Trying Times For DC United

Poor start to season, fading stadium plans are cause for concern
by Peter Muller   |   Wednesday, March 26, 2014

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

Two games into the 2014 season and with the city’s mayoral election around the corner, D.C. United fans should be excused if they seem particularly on edge. 

On the field, United is scoreless in 2 games and looks distressingly like the team that recorded its worst season in franchise history last year. Off the field, hopes for a new stadium seem to be fading and team’s best bet hinges on a soon-to-be-indicted mayor who is likely to lose his job next week. 

Despite an offseason rebuilding effort that filled the squad with experienced MLS veterans the first games of the season have provided scant evidence of any sign of improvement.

An opening day defeat to a rejuvenated Columbus Crew contained all the hallmarks of 2013 – the failure to create a sustained attack, a porous backline and unfortunate luck on a questionable penalty call.

By contrast, a similarly rebuilt Columbus team under new manager Gregg Berhalter looked in mid-season form and thoroughly dominated United.

There were small indications of progress over the weekend in Toronto. The game was played on a field DCU manager Ben Olsen described as “as bad as I’ve ever seen in the MLS” yet United showed marked improvement on the ball and maintained the majority of possession. 

Defensively United handled the potent Toronto attack well and limited the hosts to a single goal by Jermain Defoe, although on another day he might have scored three.

“When I look back I think we will see that we really took some steps forward,” said Olsen.  “We didn’t struggle.”

But Olsen made similar comments throughout last season and after 2 losses and 180 minutes of soccer without scoring a familiar pattern is emerging.

Even when United holds the ball for long periods of time their attacking players can’t seem to get the ball into threatening positions.

Eddie Johnson has been a non-factor thus far and while Fabian Espindola is good with the ball but hasn’t been able to create meaningful chances.

With Chris Pontius out indefinitely due to injury D.C. has partnered Davy Arnaud with Nick DeLeon on the wings, to little effect.

Without the ability to score goals United becomes susceptible to any defensive breakdown, such as Bobby Boswell’s imperfect clearance in Toronto that led to Defoe’s deciding goal.

With all of the offseason changes United deserves some time to find its form. But the next 3 weeks could go a long way to determine the franchise’s future both on and off the field.

United has 3 successive home games against fellow strugglers Chicago Fire, New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls.  If United doesn’t take at least 4 points from those games and demonstrate an ability to score goals Olsen’s job may be in real jeopardy.

Job status of a mayor

Another person whose job status has an impact on United is D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.  Gray has been the strongest proponent for a new stadium for D.C. United and backs a plan to swap city property with private developers to provide the club an area upon which to build the stadium. 

The problem for Gray is he appears to be the main target of a public corruption investigation that has already seen 8 people admit guilt, including a local businessman who directly tied the mayor to illegal campaign practices.

While the investigation continues, the city’s mayoral primary is next Tuesday.  A handful of city council members are challenging Gray for his job and a poll released Tuesday by The Washington Post shows Councilwoman Muriel Bowser with a slight lead over the incumbent.

Unfortunately for United, Bowser has raised serious concerns about the proposed stadium deal and questioned whether the city should contribute to supporting a stadium when there are more pressing matters to be addressed.  A handful of other city council members are also running for mayor and all seem opposed – or reluctant to support – the deal as currently envisioned.

Even if the mayor should pull out a victory next week United’s stadium prospects seem bleak.  Not only does the mayor face the likelihood of indictment but he also will have a significant challenger in the November general election, Councilman David Catania.  In addition, the mayor’s credibility has been so damaged by the investigation that he is in a weak position to convince a skeptical city council that his stadium plan makes sense.

A win or 2 in the next couple of weeks will provide some solace for United’s supporters and the election results may bring some clarity to the stadium situation.  But, in the meantime, D.C. United fans have reason to be concerned.

NEXT UP: March 29 - DC United vs. Chicago Fire, RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C. 4 p.m. ET, 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.