The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Has DC United turned into the Atlanta Braves?

Posted by steigs on December 14, 2007

This one is for the good folks over at the DCenters, who help me understand my team better. 

I live in DC and I’ve been rooting for DC United as long as there has been an MLS.  I’ve had partial season tickets for going on a decade now.  I became a soccer fan in large part because of all those evenings at RFK, rooting for the boys in black.

The past few seasons have been frustrating.  Loads of beautiful — and winning — soccer, international tourneys, likeable players.  All good, right?  And yet only one MLS Cup, back in’ 04 when the team was arguably weaker than the sides we’ve seen since.  The last two years United had the best regular season record — first time a team has done that in back-to-back seasons in the league’s (short) history — and didn’t even reach the MLS Cup final.  And the failures weren’t just in the MLS play-offs, United has had a series of close losses in international competitions.  Any United fan knows the litany: the blowout loss to the Fire in the ’05 playoffs, the late collapse in Chile in Copa Sudamericana, the “smash and grab” 1-0 loss to the Revs in the conference championship in ’06, the goalkeeping mistake in the rain in Mexico that let Chivas beat us the first time around this season…

All in all, it’s hard to come up with a “big game” win for United since that ’04 run.  It hurts.  United used to be that team that found a win to win when it mattered.  We had a swagger in the early years, after that ridiculous rally in the downpour to beat the Galaxy in the first MLS Cup.   It seemed like the team would step up in big games, like play-off matches or cup tourneys.   Not anymore.

Which brings me to the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s, a team that routinely dominated the regular season, running off a remarkable 14 division championships in a row.  But they only won a single World Series (1995) during that stretch.  A common theory was that a team built around strong starting pitching enabled them to pile up wins during the long regular season but was vulnerable during the shorter rotations of the post-season series. 

Has this model of DC United been built with a similar structural flaw?  Too vulnerable to the greater defensive pressing one might seen in a do-or-die match, perhaps?  Maybe.  Or perhaps it gets into team chemistry/composition issues, a lack of the killer instinct or crazed “won’t accept defeat” leadership?  (Though Ben Olsen seems like the latter type, in the Roy Keane mold.)

Or is this really more a matter of some bad luck and we shouldn’t try to assign structural reasons to it?  The ’06 loss to the Revs felt like one of those bad luck games where your team just can’t score but has a ton of chances.  The ’07 team failed because the star forward got injured at the worst possible time.  And expecting a result on the road in Mexico and Chile might just be too much to assume for an MLS team yet.  Of such flukes, reputations are won and lost.  Look at the Buffalo Bills of the early ’90s.  One made field goal and they are no longer the team that lost four consecutive Super Bowls.  What if their MLS-equivalent Revs had found a goal during regular time of that first MLS Cup they lost to the Galaxy, instead of letting Ruiz beat them in overtime? 

This debate matters as the team looks at making changes during the off-season.  Is it a matter of minor tinkering (bring in a good CB!) or something more substantial (bring in a “designated player!”)?  If the team brings in Juan Sebastian Veron it seems like that would be, at least in part, about adding a player for those big games.  If you’ve played for the Argentine national team and in the Champions League in Europe, presumably an MLS play-off game is not exactly an occasion for nervousness.  If there are leadership issues, is it time for a veteran like Jaime Moreno to retire or leave for one last pay-day in the Middle East?  But if you just think some bad luck is involved then you spend more time lining up a solid back-up forward in case Emilio gets hurt at the wrong time.  Look at how the Dynamo won the MLS Cup without their number 1 forward. 

I’m inclined to think it’s something a little more substantial than bad luck and bad timing over the last few seasons.  We haven’t really won a big match in years.  So if we’re going to let former league MVP Christian Gomez go and bring in a “designated player” I’ll give it a chance.  I’m willling to support making some bigger changes.  I’m too tired of getting my hopes up after a great string of regular season results.

But, as a fan, I reserve the right to change my mind halfway into next season if we start losing!

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One Response to “Has DC United turned into the Atlanta Braves?”

  1. D said

    This is a legitimate question, and one I am trying to answer in my head., I hope to have an answer at some point.

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