to Montreal and we try to win that game and that’s how we dig ourselves out of this right now. Things, I don’t think, have gone our way, but that’s just talk. We’ve got to do it. We’ve got to figure out the best group, we’ve got to have guys make sure they show up each game and play at the level that they can. We’ve got to finish up plays. I think there’s a group in there that can do it. But it’s got to happen soon.”