In a surprising move since it is the first time in DC United’s 14 year history United has fired a coach in mid-season, the team sacked Curt Onalfo barely 8 months after hiring him. Ironically, the firing comes nearly a year to the day when he was fired by Kansas City in his only other coaching stint.
Still, however surprising that the team that prides itself on being right all the time actually pulled the trigger on a move which could easily be interpreted as an admission of it being a mistake to hire Onalfo in the first place, there is certainly plenty of justification for his dimissal.
With Onalfo in charge and hired specifically to return the team back to the playoffs while continuing the tradition of playing attacking soccer, the team failed at both miserably. Sitting last in the entire league at 3-12-3, the playoffs are all but an impossible goal barely into August, even worse, the team’s pathetic offense is long past setting team records for futility and is boring on steadily toward league marks for ineptitude.
Both sides have gone to great pains to downplay the move as being simply the result of a bad situation. Onalfo has certainly taken the high road in this quote from the Insider where he says “I am extremely disappointed. It takes a long time to build something, and having had eight short months, it was a limited amount of time, but I understand the profession. This is what I signed up for. I wish nothing but the best for the organization.”
Payne was just as gracious in a release from the team “This was a difficult and painful decision,” said United President and CEO Kevin Payne. “Curt is an outstanding person and a fine coach. This has certainly been a trying season, made more so by a number of factors outside of anyone’s control. This decision is not about placing blame, but about looking forward. Recent performances have convinced us that we need to make a change at the top for the team to improve the remainder of this season, for 2011 and beyond. We wish Curt nothing but the best.”
It’s a good thing Payne backed away from scape-goating Onalfo or placing blame because there certainly is plenty of blame to go around from top to bottom in this organization. From the product on the field to poor roster building and management to building a stadium to finding investors, DC United is clearly a team in crisis that might finally be realizing big changes need to be made in order to get the team back to its former greatness.
Clearly, the path back is going to start small, though with getting back to square one and simply producing a good team on the field that has a hope of scoring goals, winning games, and maybe winning back fans who have shown their displeasure with DC United’s hideous season by simply staying home. Attendance at RFK has been anemic and trending down as the third year out of the playoffs has become inevitable.
Payne has made clear what he expects from interim coach Ben Olsen. “The first priority in appointing an interim coach was ensuring that he would understand the passion, pride and commitment expected from every player who wears a D.C. United uniform,” Payne said. “There is no one better suited for that task than Ben Olsen. We’ve asked Ben to focus on three objectives for the balance of this season: prepare to win the next game, demand of our players the same commitment to the shirt that he displayed and determine which players demonstrate that they want to play for United next season.”
Of course winning “the next game” has been a bit of a problem this year with only three wins in 18 games, but new signings Branko Boskovic and Pablo Hernandez, as well as the return to health of some key players like Chris Pontius and Dejan Jakovic, plus the outstanding debut of Andy Najar does seem to hold promise that United might be on the edge of becoming a competent team even if there’s little on the horizon this year outside the hope of winning the US Open Cup. But, that would be a huge accomplishment in this down year especially as it would help propel the team back into international competition next year.
For certain Olsen will bring the requisite passion back to the club. No disrespect to Onalfo, but his wishy-washy ever positive disposition clearly wasn’t exactly lighting a fire under United so far this season. The fiery Olsen has never been known to hide his emotions nor his opinions. It remains to be seen how the team responds to what is likely going to be some brutal honesty, or even if United has the talent and skill to get to a higher level, but no question Olsen will be pushing them.
As a player, Olsen was clearly talented, but he also never shied away from scrapping and grubbing for every advantage. Even to the point of completely reinventing himself as a player when his ankles betrayed him and undermined his natural athletic gifts. In some ways, DC United seems to feel themselves above scrapping and grubbing when push comes to shove and that lack of conviction is reflected in their record, while teams like NE for example, are still keeping themselves above water despite arguably less talent. If Olsen can change that mentality alone, it will be an enormous achievement in this dismal season.
Olsen is under no pretenses about what is expected either as his statement confirms. “It is with mixed emotions that I accept this position,” Olsen said. “Curt is a great friend and coach from whom I’ve learned a great deal. My job now is to get results for D.C. United.”
Teams often get a bump when a coach is fired since players now know they are next in line for the axe as Payne’s ominous last comment reinforces. How United responds this weekend in New England might go a long way to showing exactly how much ability and desire this team actually has and what Olsen has to work with the rest of this season.