2020 Hasn’t Been Fair to Ben, But That Doesn’t Mean He Should Be Here in 2021
2020 has been very bad, not good on several levels. I don’t need to tell you that, and of course it has been bad for Ben Olsen and DC United. They are at the bottom of the table, have the most anemic offense in the league, and we are being asked to watch week in and week out. Then there are the injuries. Paul Arriola, Russell Canouse, Steve Birnbaum, Mohamed Abu, and more have all been out with injury at some point this season. Injuries happen. All MLS teams deal with them. Having a major player out can have drastic effects. Ask Atlanta about Joseph Martinez. Obviously DC has their own “What if?”, with Paul. If it feels like DC has had a high number of injuries well there is probably a reason based on this stat.
So naturally we have the discussion we have had every year since 2011. Is this enough to justify another season of Ben Olsen? In my opinion no. Look, I have been a long time defender of Ben. The Olsen Out crowd has been fierce since 2013. They proudly bring up how long he has been at the club. “10 years and one trophy in their worse year ever,” they say. I have always beat against that. This team most likely spent less on their roster than Trump spent in income tax. They basically just relied on their yearly allowance of GAM and TAM to fill their roster. They signed castoffs like Josh Wolff, Fabian Espindola, and Eddie Johnson. Sure they signed some international players, but the core and usually most successful players were the ones came when they traded inside the league or through the draft. With the DP rule causing teams to spend more and more, DC lagged behind. It is hard for any coach to deal with that. When you look at how Ben had to coach and play teams with at certain points about half the budget, the fact that they made the playoffs and did well enough to be the higher seed in several of those playoff runs is actually pretty incredible. Bad seasons came when MLS didn’t grant them enough allocation money because they didn’t do well enough to earn more or bad enough to earn more. This is why I have been “Olsen In” for so long and it is now over.
The team broke their transfer record in 2016, then 2017, and then 2020. It still pales in comparison to some teams but that should tell you all you need to know about how this teams spending has changed recently. Which is why 2020 shouldn’t be an excuse for DC United or Ben Olsen. Even when he has had most of his players sans Paul Arriola this team has not looked good and has shown very few signs if any of developing under Ben Olsen. Their big time acquisitions Julian Gressel and Edison Flores have looked nothing as promised. Ola Kamara looks like a shell of his former self. I would hesitate to include Yamil Asad considering the long layoff and he has shown some improvement, but mostly has been sub-par. Then there were the lineup decisions in the early of the season. Playing Gressel as a center attacking mid or Segura as a forward. I understand maybe some of that was due to lack of depth and such. But overall a poor showing and real head scratchers week in and week out.
One welcome change for Ben has been his willingness to actually play youth players. Ben always seemed to trust his draft picks but his unwillingness to play homegrowns has created some big frustrations with those players for years. It appears to have impacted a DC homegrown currently playing in Portland. Whether that is because the team actually developed talented players that are more pro-ready is up for debate, but I can’t help but wonder if DC wasn’t suffering this massive injury crisis would we see Yow, Paredes, and Nyeman on the field as much as we have? I am not sure. If at the end of the season we get players that can start pushing for minutes and actually develop a depth chart of more than 12 players then maybe this year was a necessary evil. I just think someone else should take those reigns.
Of course there are those that bring up owners, which I get to some degree. Even I have expressed frustration at the current DC ownership. However, plenty of MLS teams find success and play exciting soccer without being the big spenders of LA, Toronto, and Atlanta. Look at what Philadelphia, Columbus, and Minnesota have done this year. These teams all have one thing in common. They have a coach who has shown he can organize, motivate and put together a compelling team without breaking the bank. Philadelphia’s owners are the same insufferable cheapskates, but they committed to plan of development and it is starting reap rewards. DC can do this and they have arguably started by making their academy no longer pay to play and have a USL team to develop talent. But you still need that same direction and identity in the first team. Right now that still doesn’t exist. I think the owners should see it as a chance to win some diehards. There is a reason Bill Hamid has a special place with the fans. There are pictures of him in the supporter’s section as an academy player. Imagine if they had 3 or even 4 of those players? It is the type of model that many say leads to poor attendances in Frisco, but this is DC. We live in a huge soccer affluent area and there is stadium right in the city. And if it produces exciting soccer winners, people will come.
Of course the other argument is who would want to come here? The answer is plenty. For the same reasons the Washington Football Team or the Cleveland Browns can still get talented coaches despite being utter train wreck organizations. I think DC is far from a “trainwreck,” but it is certainly not a premier gig. It is still a top-flight coaching gig. Now I am not saying Pep is going to walk through those doors, but I could see plenty of coaches wanting this job. First name that comes to mind for me is Jason Kreis. Before you laugh, he showed in RSL that he can work wonders on a small budget. He has been cast aside after stints in New York and Orlando, but if the situation is right he could make a comeback. There is plenty of other talent too. One could argue Wilmer Cabrera was never given a fair shake at his coaching stops. Hiring a POC would also be a great thing to see from a league that hasn’t been proactive about doing so. Also it is not like these coaches would be dealt a bad roster. Maybe you make a few tweaks but overall there is a solid base here to build on.
So what do I think will happen? A week ago I would said Ben gets another year. Use COVID, injuries, cheapskate owners, whatever as the reason. However Goff’s article points to that maybe changing. As Ian Quillen at Forbes points out, it doesn’t suddenly solve DC United’s problems. At the very least, however, it would at lest send a message that they are willing to recognize when something isn’t working attempt to actually fix it. It would do what teams with expectations do even if it isn’t fair this time around. This team has been very fair to Ben in my view, and until 2019 I thought it was the right call. Now? It is time for something different.