DC United coach Ben Olsen talks strategy, path to playoff as MLS returns

Back in March, D.C. United was preparing for a trip and a weekend game in Cincinnati when Major League Soccer’s start to its 25th anniversary season — along with the rest of the world — was rudely interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, United will try again and is scheduled to resume its season Friday at F.C. Cincinnati.

Since then, MLS completed the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando after two teams had to withdraw because of a wave of positive COVID-19 tests. Now, the league has mapped out the next six games for each of its teams with games to be played in home markets.

“It is still a bit strange, but it is nice to have a season ahead of us,” said D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen. “We’re finishing up essentially our third preseason of the year, and in some ways our third restart of the year, and that’s tough for the players, I think, without having something to look forward to.”

What the players have to look forward to is a busy schedule.

After Friday’s game in Cincinnati, United will play a home game Tuesday at Audi Field, but under D.C. guidelines, fans will not be allowed to attend in person.

The plan is for MLS to eventually announce another 12 games for each team, start the playoffs Nov. 20 and hold the league’s championship game, MLS Cup, on Dec. 12.

Heading into Friday’s restart, United is in 10th place in the 14-team Eastern Conference, but with five points from five matches played, sit only one point out of a playoff spot.

United picked up a win in March at home against Miami, and then the group stage games at the MLS is Back tournament counted in the regular season standings.

In its three group games, United finished with two ties and a loss.

“We’re still going to be a work in progress,” Olsen said. “The trick is to pick up points while we are a work in progress and while we continue to figure out who we are. And it’s not an excuse, we’re not the only ones. You know half of the league is still trying to figure this out because of the choppiness of this season.”

Even before the disruptions to the schedule, Olsen knew he would have to be patient with a team moving on after the departure of star players and offensive sparks Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta. U.S. Men’s National team attacker Paul Arriola is also still sidelined with a knee injury suffered in preseason.

“Defensively, we are good team,” Olsen said. “We are always sound that way and we have guys that are very capable two-way players. We’ve proven over the last few years we’re one of the best defensive teams in the league. Now we have to keep chipping away, and make sure we’re a little bit more productive on the offensive end.”

With Bill Hamid in goal and veteran defenders Steven Birnbaum and Fred Brillant in front of him, United was the second-best defensive team in MLS last season with only 38 goals conceded in 34 matches. The midfield is also difficult to break down with Felipe, Junior Moreno and Russell Canouse particularly effective at muting opposition attacks.

Olsen believes United has the players to be a better offensive team.

In the offseason, United spent more than $5 million to acquire Peruvian National Team star Edison Flores from Mexico’s Morelia.

Other proven offensive forces Yamil Asad and Federico Higuain were also added to an attack that features Ola Kamara, who has 51 goals in 99 games on his MLS resume.

For United, it is also about developing talent through its youth academy.

Defender Donovan Pines went through the United pipeline. He then starred at the University of Maryland and, after helping the Terrapins win the 2018 NCAA title, is now in contention for a spot in the Black and Red’s starting lineup.

Pines grew up in Clarksville, Maryland, and is the son of recently-named University of Maryland president, Darryll J. Pines.

Teenagers are also breaking through from United’s academy to its first team.

From Clifton, Virginia, forward Griffin Yow, who will turn 18 next month, appeared in three matches with United last season and scored a goal in a friendly match against La Liga team Real Betis from Spain.

Rookie midfielders Kevin Paredes, 17, and Moses Nyeman, 16, have also made an impression. Paredes is from South Riding, Virginia, and Nyeman hails from Riverdale Park, Maryland.

“When you see these young kids coming through our environment and are now ready to take the first team field, and put the first team uniform on, and compete and do well — it is one of the most rewarding parts of my job,” Olsen said. “These next six games — they are going to get a lot of minutes and that’s an exciting thing for a coach to watch, but also guide them not only on the field, but also off the field and how to be a good pro.”

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