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Photo: Courtesy of D.C. United

Ben Olsen Still Kicking As D.C. United Head Coach

When Ben Olsen hung up his cleats in 2009, the famed D.C. United midfielder figured his 24-year relationship with soccer had ended. After college ball at the University of Virginia and an entire Major League Soccer career with D.C. United, Olsen hadn’t yet considered a coaching career as a way to deepen his relationship with the sport he gave his life to. Despite his hesitation to man the sidelines, he joined the team in 2010 as an assistant coach. Just a few months later, after a poor start to the season, the team installed him as head coach. 

“It was a strange way to get a head coaching job,” Olsen says. “In some ways, it was my first job. I was swimming for a couple years. Going from [being] a player, that doesn’t prep you to be a coach. Of course, you get knowledge about how you want the game to be played, but you’re not prepped to manage and deal with a group of 30 men and their emotions.”

Fast forward to today, Olsen is still leading the D.C. United team on the field. Though a lot has changed since taking over as the interim head coach, Olsen has led talented teams and underachieving ones and seen years of great investment and their leaner counterparts. The 41-year-old has amassed more than 100 wins and counting throughout his 14-year tenure, the longest of any D.C. United head coach.

“It’s rare to have been at a club this long – not only from a coaching standpoint but piggybacking on a great career. It’s been a huge part of my life. I’m humbled and burdened with this responsibility to get these fans a championship. That’s the goal, and that would be a success, to get these fans that have been great to me a championship.”

Few iterations of this team have been as strong as this season’s unit, featuring the legendary Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta and Júnior Moreno. The team raced off of to a hot start, winning three of its first four games and capitalizing on the momentum from last year’s late season run.

“We were hoping we could pick up where we left off, and we were able to do that for the first month of the season [by] having the same group return,” Olsen says. “The relationships were there. Preseason, we pushed the group a little bit further toward our identity and how we wanted to start winning games. Sometimes early in the season, you can catch teams that aren’t really who they are yet. Now we’re at a tough spot where you have injuries and suspensions, and you have to rely on your depth.”

As Olsen mentioned, the team has come back down to earth since their blistering opening month. The team had a record of four wins, two losses and two draws as of late April.

“We’re on track,” Olsen says the day after a 0-2 defeat to New York City FC. “The parity in the East is very strong [and] to get caught up in how we’re doing in the standings is a bit silly. You’d rather start this way and have some wins under your belt, but things change quickly in this league. You try to stay level and just get better by tactically figuring out how the group can be at its best.”

This season also marks the first full slate of home games at the team’s new Audi Field. Playing his entire career at the historic RFK Stadium, Olsen notes the differences in a number of areas from players to staff – and how much the entire organization has evolved for the better.

“Audi Field was the first step of D.C. United taking a step [toward] becoming an elite MLS team. That’s the catalyst of this resurgence. With that comes Wayne Rooney and some of the younger players. I’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs and now to come out of some of those lean years, you have to enjoy the moment because things change.”

D.C. United returns to Audi Field on Wednesday, May 15 versus Toronto FC and on Saturday, May 18 versus the Houston Dynamo. For more information on Olsen and the team, visit www.dcunited.com.

Audi Field: 100 Potomac Ave. SW, DC; 202-587-5000; www.dcunited.com

Photo: Courtesy of D.C. United

D.C. United Forges a Distinct Identity

“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” is an axiom my seventh grade science teacher once taught me. It was basically a grim way of saying, “Close don’t cut it,” and it’s a refrain that D.C. United may hear in 2019.

After a demoralizing loss in penalty kicks to Columbus Crew SC left D.C. United short of the MLS Cup semifinals in 2018, one has to consider whether or not to look at the season on the whole as a success.

“Our run ended a little bit short, but that’s playoffs,” midfielder Russell Canouse says. “You lose in penalty kicks – it’s frustrating. I felt, and I know everyone else felt, that we could’ve went to the MLS Cup last year. It just didn’t feel right when the season ended against Columbus that early. I don’t think anyone was thinking that was going to be our exit.”

Canouse’s faith in his team has plenty of merit. The club went undefeated in its final 10 games, lifting them to a winning regular season record and securing them a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Even in the playoff loss, the team seemed to pull yet another rabbit out of their hat when they tied the game at 2-2 in the 116th minute to force the fateful penalties.

Granted, a favorable string of home games at the end of the year – 16 of the final 21 games were played at Audi Field – likely provided an unusual advantage amid the stunning comeback. But one could argue that over the course of the season, D.C. United’s absurd, lopsided schedule represented a negative sum.

“Being able to open up at home with a similar core group that we had to finish last season is going to be great for us,” says center back Steve Birnbaum, highlighting a welcome return to normalcy in the team’s schedule. “We have that confidence or swagger leading into the season because we know we have the pieces to succeed.”

Canouse is an important one of those pieces, and his ability to stay on the pitch will be vital. In 2018, he only appeared in 20 games because of a knee injury. This followed an abbreviated 2017 season in which he only appeared in the second half as a late-season addition from Germany.

“2017 was obviously a little flawed,” Canouse says. “I came in in August. There were only 10 games left to play and I started all 10. The ideal situation would be to play all 34 games.”

