Is D.C. United's 'Bennyball' coming good again in time for the playoffs?
It might be their finest act of game management yet this season; as we head into Decision Day on Sunday afternoon, D.C. United hold their playoff fate in their own hands.
After weeks of what looked like free-fall and teams around them gaining momentum for the run-in, the one-time Eastern Conference runaway leaders are in second place in the East going into the final day. Once again D.C. is threatening to leave a clutch of puzzled competitors wondering how they were beaten.
If that pattern sounds familiar, it's been the story of the season with D.C. and its brand of soccer under Ben Olsen -- a style more or less affectionately known as Bennyball. This year, it has involved staying in tight games, often with the help of goalkeeping heroics from Bill Hamid, and finding ways to score against opponents whose own growing confidence in those games often proves fatal to them.
United are not always pretty to watch -- during All-Star week, one pundit congratulated them on being at the top of the East "without playing a single minute of watchable soccer" -- but over the course of the season they've proved nearly impossible to shake. And now, with a couple of timely wins to end a winless streak that began in early August, the team looks to have come good again.
It'll make for a fascinating clash of styles Sunday when they visit Columbus Crew SC. The Crew, with the formidable scoring prowess of Kei Kamara and the creativity of Federico Higuain, have needed every bit of that potency as they've leaked goals at the other end. On the other side, United have occasionally looked like they wouldn't score if they played all day, and yet have often come out with all three points.
And while injuries and fatigue seemed to have stalled their momentum in midsummer through early fall, it's pretty appropriate that just as the likes of Toronto and Columbus were penciling in first-round byes for themselves, that D.C. should have reappeared on the inside track to remind the others where its earlier cushion of points came from.
If United goes on a deep run in the playoffs, they may look at the past 20 minutes of their home game against New York City FC as the point where the institutional memory kicked in. Three weeks ago, NYCFC came to town on an unfamiliar winning streak and did what teams were making a habit of doing at that moment: scoring early against D.C.
In fact, Frank Lampard's first-minute goal was the third time D.C. had allowed a goal at home in its previous five home games. Had the result held, D.C. could very well have gone into this weekend just hoping for the least worst scenario for a single-game playoff. Instead, Fabian Espindola scored an equalizer with 20 minutes to go, then his former Real Salt Lake colleague Alvaro Saborio drilled the winner in injury-time to send D.C. into the international break on a high.
When United emerged, they ran over Chicago Fire for a 4-0 victory that leaves them in second in the East, a point clear of Columbus going into Sunday's game. A draw might be enough to keep them there if Montreal and Toronto cancel each other out in the other key playoff game Sunday.
Whatever happens, expect supporters to keep the faith. Speaking with Kim Kolb this week, the communications director of the Screaming Eagles, United's support club, it was pretty apparent how far the fans are prepared to indulge Olsen:
"Everyone still loves Benny," he said. "Even when he misfires, he gets a pass from fans because they know he's working hard and his intentions are good. Much like when he was a player."
Kolb is also appreciative of the team's style, pointing out that while it is true that D.C. "don't dominate a game like LA, or the [New York] Red Bulls, where those teams can really force and dictate play," it's also true that "United can control the opposition, limit their chances and transition into their attack."
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Lest that make it sound like every game's an away game, Kolb also believes that the identity of the team allows for entertainment, too.
"Bennyball is the perfect reflection of Ben Olsen," Kolb said. "Hard-working, total effort, with just a little bit of flash. When all of the players buy into this, Bennyball can be fun to watch, because it gives a lot of space for the attackers to use. It also helps that the attacking corps can be flexible as [Chris] Rolfe, [Chris] Pontius, [Nick] DeLeon and Espindola frequently float, change and react to [one another]."
If that still sounds like a recipe for being indistinct up front, that's hardly a new complaint about D.C. teams. In fact, many of the complaints, and perhaps misunderstandings, about the team's style stem from recent seasons under Olsen when the side never found a reliable spearhead for the attack.
Enter Saborio, the center-forward D.C. never seemed to have until this year, and now looking to hit one of his scoring streaks at just the right time. He's not quite fully meshed with the D.C. setup yet, but has been scoring goals regardless, and with Espindola also hitting one of his own streaks, D.C. have more dangerous angles toward goal.
Not that Saborio is a standalone solution. If the recent slump showed anything, it was that D.C. needed to trust its ability to move the ball through midfield to cause damage. Kolb noted that that period was marked by an element of hit and hope; "seemingly everyone tried to help out the offense merely by hitting the ball deep to Espindola, Rolfe or Saborio and totally foregoing the idea of building through midfield."
Against Chicago, admittedly the league's wooden spoon, the lesson appeared to have been absorbed. The team looked more fluid again and there were boosts all over the field, from Saborio scoring to Pontius breaking the deadlock with an opportunistic run and finish that reminded observers of his predatory pre-injury self. Add in a goal and an assist from Espindola and a reminder from Bobby Boswell about his heading ability from set pieces, and D.C. will have plenty of potential questions for Columbus on Sunday.
Beyond that, it'll be interesting to watch how Olsen handles the offseason. The technical side of the organization appears to be in a little bit of a holding pattern until the long-mooted new stadium becomes a revenue stream reality. And the definite perception among neutral observers is that some of the veterans in the side are reaching a plateau.
Last year a defiant Olsen addressed media after the playoff elimination to the Red Bulls and suggested there was plenty of life in his team. Whether he's saying the same, and at what stage he's saying it, after this year's campaign will be an intriguing storyline for the winter months.
Not that there'll be panic either way. Olsen has proven adept at picking his way through triumph and disaster, often in close proximity, without believing that either tells the whole story.
In 2013, a historically poor regular season still yielded a surprise U.S. Open Cup, and less remarked upon, offered an opportunity to blood a number of young players who would help win the Eastern Conference the following season. This year, they've neither been as dominant as the early-season standings suggested, or as poor as the results since August have indicated, but they've consistently remained in contention.
Now, heading into the final day of the regular season, second in the East, their fate is in their own hands.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.