DC United is the Antithesis of MLS 3.0

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?

10 thoughts on “DC United is the Antithesis of MLS 3.0”

  1. Forget DC United.

    Are you following the saga where Jermaine Jones wants to go back in MLS, but the league cannot guarantee him that he will play in the team that he wants to!

    This is ridiculous. The mothership (read, the Don), knows best: you are not allowed to think for yourself. We shall pick a team for you. We are the wise ones.

    What a joke of a league!

    The CBA has to change a lot of things but I know it won’t happen.

    The single entity structure has to go.

  2. DC United is another victim of Single Entity. What about Chivas USA? What about Miami? What about NYCFC playing in a baseball field? What about Atlanta playing in a NFL stadium? What about Jermaine Jones being *icked around and not getting to play where he wants but the league bent over backwards to put Dempsey in Seattle? MLS has never left 1.0.

  3. Revolution are the biggest joke in MLS.

    That the league allows a founding club to stagnate in a cavernous gridiron stadium 18 years on is a disgrace.

    Boston and New England is a proven “hotbed” for football. This should be reflected in a proper set up for the club, i.e. an urban located SSS, and a rebranding.

  4. We won the first two MLS Cups, lost the third, and won the fourth, not the first three as stated. I assume the rest of the article was as ill-informed.

  5. I’m not sure that style of play is any indication of an improvement of MLS. In every league, there are teams that play “pretty soccer” and those that don’t. That doesn’t speak too much about what stage of growth a league is.

    In fact, that other teams play different styles and strategies are are successful is probably a bigger indicator of the league’s growth than simplying calling out DC United for bring a physical team.

  6. Considering the general consensus in MLS circles is that academies and Homegrown players are the future of the league, and that DC United has, at this stage, by far the most productive academy – including the first Homegrown to play 100 MLS games (Hamid), the first Homegrown to play in the World Cup (Najar), and the first Homegrown born after the league’s founding (Seaton) – I will have to respectfully disagree with you. DC United is the first team to play MLS 3.0. Their style of play might not be what you want to see, but the fact that a team that has had precisely 0 quality, longterm, productive foreign signings since Luciano Emilio in 2007 is somehow not a multi-season dumpster fire indicates to me that they’re doing something else well.

    1. I thoroughly second Tassie Tiger’s analysis. DC United has had (and continues to have) a very productive Academy system and has signed more Homegrown players that, by far, have posted more MLS minutes than any other club’s. Plus, with a little extra push, we are about to see a new SSS approved for Buzzard Point, an excellent in-town location. How is that not MLS 3.0?

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