His presence will be even more magnified after his experience with the U.S. National team during its training camp this winter. A full season from Canouse could pay dividends for D.C. United while boosting his chances of being considered for a spot on the 2022 U.S. Men’s World Cup team.

But to make a run at the MLS Cup, it will take a concerted team effort. Part of unifying a team and optimizing its skills is to administer a sound strategy; following a season that ended in heartbreak, changes to the club’s strategy were inevitable.

“We’re going to play a little bit more out of the back this year,” Birnbaum says. “I think we want to be a more possession-based team. We did that toward the tail end of the season last year. We’re building upon that, and kind of creating a new style of play.”

He adds that box defending, a strength of the team in 2018, will be crucial to repeat this season.

“I think that’s a major factor in creating shutouts and making us hard to score on,” Birnbaum continues. “That’s one of the things that I try and focus on a lot throughout the year. We have a motto: to be the first contact to the ball in the box. The most important thing for us is getting the ball out of the box and away from danger.”

Though Birnbaum’s comments suggest a more defensive approach, Canouse expects an aggressive identity to characterize the group’s play on the field.

“Play a little more aggressive out of the back,” he says. “But also manage it the same way.”

Birnbaum says the game management aspect of D.C. United’s strategy looks promising.

“The preseason has been encouraging so far,” Birnbaum says. “When we played against Cincinnati, we kind of dictated the game. We’re controlling the game with our possession, which is encouraging for us because it makes us not have to defend as much, and that makes my job easier.”

Although possession will be a heavy emphasis, the job could be made even easier by the attacking unit’s resurgence, which again features the legendary Wayne Rooney, who led the team with 12 goals last year despite only starting 18 games. D.C. United finished the season sixth in the league in goals scored with 60, and they were efficient with their attempts. The team attempted the fourth fewest shots of any team in MLS with 396. That’s the sort of quality that will attract fans to every game and fill Audi Field during its first full season.

“I think they can expect some exciting soccer from us,” Birnbaum says of the fans. “I think that we’ve got a lot of guys who can do a lot of creative stuff. Our front, attacking guys are really special.”

If the team as a whole can prove to be on target too, they might not have to settle for a game of horseshoes come late November.

D.C. United opens its 2019 season on Sunday, March 3 at 6 p.m. against Atlanta United FC. For ticket information, visit www.dcunited.com.

Audi Field: 100 Potomac Ave. SW, DC; 202-587-5000; www.audifielddc.com

Photo: Courtesy of D.C. United

D.C. United: Rocking The District from Day One

Fans will fill the 20,000 seats, angled European-style toward a pitch made of natural grass, on March 3 to usher in the first full season of Major League Soccer at Audi Field. During D.C. United’s abbreviated first season in its new surroundings, the team drew an average of 18,929 fans across 15 home games and treated them to a 12-2-1 record. The extraordinary support echoes the success of the franchise’s rallying cry “Unite the District,” which will return as a prominent marketing strategy entering spring.

“An unbelievably fiesta-style atmosphere,” says D.C. United’s vice president of events and marketing Harry Hardy when describing the fans during home games. “They’re singing songs for 90 minutes. Audi Field is becoming a fortress for us.”

In an attempt to buttress enthusiasm, D.C. United will offer a slew of promotions early in the season. The move is in part a way of mitigating the rush of fans into the stadium just before game time.

“Things like discounts on your beer [and] food if you come early to the game,” Hardy elaborates.

He adds that the club has added entry points so people can get into the building sooner, “putting a huge premium on wait times.”

Opening day features a major attraction with Audi Field welcoming the defending MLS Cup Champions Atlanta United FC. And on April 9, the team will host a Cherry Blossom-themed game – the first Tuesday night game in MLS history, according to Hardy.

This year, the club has added shading elements to the west stands since discovering the sun beats down on that area of the stadium. Those who salivate over game day concessions will be pleased to know that José Andrés’  ThinkFoodGroup will continue its operations and David Chang’s Fuku brand – with its take on fried chicken sandwiches and chicken tenders – begins its rookie year as a food provider at Audi Field.

Despite the immediate success on the pitch, the tantalizing food and beverage offerings, and the raucous reception from the DC community, the transition to a new stadium didn’t come easily for all the players last year.

“When we moved into Audi in the summer, it was a little [bit of an] awkward change for not just us players but for everyone,” midfielder Russell Canouse says.

Some of the awkwardness stemmed from an unusual schedule. During the wait for Audi Field to open, D.C. United was forced to spend much of the early season on the road.

“I’m most excited about probably not having to go on the road for four months straight,” says center back Steve Birnbaum, his sunny California voice breathing relief.

However, as evidenced by the club’s strong record after move-in day, Audi Field wound up becoming a major advantage.

“Just playing in front of the home fans gave me a lot of confidence to go out and do my best,” Canouse says. “I think the same goes for everyone else. It’s hard to describe in words how important it is to have their support.”

Hardy adds that the front office comes into work every day with the “Unite the District” vision in mind. He references the playoff game against Columbus in October – a crushing loss in penalties – when thousands of DC sports fans were singing together in support of a common cause. During the dog days of summer and the grind of a playoff run, that sort of energy can help rally a squad.

