Despite losing Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta and Lucas Rodriguez, D.C. United have rebuilt their roster rather successfully. Ben Olsen now has no more excuses.
Only Peter Vermes has been the head coach of the same team for longer than Ben Olsen has been the head coach of D.C. United. And yet, despite his consistent standing as the leader of one of the steadier and more successful teams in Major League Soccer, there is a growing dissension towards him.
It is not completely undeserved. While D.C. United have rarely missed the playoffs under Olsen, they have also never looked like a truly elite team despite having the players to do so. He was named MLS Coach of the Year in 2014 and won the U.S. Open Cup the year prior, but other than that, top-level success has been difficult to come by for the Black and Red under Olsen.
And Olsen is partly to blame for this. His defensive tactics, positional uncertainties and relentless tinkering of system, style and individual roles for individual players have left D.C. without a true identity. Every offseason, there is seemingly yet more PR speak about ‘getting back to basics’ and ‘finding out identity’.
But after an offseason that saw D.C. United excellently rebuild their roster following the departures of three critical players, including two DPs, in Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta and Lucas Rodriguez, Olsen is running out of excuses.
Edison Flores is the marquee acquisition, the attacking midfielder breaking the club’s transfer record to provide spark, energy and ingenuity in the heart of the attack. Ola Kamara will return as a central striker having arrived late last season, while Julian Gressel was acquired in a blockbuster trade from Atlanta United earlier this week.
Throw in a new deal for Bill Hamid, arguably the best goalkeeper in MLS, and the continued presence of the versatile Paul Arriola, and you have the makings of a very capable team indeed. And all this is forgetting that they conceded 38 goals last season thanks to excellent options at centre-back and defensive midfield.
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Perhaps the greatest element to the D.C. United roster is the versatility of the individual players that comprise it, and thus the versatility of the tactics that Olsen can deploy. Speaking earlier this week, Olsen revealed how exciting that is:
"“That’s an exciting thing for a coach to be able to manipulate them and also the discovery over the next month of how we tick and what’s the best option to move forward to get results. But the principles are the same. It’s selfless guys. It’s guys that are good in transition and highly focused and have high IQs.”"
His tactics have been the most questioned element of his coaching throughout the decade. He has been overly conservative, often safety-first and sometimes stented the attacking creativity of his players. But now he has a squad that is capable of playing in very different ways, including one that is full of energy, high pressure and speed in transition, which might be Olsen’s preferred style once all is said and done.
All this leads to one fairly obvious and yet significant conclusion: the pieces are there for Olsen to build an elite D.C. United team. There are no more excuses.