HARRISON, N.J. – The vast majority of D.C. United fans probably aren’t mashing down on the panic button just yet.
But a few of them might be dusting it off.
It’s a strange thing to say about a first-place team, one that – until very recently – has been among MLS’ most consistent sides all year. But a three-game losing streak, matches where United simply never looked particularly competitive, have players, coaches and fans alike more than a bit worried.
The latest of those results – Sunday evening’s 3-0 drubbing at the hands of the archrival New York Red Bulls – was a particularly painful result for a United side that had looked to use the encounter to put a little breathing room between themselves and second-place New York; instead, D.C. find themselves sporting a mere two-point lead – and Red Bull have three games in hand.
“100 percent [we’re worried,” said United attacker Chris Rolfe. "How could you not be?”
Though he expressed confidence in his teammates and suggested that a turnaround is still a possibility, Rolfe made no bones about the club’s current state of affairs.
“It’s gut check time,” he said. “It’s time to figure out whether we really want this or if we don’t."
United have had lapses on both sides of the ball throughout their recent slide; defensive breakdowns have cost them goals in all three matches, while a lack of possession and an inability to convert the few chances they’ve created have kept them off the scoresheet almost entirely.
On Sunday, a trio of errors led to three Red Bull goals. An uncharacteristically poor giveaway by normally steady center back Bobby Boswell cost United their first; Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips rounded United center back Steven Birnbaum for the second; veteran fullback Sean Franklin barely kept Wright-Phillips onside for RBNY’s third. After the match, Olsen was less focused on those individual shortcomings, putting much of the blame on himself.
“This isn’t about a player,” Olsen told MLSsoccer.com. “This is a group effort, and I’ll take the large amount of blame for this loss. That’s OK. I think that I thought I prepared them better than I did. Again, I’ll take this one.”
Olsen also heaped a bit of praise on New York, whom he called – right now – “the gold standard in the East,” a sentiment mirrored by Franklin.
"It’s frustrating, you know,” said Franklin. "Give credit to them, they wanted the game more and they showed it. They looked like a team that wants to win the East and make a run at the Supporters’ Shield and we just didn’t have it tonight."
The international break comes at a fortunate time for United, who might be able to use their week off to regroup and collect themselves before making a final push towards the playoffs. Though virtually assured a berth of some kind, D.C. are keenly aware that they’d do well to ramp up their from entering the postseason, something mentioned by more than one player in a hushed postgame locker room.
“Hopefully the guys can get away and clear their minds one last time before this big stretch going into the playoffs,” said Rolfe. "Hopefully we’re professional enough to take advantage of it the right way, and we come back pissed off and ready to go.”
"We need to get back to just being sharp and not giving up goals and eventually we’ll get some chances,” added Franklin. “There’s not a lot of room for error. We have six games left and this is the time we need to be thinking about going into a little win streak. We need to figure it out quickly.
"The panic button isn’t pressed yet, but we know what we have to do to finish out this season."