DC United Left Behind in New MLS

Wednesday, August 04, 2010 | View Comments
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - APRIL 26: Ben Olsen #14 of the D.C United reacts against the New York Red Bulls at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands on April 26, 2009 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  D.C United defeated the Red Bulls 3-2.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bull)

The biggest MLS news of the day is the dismissal of Curt Onalfo, on the job for just eight months, as head coach of DC United. Taking his place on an interim basis will be United legend Ben Olsen, an assistant with the team since ending his playing career last year.

The winds of change are blowing in DC, though some United fans will tell you they're either not blowing hard enough or are blowing in the wrong direction.

Olsen's appointment smacks of temporary fan-sating. The team has been poor all season, one of their most important players is out injured, the club will be forced to eat Onalfo's salary for two more years, and the new man in charge is a fan-favorite from his playing days with zero head coaching experience. Onalfo was sacrificed to gain some goodwill with an understandably frustrated fan base. Whether Olsen's appointment has any actual on-field effect is almost inconsequential. For all intents and purposes, United is playing out the string on a lost season.

This "new" MLS, one in which stadiums are in-place, going up or getting funded, pricey name players are signing up, and organizational consistency and excellent scouting are crucial for budget-conscious owners, has somehow left the league's original preeminent franchise behind. United's situation is troubling on nearly every front, from their last place standing this season and club-crippling stadium situation to missteps in the front office and lack of accountability on almost every issue. As an admittedly partial observer yet far from die-hard fan, I'm left to simply shake my head at what United has become and might yet face. Make no mistake: Eveything is interconnected.

MLS is not yet, and may not be for many years, a league in which the biggest markets are set up to dominate. But a path to that possibility is emerging, and with United unable to pull off Columbus or Real Salt Lake-like success (meaning smart player acquisition coupled with solid coaching on a middling budget), the future won't be any easier. RFK-as-albatross should not be an excuse for losing, but it is undoubtedly a factor. The more fans that stop showing up because the club is not winning, the more the financial burden of RFK weighs on owner Will Chang; United has amazing fans that set standards for support in the league's early history, but even they can't be expected to spend money on a terrible product presented in a terrible venue forever. With no stadium news other than worrying whispers of Baltimore interest, the club's biggest rival in a glimmering new venue with talent to match, and future prospects of the four-time MLS champions less-than-encouraging, it's a credit to United's fans that attendance has remained respectable.

The lack of stadium movement must make the failures on the field that much more difficult to bear for fans of a proud franchise. Stadium uncertainty and the possibility of relocation (to Baltimore or elsewhere) is a black cloud hanging over everything United does; excitement from a return to the playoffs and a deep run back to respectability would help, but would still be muted by the reality that DC United might not be DC United for very long. Even if a move isn't on the horizon quite yet, every year spent in RFK will simply reinforce United's place as a second-class MLS franchise. Almost every other club is moving forward, already has a comfortable situation, or benefits from relationships that keep costs down. Intransigent local government, an easy scapegoat but certainly a major player in where United sits today, has effectively crippled the organization.

All is not lost, of course. This is MLS, where season-to-season turnarounds are possible, where half the league makes the playoffs with a shot at the title, and where a few key acquisitions can make a massive difference. Olsen might turn the club around in the second half, and 2011 could be much better. Attendance could rise again, helping to offset losses the club continues to take from the rent on RFK. The depths of despair in this league are less-deep than they might be in a competition with no salary cap, and parity is a saving grace. But even a bit of on-field success doesn't change the reality that DC United is being left behind by a rapidly changing league. It's almost impossible to see a return to prominence for DC United from where we stand today.

United's last major success, the Supporters Shield in 2007, is not that far in the past. The club's last MLS Cup title was only six years ago. But with MLS changing dramatically from year to year in the post-DP Rule and SSS world, those glories might as well be ancient history.

Ben Olsen is a link to that history, and perhaps he can squeeze some positives out of 2010. At this point, that possibility is just about all United fans have to hold on to.

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