By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 2, 2020) US Soccer Players – The nom de soccer “United” is not the only thing that the Major League Soccer clubs from Washington DC and Atlanta, Georgia share as they prepare to face off in league play on Saturday. Both teams are mired in dismal periods when the present is bleak and the future is unclear. Also unclear is whether a win for either of them can do anything to save otherwise lost seasons for two of the league’s proudest franchises.
DC’s legacy as the league’s first dynasty is doing nothing for the club in 2020. The promised return to prominence following the opening of Audi Field in 2018 hasn’t materialized, despite an uptick in the team’s spending. The Wayne Rooney experiment ended early. That left DC scrambling for a new plan for 2020.
Though 2020 threw everyone’s plans into chaos, DC’s season has come apart in ways that go well beyond the impact of COVID-19. Injuries are a major part of the story for the Black & Red this season, but the issues are larger than that.
It’s not as though DC has convinced anyone that the good times are coming again with a consistent run as one of the league’s better teams. United made the playoffs as the 5th-place team in the Eastern Conference last season but crashed out spectacularly to Toronto FC. Without Rooney this season, there’s a gaping hole in the lineup. That upended any hopes DC could play attractive soccer.
Whether because of a strictly held personal philosophy or a set of difficult circumstances, DC under coach Ben Olsen has been known mostly for playing defensive soccer during his tenure. Olsen is the league’s second longest-serving field boss, a fact is both impressive and confounding in equal measure.
For most of that stretch, even when DC was putting in dismal campaigns and missing the playoffs, Olsen’s status rarely seemed to be in question. As a club legend whose loyalty to the club is unimpeachable, Olsen got more than the usual amount of benefit of the doubt.
2020 has brought an end to the slack. Per reports from Steven Goff of the Washington Post, Olsen’s seat with DC is “scalding hot.” The chatter is that he needs to get his team into the expanded 10-team Eastern Conference playoff field and win at least one game once he gets there.
It’s against that backdrop that Olsen and DC United welcome Atlanta United to town. Atlanta arrives equally as desperate, though the dynamics at play for the fourth-year MLS team are decidedly different.
DC’s history is far enough in the past that it only weighs upon the current club as a matter of pride. The intensity of Atlanta’s relationship with its fall from the league’s elite is on another scale.
Atlanta already made a coaching change this year. Frank de Boer left following an 18-month run that never really worked. Atlanta’s transition from the swashbuckling style of Gerardo “Tata” Martino to the methodological approach of de Boer asked too much.
We can argue whether MLS fans in Atlanta were spoiled after three seasons that delivered three playoffs appearances, one MLS Cup, and a loss in a conference final. Regardless, the fact remains that those who jumped on board the Atlanta United train learned to expect certain things out of their club.
With de Boer now the coach of the Dutch National Team, Atlanta is circling in a holding pattern of its own making. Interim head coach Stephen Glass attempted to bring the joy back to the club’s play on the field. The mismatched parts of the roster have proven unable to reclaim the Martino flair.
By every metric, advanced or otherwise, Atlanta is in the bottom third of MLS in the attacking phase of the game. That’s a sharp departure from the “old” ways in Atlanta and explains why playing positive soccer is almost more important than good results. It’s not that Atlanta fans don’t care about winning, it’s just that they’d rather score goals and lose than grind out points. In other words, Atlanta doesn’t want to become DC.
Changes are coming for Atlanta. Newly signed designated player Marcelino Moreno should be ready to make his debut in the coming weeks. The hope is that Moreno sparks the attack in ways that the departed Gonzalo Martinez could not and that Atlanta finds its mojo in time for a push to the playoffs. Moreno isn’t expected to play in DC, meaning the fans and the coach will have to wait for that lifeline. Saturday’s affair will have to depend on the group already in place.
The trip to DC will serve as a reminder of some of the decisions fans in Atlanta view as missteps by a suddenly under-fire front office. DC will line up Julian Gressel, a key part of Atlanta’s first three seasons when the teams face off at Audi Field. The winger isn’t the only “one that got away”, but the saga that led to his arrival in DC stands out months after the trade and deep into the horrific season for Atlanta.
“If people want to have criticisms and anger, they can point that toward myself,” Bocanegra said in a press conference call Tuesday, addressing the moves made by the club and where its fortunes lie at the moment. “That’s fine. We need to do better.”
Because this is MLS, there’s still plenty of time for both Uniteds to reverse their fortunes and climb their way into the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The forgiving format put in place by MLS this season means the safety net is bigger than in most seasons. That bigger net might not be enough to break Olsen’s fall or satisfy a disappointed and demanding Atlanta fan base. The alternative remains worse.
Saturday’s clash at a vacant Audi Field is, on paper, a match between two poor teams sitting below the playoff line. In most seasons, it would hardly register as interesting because of that fact.
This one, though, comes with some extra intrigue. These teams are desperate. Their frustration this season is palpable. There’s something to play for here. Not just the three-points towards a reversal of fortunes, but a step towards saving a coach’s job on one side and reclaiming some of the old swagger on the other.
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Photo by Tony Quinn – ISIPhotos.com