Coach Ben Olsen is an eternal optimist, and with an expanded playoff format accommodating 10 of 14 Eastern Conference teams, United (2-5-4) will remain in contention deep into autumn, whether or not the team gets any better. (Ludicrously, United is one point out of a berth.)
With plenty of room for error, his hope is the group will get healthier and finally hit its stride next month. Olsen is also a realist, mindful that, without a few victories soon, things could turn chilly, both in the standings and locker room.
He will not have to worry about his job status, “barring endless embarrassing defeats,” said a person close to the team who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
The organization was happy with the way he managed the worst stretch of an injury crisis: a road victory against the Red Bulls and a home draw against New York City FC (despite being outshot 19-0) before Saturday’s defeat.
Beyond the team’s record, the global economic downturn would undoubtedly factor into whether United spends money on a new coach. Olsen, in his 10th season, is under contract through 2021.
The team sputtered upon MLS’s summer restart at the Disney World tournament and, amid injuries and vanilla performances since the return to home markets last month, points have remained elusive.
Since Sept. 22, 2019, when United defeated eventual champion Seattle, D.C.’s only victories over 14 matches, including the playoffs, were a second-half comeback in March at home against expansion Inter Miami (2-7-2) and the last-gasp triumph against the Red Bulls (4-5-2).
The last time United scored in the first half was in that Seattle game, the longest such drought, according to Opta, since defunct Chivas USA went 14 straight in 2014. In that span, United has been outscored 11-0 before intermission.
D.C.’s eldest players, center back Frédéric Brillant and reserve midfielder Federico Higuaín, both 35, are the leading scorers with two goals apiece. (Former United prospect Eryk Williamson scored two goals in the past two games for Portland.)
United is 25th among 26 teams in shots, 23rd in shots on goal, 20th in corner kicks, tied for 22nd in goals (nine) and 25th in assists (five). It has scored more than once in a game twice. Three goals have come in the run of play.
In a glimmer of hope, D.C. created several quality chances Saturday, only to go scoreless for the fourth time in seven games.
Defensive perseverance has compensated for attacking woes, but on Saturday, breakdowns in the box resulted in both New York goals.
Injuries have played a cruel part. Arriola’s ACL injury in February left a void in energy, speed, versatility and leadership. He might return before the Nov. 8 regular season closer.
Starting striker Ola Kamara, whose only goal came on a penalty kick, has struggled with muscular ailments. Attacker Edison Flores, the prized preseason signing, was slowed by injuries early in the year, then suffered a facial fracture and concussion Aug. 25. He remains sidelined.
Even before the injury, though, the Peruvian World Cup player was a non-factor. He never seemed comfortable in his shifting roles (right wing, left wing, playmaker, withdrawn forward) and tended to disappear in matches.
Veteran starters Russell Canouse and Steven Birnbaum have missed four straight games.
Injury spells are unavoidable, however. And in D.C.’s case, few other players have risen to the challenge. Julian Gressel, a major acquisition last winter from Atlanta, is only now beginning to influence the attack; his lone goal was late consolation in a 4-1 blowout at Philadelphia on Aug. 29.
Forward Erik Sorga, 21, was the hero in the victory over the Red Bulls, scoring shortly after entering. Since then, Olsen opted to leave him on the bench against NYCFC and use him for 30 minutes this past weekend. His best chance to start, the club suggested, is on loan at second-division Loudoun United.
With Kamara struggling and Sorga viewed as a reserve, D.C. signed Venezuelan journeyman Gelmin Rivas, 31. He showed some positive signs Saturday.
Olsen is high on 17-year-old winger Kevin Paredes (seven straight starts) and found time for Griffin Yow, 17, and Moses Nyeman, 16. Another homegrown player, center back Donovan Pines, 22, has started six in a row, but his soccer acumen remains behind his physical traits. Mistakes resulted in goals in two of the past four matches.
Olsen has tried switching the formation, playing with three in the back instead of four and sometimes two up front instead of a lone striker. The result has been fits and starts, no rhythm and certainly no artistry.
The transfer and trade window opened a month ago. United hasn’t made a big move. It passed on Higuain’s younger brother, Gonzalo, a prolific scorer for Italian power Juventus and the Argentine national team.
The year is not lost. But halfway through a season of extraordinary circumstances — a four-month pause, a bubble tournament, a reduced schedule, day-of-game travel and few or no fans — United has yet to show a capacity for reversing direction.