D.C. fighting too many fires under Olsen, current ownership to truly grow
Sometimes a draw can feel like a loss. And sometimes a loss can feel like it goes deeper than the events of the day or a short-term run of form; instead, it says something more essential, more fundamental, about a team and its problems.
The back-to-back defeats D.C. United have just endured have that feel. The confidence-crushing loss to Seattle, after leading 3-0, might have ostensibly followed a very different pattern than the punch to the nose Houston delivered with three goals in the first 17 minutes this past weekend, but both seemed emblematic of something that has seemed true about this D.C. team for years now: This is a team that always seems to be battling the run of play. Even when they're doing well, it looks like hard work, and setbacks feel like a return to the mean rather than a blip in steady improvement.
Ben Olsen is a battler, of course; as in his playing life, his coaching style seems to derive a certain pleasure in fighting past opponents, even when overmatched. It's all conspicuous effort and honest endeavor with Olsen and his teams, but even a run of good form can make them an odd team in that they always look to be punching above their weight.
Of late, of course, that's been true. The overarching narrative of the Olsen years has been the club's prioritizing of a stadium project over player acquisitions, and when Olsen's club legend status began to be tarnished by results, that became a frequent reference point for his defenders.
Without investment in the roster, ran the argument, what did detractors expect? By this logic, Olsen works regular miracles just to have a competitive team at all. In finding residual worth in MLS veterans, putting rookies straight into positions of responsibility and just generally surfing the allocation mechanisms of MLS -- as he did in the worst-to-first sequence of the 2013 and 2014 seasons -- Olsen knows how to find value. And with capital funds set aside for the stadium, he has had to.
In return, there seems to have been a consensus within club ownership that if he manages within those parameters and doesn't complain, Olsen will get the opportunity to lead the team into the new stadium, effectively making him unsackable while that project -- and by default the team itself -- remain in development limbo.
But the long wait for the stadium process to resolve its way through the exhaustive D.C. political process has taken its toll, and throughout the past year or so, what might once have been seen as an honorable agreement has begun to look like a cynical one. The holding pattern the organization as a whole is in seems reflected not only in the personnel available to the coach, but the limited use he makes of them.
It's a commonplace among successful chief executives that seven years is considered the maximum time a boss should stay with a company before one starts to experience diminishing returns in his or her personal effectiveness. And that's in the corporate world rather than the hyper-accelerated culture of soccer management.
Olsen has been at D.C. for seven years, and whatever asterisks you want to mark against that time to allow for constrained circumstances, coaches with that degree of longevity are generally judged by tougher standards than their peers. They don't necessarily have to have win trophies, but they are expected to be models of stability or thrift, and at least consistent competitiveness (think David Moyes-era Everton).
D.C., under the current ownership and at times under Olsen, has spent too much time fire-fighting to thrive, and that's an exhausting state to be in.
And then games like Seattle happen. Trying to see out a comfortable win on the road, having somehow kick-started its struggling offense, D.C. was hit by a quick goal shortly after taking a 3-0 lead and instantly began to look brittle. The resultant 4-3 loss was still remarkable (and unprecedented in league history), but the team's collective implosion was less of a surprise than the scale of the turnaround.
The Houston game might even have been the more damning one. Facing a team winless on the road this year, and with a hollowed-out attack courtesy of the Gold Cup, D.C. had every chance to regroup, take the Seattle loss as a learning experience and get a stabilizing result. Instead, it blew the game in the opening quarter of an hour and dropped to a sixth straight loss.
Olsen's teams have been in worse positions than this and somehow salvaged something from their season, even if it was an early playoff elimination, such as last year's battering by Montreal.
The point is they can't consistently be retrieving seasons and calling it progress. And more worryingly, the organization seems to have been in a provisional state for so long at this point, there seems to be little institutional memory of what progress actually is. Clearly in this case, sacking the manager would do very little. The club could replace Olsen, but would it know how to?
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.