United’s Open Cup Title is Reward for Stability

Decision to keep Olsen pays off with championship
by Peter Muller   |   Friday, October 04, 2013

United Capitol – column on DC United (DCU) & the Washington DC/DMV area soccer scene.

D.C. United’s victory over Real Salt Lake in the U.S. Open Cup final was a well-deserved reward for a team that has struggled mightily in MLS play this season but was able to make a successful cup run while in the process of rebuilding for next year.

DCU manager Ben Olsen was able to focus his club on the opportunity to win a significant title while the players set aside the disappointment of the regular season and seized the chance before them.

The victory may not heal the wounds of their MLS campaign but it was a nice consolation award – one that includes prize money and the opportunity to compete in the CONCACAF Champions League.

A common refrain from players and coaches leading up to the game was that they had compartmentalized the Open Cup tournament and drew on their success in that competition rather than their failures in MLS.

They showed Tuesday night that despite being the “worst team in MLS” they have the ability to compete and win against top-of-the-division opponents and they earned the right to call themselves champions.

But credit also must go to United’s ownership group and front office for deciding during the worst stretch of the season, which included a 12-game winless streak, to keep faith with a besieged head coach and core group of players.

D.C. did make some changes mid-summer.  They jettisoned players who weren’t meeting expectations – including the Brazilian duo of Rafael and Rafael Augusto as well as defender Brandon McDonald.

That house cleaning might also have included getting rid of Olsen, who despite leading United to the Eastern Conference championship series last year is still a young coach with little experience and an overwhelmingly losing record.

But D.C. management likes Olsen’s marketability and popularity with the fans and recognized he possesses traits that could make him a very successful head coach. 

Yet in a sports world that demands instant results and has little patience for failure, the easy thing would have been to fire him and bring in someone with MLS head coaching experience.

Instead they did something that rarely happens in professional sports – they gave him time.  They recognized the regular season was a lost cause and devised a new plan focused on rebuilding around young American talent.

They saw that Olsen might be ideally suited to lead that talent – he seems to have a particular rapport with young American players.  And they included him in the development of the new strategy, one that he says he is fully on-board with.

In the short-term, at least, he has repaid that faith by delivering the 13th major trophy into United’s trophy case.

And beyond the Cup win there have been other signs that D.C. is slowly turning things in the right direction.

The crop of talented young American players that United brought in this summer – including Jared Jeffrey, Conor Doyle and Collin Martin – may still be raw but play with an enthusiasm that the squad lacked earlier in the season.

And United is healthier and fitter now than they were for most of the season.  Olsen has said one of the lessons he takes from this year is he did not prepare the team well enough physically in the pre-season. 

There is still a long way to go to determine whether the decisions to keep Olsen – and, if the rumors are correct, sign General Manager Dave Kasper to a contract extension – are the right ones for the long term.

D.C. needs to determine whether the young players they brought in this year will develop into dependable MLS-quality starters.

They need to perform better in the off-season, by bringing in the right kinds of players to enhance the squad and make the team a legitimate playoff contender next year.

And ultimately they will need to determine whether Olsen has the qualities that will make him a successful head coach on level of Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid or Jason Kreis.

The Open Cup trophy is a nice reward for an organization that has suffered through one of the most difficult years in its history yet made a decision to trust the people they have in place.

But United’s management hopes the real payoff will come a couple of years down the road – when their popular coach leads a competitive squad built around homegrown talent onto the field of a brand new, sold out stadium in Washington, DC.

NEXT UP: October 4 - DC United vs. Chicago Fire, RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C. 8 p.m. EST, NBC Sports Network.


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Peter is a government relations professional in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA. He has been a DC United season ticket holder since 1997 and has attended every MLS Cup except one – in 1998 when he was busy helping his boss get re-elected to Congress.