Nevertheless, the team’s performance on the pitch will ultimately determine whether D.C. United reaches its first MLS Cup since 2004.

“We have a lot of belief in ourselves as a team,” Birnbaum says, his tone matter-of-fact. “With Audi Field at the heart of the city, we feel as though we can compete for a championship.”

D.C. United opens its 2019 season on Sunday, March 3 at 6 p.m. against Atlanta United FC. For ticket information, visit www.dcunited.com.

Audi Field: 100 Potomac Ave. SW, DC; 202-587-5000; www.audifielddc.com

Photo: Rich Kessler

D.C. Gets United

When Wayne Rooney trotted onto Audi Field for the first time in D.C. United’s home opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps on July 14, a sold-out crowd of 20,504 erupted in raucous cheers.

Making his American Major League Soccer debut, the 32-year-old British soccer legend looked sharp, drilling crisp, efficient passes and notching an assist to Paul Arriola, who scored two goals in the home team’s 3-1 victory.

Afterward, a smiling Rooney sat before a throng of reporters in the club’s gleaming new interview room and declared himself proud of his new club and the new stadium. But he also laid down a challenge to his D.C. United teammates for the weeks and months ahead.

“It was a great atmosphere,” said Rooney, who knows a thing or two about atmosphere after representing England in three World Cups and claiming five Premier League championships with the fabled Manchester United club. “It’s a great stadium that’s built for atmosphere, but we have to create the atmosphere on the pitch. We can’t expect the fans to come in and make noise if we’re not exciting them. It’s our job to excite them.

“For the fans and the players, it was a big game,” Rooney added. “Now, we’ll enjoy tonight’s victory and get ready for the next game.”

The Audi Field home opener at Buzzard Point, just a stone’s throw from Nationals Park, represented a new chapter in D.C. United’s storied history, which includes 13 titles, four MLS cups and a long wait for a home of their own.

The soccer club contended with a grueling, four-month road schedule as it awaited the opening of the stadium in July. According to D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen, it was worth the wait. Olsen took a quiet walk around the stadium before the home opener to soak up the significance of the moment.

“This is one of the great nights in D.C. United history, and we’ve had some good ones,” Olsen said after the game. “After four months on the road, to play the way we played, score goals and be entertaining was just a great night for the organization.”

The new stadium, which cost nearly half a billion dollars, delighted enthusiastic D.C. United fans who have endured years of subpar soccer conditions at RFK Stadium, a crumbling relic built for American football – not soccer. Audi Field’s sleek and modern design, stellar sightlines, and upscale concessions put it among the very best venues for soccer in the United States and perhaps the world.

Arriola, a small but speedy 23-year-old forward for D.C. United, had a hint of awe in his eyes as he described what it was like to play in the new stadium.

“It was awesome,” he told On Tap. “To look up and see the fans right on top of you – you can look up and stare them right in the eyes. The fans obviously deserve this place, to come to a beautiful field and stadium, and it gives us confidence to go out there and perform.”

Aside from Audi Field’s opening, D.C. United’s biggest move this season was the acquisition of Rooney. The father of four and global soccer legend signed a reported $13 million contract for two-and-a-half years, with D.C. United holding an option for an additional year.

Rooney is the only player to score 200 goals and provide 100 assists in the British Premier League, and is now the highest paid player in MLS history. After the home opener, Olsen reinforced what a great decision the big contract was for his team.

“We saw what Wayne is: a high-quality, elite soccer player,” Olsen said. “He didn’t lose possession, made some key passes and got on the end of a few balls in the box. This is what he’s going to do for us. With his character, he’s here to help the team get better on and off the field.”

Olsen added that to put it simply, he just makes the right plays.

“There’s a lot of value in that, making the right play in the moment. We’re still a young team, so he can help with the soccer aspect and the mentality he brings with his experience. That’s the exciting part about this. We’re lucky to have him.”

Arriola said Rooney immediately makes D.C. United a better team with his leadership on the field and in the locker room.

“He’s a very humble guy on and off the field,” Arriola said. “But on the field, you can see his quality. The way he plays really suits a lot of our players. We’re still trying to get the chemistry together and it will take time, but he just wants to get in here and work and win. That’s the type of player we need right now.”

For his part, Rooney said he’s ready to write the next chapter in his storied career.

“I have said this since I committed to the club: I want to win, and I am vocal on and off the pitch,” Rooney said. “I’m vocal with the coach, vocal with my teammates and we speak [about] which we think is the best way to win a football match. I think the most important thing is communication, not just for myself but for the players, and the players know that.”

Rooney acknowledged that some of his younger, less experienced teammates may be a bit intimidated by his success on the global soccer stage, but he stressed that he is now one of them.

“I am a D.C. United player,” he said. “I am exactly the same as these players and I want to win. What I can bring is my desire to win, and that’s every day on the training pitch and every game.”

Learn more about D.C. United’s 2018 season at www.dcunited.com.

Audi Field: 100 Potomac Ave. SW, DC; 202-587-5000; www.audifielddc.com