It may be hard to imagine now, but at one time the New York MetroStars and Red Bulls were the underdogs in their rivalry with DC United. While DC won trophies and became a model franchise in MLS, New York rebranded, cycled through high-profile coaches and players, and continuously underachieved considering the wealth and marketplace it was afforded.
Fast-forward to Sunday, where DC United meekly bowed out of the playoffs behind a 1-0 loss to the Red Bulls. The game was progress over the previous 1-0 loss – DC had two shots on target as opposed to the none they had the previous Sunday. However, those two attempts and the few others not on target were mostly harmless. Lacking two starters, the visitors were hamstrung by having to play one primarily second half substitute as a starter and a starting center back out of position. A thin bench offered little else in desperation time, and the team that had led the Eastern Conference most of the season was dispatched in style by the new “it” team in the East, the formerly hapless Red Bulls.
Even the most hardcore DC United fans will admit the club’s glory days are past them, but the real question emanating from the stands at RFK is how far away they are from returning. In the wake of another weak exit from the playoffs, some fans are calling for the head of Black-And-Red legend Ben Olsen. Still others are clamoring for that one creative player, just one, always from Europe or South American and always expensive. Another group decries the lack of player development and calls for the “kids” to get more time in DC instead of Richmond, which serves as DC’s quasi-B team at times.
The truth is much deeper and shows that a quick fix is simply not possible for this team. The deepest root to this problem lies in the much-discussed lack of revenue stream for this team. Playing in a dilapidated RFK stadium owned by the city, the team is unable to woo casual fans through kid friendly amenities, comfortable box seats, and high-speed Wi-Fi like so many other teams do. Instead, the team is forced to play out their years in RFK while planning for the dream, their own soccer-specific stadium, to be built. Optimistically the stadium will be ready by the 2018 season, but that does not assume unexpected delays or hiccups. Black-And-Red fans should pray to their deity of choice that no endangered newt is discovered chillin’ near the abandoned buildings about to be torn down.
Even this new stadium will not be the financial panacea many fans hope it will be, at least not right away. In truth, the team has been quietly putting as much excess money as possible towards the stadium, as the District of Columbia is no doubt weary of putting any more money than promised into the project (a lingering casualty of the Nats Park debacle). This not only means payroll both on the field and off is limited, but infrastructure is also affected. The team’s youth system is being altered, although the team is not connecting the two, and already the new stadium’s rendering have gone from grandiose to grand. Once you factor in the inevitable overruns, there is very little money to spend on the things that make a club successful in MLS.
At one time, the DC United Academy was the envy of MLS. Andy Najar was one of the first gems to be unearthed, and he will soon be joined in Europe by his fellow homegrown graduate Bill Hamid. But even serviceable players like Ethan White are important to come from in-house, as generally they are less expensive than an acquired player, they know the culture, and their skill set is known by the team. Since the early days of churning out homegrown players, the pipeline has dried up. No longer is DC popping out the “next” good player at different positions, ready to challenge a more established starter. And as money gets tighter, the ability to develop and find those players gets harder. It goes without saying that DC will not be joining the trend of creating a “B” team to compete in the lower divisions.
But the lack of youth development cannot solely be blamed on the academy, however. In recent years, DC United has built a team designed to emulate its coach. Ben Olsen was a successful player at the MLS level because of his hard-nose, hard-working style. In his team, he has a number of players that would thrive in MLS 2.0 – a little slower, but gritty and able to create their own luck. Players like Bobby Boswell, Chris Rolfe, and Fabian Espindola are far from washed up, but lack a little something in some categories and make it up in their knowledge of the game. In past years this is a winning combination, but the league is quickly changing. Coaches like Caleb Porter and players like Giovinco are beginning to make MLS more than just a grind-out wins league, albeit not all at once. More skillful players who will increasingly be protected by referees and the league mean styles of play like DC’s will be left behind. And, while some think the solution is to fire Olsen, the truth is the financial realities of the team mean few if any coaches could achieve anything better.
What does the future hold for DC? In the short-term, not much positive. DC United can do what they did this year and take advantage of teams missing stars or playing poorly to bank points towards a playoff spot, but once in the playoffs can we realistically expect this team to seriously challenge for a title? Things may only get worse as younger players like Perry Kitchen and Bill Hamid are poached by foreign clubs; it may be hard to replace their production with little in-house successful youth development and a lack of cash to infuse the roster with foreign talent. DC may continue to rely on affordable talented MLS veterans to make the playoffs and hope that in a few years, new stadium cash will allow them to join MLS 3.0. However, treading water for that long may be even more dangerous for a franchise some see as already sinking.
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