MLS 3.0 is in full force and the sports media have focused like a laser on the growth of the league. Soccer-specific stadiums have sprung up across the country, academies are churning out young talent, big names are coming across the Atlantic to play in North America, and suddenly U.S. men’s national team players are booking tickets to places like Houston and Philadelphia to remain relevant for Jurgen Klinsmann. Yet despite this glut of self-congratulations and celebration of an arriving league, the vestiges of the old MLS 2.0 remain and threaten to spoil the party.
DC United was the toast of the league in the beginning. The team won three MLS Cups in the first four years and boasted stars like Jeff Agoos, Eddie Pope, Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno. The successful coaches, Bruce Arena, and even some less successful ones, Ray Hudson, became names among the American soccer community. However, as the league grew their flagship team stagnated. Still playing at the RFK Stadium and setting records for futility seemingly every other year, the Black And Red have been surpassed in almost every way, with Sporting Kansas City, Houston, Los Angeles, and yes even the publicly hated New York Red Bulls tasting success.
This year, however, the team has changed. They still play at the RFK and only receive partial revenues from the venue, and they still are not signing big name international stars to major contracts. But DC United currently sits two points off the Supporters Shield lead this week, after a 4-2 drubbing of Colorado on Sunday. Unlike Portland they are not doing it with a more modern beautiful brand of football, and unlike Seattle they are not doing it with major stars. Instead, the team is relying on the style that has always worked in MLS, and this is a big problem for the league.
The team’s play starts at the top with coach Ben Olsen, a man who defined the U.S. style in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Aggressive and physical, but smart. Olsen has his team playing a conservative style that harkens back to when he played for the Black And Red. Especially on the road, his team will absorb pressure from their opponents and then use their speed on the wings to spring a counter attack. While not exactly a dogged Stoke City approach under former manager Tony Pulis, it does contrasts with the beautiful game shown on national television in the Cascadia Cup, for example.
DC is also not the only team that plays with this style, but some of their players are absolute magnets for the physical side of the game. Fabian Espindola and Eddie Johnson, fairly or unfairly, both have been suspended for on-the-field antics. Perry Kitchen, while still a rising star, has been a league leader in yellow cards. And Bobby Boswell, the self described ‘snot-nosed kid’, is as old school as it gets. This does not suggest that the team is not talented – quite the opposite. This style works because of the skill they have in key positions. Bill Hamid has truly blossomed in goal and could finally be living up to the enormous potential we’ve long anticipated. Couple that with the duo of Chris Rolfe and Espindola you have yourself a dangerous attack.
DC will have to survive a brutal stretch which sees them play at Kansas City and LA before hosting the Red Bulls. If they weather the storm, then are still in the title race and MLS executives will again be faced with a familiar predicament – physical side thwarting the opposition through defensive means and triumphing over highly-fancied teams in the playoff race and into the playoffs itself. For a league trying to distance itself from the days of ugly play in MLS 2.0, this could be a problem.
If DC United continues to win, can the new era of MLS truly be here?