The MLS regular season can be a marathon grind, which is quickly followed by the pressures of the playoffs. For D.C. United and head coach Ben Olsen, the 2016 campaign was undone and will ultimately be remembered for a painful postseason exit.
D.C. United 2016 Season Review
United’s season came to an end at RFK Stadium in the Wild Card round, as the Montreal Impact advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 4-2 victory. Heavily favored to secure a win at home, a listless performance for the Black and Red certainly leaves fans and supporters frustrated after a strong regular season.
2015 was fraught with issues on the offensive side of the ball, as D.C. struggled to create many scoring opportunities. With this area in mind, Olsen and general manager Dave Kasper focused on bringing in players that could provide an attacking spark for United.
US national team midfielder Perry Kitchen did not return for a sixth season, instead moving on to Hearts in the Scottish Premiership. But D.C. United were an active part of roster movement before and during the MLS regular season. Lamar Neagle, Patrick Nyarko, Luciano Acosta and Rob Vincent were all brought in with an eye on increasing goal scoring numbers.
The off-season moves helped overall, as United improved upon last season’s scoring total of 43 with 53 goals in 2016.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Consistency and a desire to improve were hallmarks of the 2016 D.C. United season. An injury to goalkeeper Bill Hamid, elimination in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League and a slow start to the MLS regular season began the year. However, the club never lost consecutive matches throughout the league campaign. A record of 11-13-10 was finished off on a high note, with victories in four out of their last five matches heading into the playoffs.
A six-game winless streak in the summer saw the front office respond well, as key signings came on board. Lloyd Sam, Patrick Mullins and Kennedy Igboananike were all added in July. United captain Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum were solid along the backline and Marcelo Sarvas was excellent in his defensive midfield role. Manager Ben Olsen was able to utilize a strong defensive approach and strike on the counterattack effectively throughout 2016.
Off the field, United continued to make progress towards a new stadium in the nation’s capital. Anyone associated with the team knows that this is a process that receives more talk than action, but there are definitely positive signs for a much needed new soccer-specific arena.
WHAT WENT WRONG
An uninspired performance in their knockout round game against Montreal sank the D.C United season. Months of work and positive results get lost in a disappointing postseason finale, especially in front of the home fans. Frustration was evident for Olsen and his staff as the visiting Impact seemed to not only want the result more, but had the tactical advantage to take apart their normally strong defense.
Lamar Neagle led the team in scoring with nine goals, but Olsen was not able to see their multitude of attacking players stand out. Line-up rotation was constant and the organization will have wanted to see a more proactive approach on the ball and stronger production numbers.
The rumors of center back Steve Birnbaum’s potential transfer have been swirling since the summer and many believe that he will leave D.C. in January. The front office will want to ensure that they are able to get the best possible value if they are unable to keep him in the fold. The MLS Expansion Draft for Minnesota United and Atlanta United FC in December will also require key players to be protected ahead of the 2017 season.
With all of the attacking options that were brought in, the coaching staff and management will need to identify who has a future with United. After Eddie Johnson unfortunately had to retire due to a heart condition last year, the team’s focus should be on finding a striker who can lead the line in the opposing half. With age becoming a concern for the defense and midfield, depth will be a priority this winter as well.
D.C. United’s bright 2016 regular season was promptly darkened by a surprising home playoff loss. In order to avoid the same fate in 2017, the club will again need sharp moves from their general manager and front office to keep a strong line-up intact and improving.