Tough times brought out United's black and red
By Pat Martin, MLS Editor
Washington, DC (Sports Network) -
What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, and D.C. United coach Tom Soehn hopes that adage continues to ring true for his 2008 Major League Soccer squad.
Flash back to May 21, when United had lost its fourth straight league fixture, and sixth in its last seven, to fall to 2-7 and into last place in the league. United had just lost the away leg of a home-and-home with Toronto FC, and things didn't look like they could get much worse.
Then something clicked with the team.
After scratching out a 3-2 win over the Reds, D.C. earned a 2-2 draw at Eastern rival New England on May 29 - a game that very easily could have been a win if not for a late Kheli Dube equalizer. Since then the team is unbeaten, winning four straight to climb to .500 for the first time this season.
"Anybody that has been in pro sports and coaching here at D.C. United, the expectations are a lot higher than other places," Soehn said in a phone interview with SportsNetwork.com. "It's never fun coming out of the gate 2-7.
Tom Soehn's club has rediscovered its winning ways.
"I'll say this about the team and the coaching staff though, everybody stuck together through the losing stretch and nobody turned on each other and when a team and the staff can get through difficult times like that, special things can happen because it shows how unified we can stay."
Tough times - like after that May 21 loss - can bring out people's true colors, and luckily for United, those colors were black and red.
"Although we got a lot of criticism from the outside, we were able to tune that out and focus on ourselves and get at least in a much better situation now with a lot of soccer left to play," Soehn said. "We aren't there yet... we have a lot of things to improve upon , but obviously the signs are encouraging."
Through the ups and downs this season, United's loyal fan base has been there, averaging over 20,000 through the first eight home games. But Sunday afternoon at RFK Stadium, the almost 36,000 fans in attendance for a nationally televised fixture vs. the Los Angeles Galaxy took it to another level when the team's heart and soul for the last 10 years - midfielder Ben Olsen - made his first appearance of the season following a series of career-threatening ankle problems.
With United holding a 4-1 lead in the game, the 31-year-old Olsen stepped onto the pitch to a thunderous applause from the home faithful, and played the final 15 minutes of the match.
"It's an emotional time," Olsen said. "Sometimes you don't even realize how much these people's support means to you until you get it and you get that many people cheering for you. [For fans to have] signs and people rooting for you and hoping you get back, it's very touching and emotional. [Sunday] was an emotional day."
"It was an important situation to get Ben back involved," said Soehn. "Everybody knows the importance of what he brings to the team and it was pretty emotional for everybody to see him back on the field. For one, Ben deserved it and two, it was good to see him get his feet wet a little bit and remember what it's like to play the game because its been November since he last stepped on the field [because of surgery on both ankles]."
Sunday was also a bittersweet day for Olsen, who said on Monday that playing the final 15 minutes vs. the Galaxy showed him just how far away he is from being a regular contributor for United this season.
"My mind is there but physically the ankle is not completely there. It's tough to go out and play against people that are 100 percent and survive.
"It is one of those things that hasn't really gotten much better over the last couple months [after the surgery] so I've kind of decided to see if I can't get through it a little bit and adapt to what my new ankle is giving me, which is some pain that is limiting me. To fix it I think we need to do some serious stuff that is going to keep me out for a while. Rather than do that right now I'd like to see if I can't give it every chance to get through it without surgery."
It's a long shot that the former U.S. international will be able to play through the pain without going under the knife again - ending his season and forcing him to undergo another grueling rehab - but Olsen has made it clear he will do whatever it takes to reward the United fans for their loyalty.
"I can only hope to repay them by getting right and doing what I can to get back on the field. I want to give them my best and go out there and fight for this team and the fans," he said.
"In the event that he does get healthy, adding someone like Ben to a team that is pretty good already makes my life a lot easier so that would be a real benefit," Soehn said.
RETURN TO FORM
Much of the credit for United's rapid turnaround is being given to reigning league MVP Luciano Emilio, who scored just one goal in the team's first nine games but has nine in six matches during the current unbeaten streak.
"He's rededicated himself to do a lot of the things he did last year which made him the MVP," Soehn remarked. "Along with him doing better, the team has done a lot better and obviously when the team does better he's a direct beneficiary."
As Soehn said, Emilio isn't the only player who has stepped up. Veteran forward Jaime Moreno, the league's all-time leading scorer, is also a big part of the turnaround. The 34-year-old has six goals and seven assists already this year to compliment Emilio's scoring.
Also, Marcelo Gallardo is finally starting to look like he has adjusted to MLS play after being signed to a designated player contract in the offseason, giving the club the midfield maestro it needed. Gonzalo Martinez, Clyde Simms and a number of other role players have contributed to the offense from their defensive positions, and wingers Fred and Santino Quaranta have provided quality service to the forwards from their wide positions.
On top of that, the defense, which hasn't recorded a clean sheet yet this season, is showing improvement, allowing just one goal in each of the last four games - all wins.
"We aren't an easy team to play against right now," Soehn said.
SOME REST FOR THE WEARY
Now at 7-7-1 and in third place in the Eastern table, United has a three-week break from league play because of its participation in the 2008 SuperLiga, and Soehn can finally let off the gas pedal.
"As much as you don't want to take a rest because I think we are headed in a positive direction, I think [the break] is needed because I have been driving these guys pretty hard the last couple weeks," Soehn said.
THE SCHEDULE AHEAD
United is off until it hosts CD Guadalajara to open its SuperLiga group schedule on July 12. Three days later United hosts Atlante, before hosting the Houston Dynamo on July 19 to close out group play.
On July 22, United plays its next MLS match, vs. the Dynamo at RFK Stadium, before jumping back into league play with six matches in August.