Hope and optimism. These are two words that one does not normally hear in Washington D.C. when it comes to sports teams. It is a city steeped in cynicism, where players and teams are often chopped down by their own fans before they can even fulfill their potential. The anger and rage that Democrats and Republicans spew at one another is nothing compared to the vitriol given towards the Wizards, Capitals, Nationals, and the guys who play at Fed-Ex Field.
Yet while these teams are knee deep in D.C. smog, there is still one club in the D.C. Metro area that seems to be above it all. As D.C. United enter the 2015 season, there seems to be a certain level of optimism with the club. With a new stadium coming and greater ties to the area being developed it appears that D.C. United are on their way back to being a power in Major League Soccer.
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The change in attitude seems to be driven by the change of an era with the club. There are three eras in D.C. United’s history. The first era (1996 -2004) D.C. United was the dominant force in MLS. The club won 4 MLS Cups, 2 Supporters Shields, and the 1998 CONCACAF Champions Cup. The players and coaches of those teams are some of the most recognizable names in MLS and US Soccer history. Marco Etchverrey, Jaime Moreno, Eddie Pope, Jeff Agoos, John Harkes, Ben Olsen, Raul Diaz Arce, Bruce Arena. Not exactly lightweights in this part of the world.
While the first era brought the club great success, the second era saw the team fall from grace (2004-2013). If there is one season that can exemplify this drop in performance, it would be 2013. During that season the club won just 3 matches (league record,) scored just 22 goals (lowest in the league,) and allowed 59 goals (second-highest in the league). A U.S. Open Cup title that year was the only thing that supporters could really hang their hats on.
2013 may have set a benchmark in futility, but the club had been on a downward spiral for years. Although United does have 4 MLS Cup titles they have not made an appearance in the final since 2004. Furthermore they have only had 2 winning seasons in their past 7 years (2012 and 2014). For a club that prides itself on their early success the past decade has largely been a failure.
Starting with the 2014 campaign it feels like the club has entered into a new era. Rather than looking backwards and wishing that past legends would return, the club is looking forward. The team’s U-turn in performance in 2014 seems to have restored some faith and confidence in the supporters. United supporters might not be happy with the end result (losing to the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semi-finals) but overall there is very little that one could complain about last season’s result.
What seems to be the driving force for the new era is the stadium. For years, there was a dark cloud that surrounded United and the D.C. City Council engaged in shall we say “lengthy” negotiations to develop a new stadium. Multiple times the team and the City Council worked out proposals to keep united in D.C. Every single time negotiations failed for one reason or another and the possibility that the team might move out of the area remained a possibility.
With the team and the City Council finally coming together on a deal to build a stadium in Buzzard Point there seems to be a path now towards bringing United back. In recent months the club has announced the creation of a Residency Program with the Calverton School and an agreement with PDL side Evergreen FC. Although United have always had a strong Youth Academy program (U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Bill Hamid and Anderlecht midfielder Andy Najar are two of its graduates,) the club has always been hamstrung by not knowing whether or not they would be moving. With the stadium deal now in place, the club seems more willing to build their brand in the region.
The key for D.C. United in this new era will be how they can build off of their team’s success while continuing to develop a new history. Since taking over the club in 2012, owners Erick Thohir and Jason Levien (along with William Chang. who remained from the previous group) have walked a very fine line of acknowledging United’s history but at the same time looking forward.
The link in all of this seems to be coach Ben Olsen. Olsen has been with the club since 1998 when he was drafted by the club. Although he is the second-youngest coach in MLS, he has over 5 years of on the job experience. It will be Olsen and General Manager Dave Kasper’s (who has been with the club since 2001) vision that will lead the club into their new park in 2017.
There are many things that this club needs to work on until then. To keep this new era going in a positive direction, United management need to invest more into the senior team. For years, the club has used their stadium situation as a means to justify the low budget. Considering that United’s lease at RFK Stadium was reportedly between $7-12 million a year it is understandable that there might not be as much funding for the product on the field. But that era is ending.
The club’s footprint in the area also needs to get strengthened. For years, television coverage of the team was minimal at best. While Dave Johnson has been a stalwart in his announcing duties for 20 years, games would often be seen on tape delay hours or often days later. 2015 marks the first season in years that all of United’s home and road matches will be shown via local or national television.
Considering where the club has been in the past 8 years, this new era of D.C. United seems to have plenty of promise. But promise and optimism need to be turned into results. A new stadium and greater ties to the community will certainly keep the supporters happy for a while, this team has to get back to the MLS Cup. To tie the past with the present and put this third era of the club on the right track it is the one achievement that can bring United back to the front of MLS.