Back in January D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen believed his 2012 Black and Red side had the talent and depth to not only be in the playoffs, but to advance in the playoffs. That belief has not been shaken by an injury to Dwayne De Rosario or a super storm named Sandy.
United’s new journey begins against an old foe when they host the New York Red Bulls Saturday in game one of the two-game Major League Soccer Eastern Conference semi-final. United had earned home field advantage, but Hurricane Sandy forced the reversal of home dates.
“I have always said I am not that concerned with the order in which the games are played,” Olsen noted before the decision was made to have United host the first game. “The advantage is the extra thirty minutes if you do get to that point. Can the crowd give you a little extra energy to get through that part and then the PK energy. A lot of times it never gets to that point so it is not a big deal.”
As a player Olsen never accepted excuses and he is the same way as a coach. United supporters no doubt remember the huge banner unfurled in the stands at R.F.K Stadium in June of 2008 for the nationally televised visit of David Beckham and the LA Galaxy. The banner read: Ben Olsen Heart of a Lion.
United in 2012 is playing in the image of its coach. How else do you explain a seven game unbeaten strike to end the season with De Rosario sidelined by a knee injury? No excuses, Olsen’s United has found a way. During that final stretch United only allowed two goals once and that was in a 3-2 playoff-clinching win over the Columbus Crew.
“People continue to think that we’re not for real and we are lucking out with some results,” Olsen added. “That’s okay with us; we will just keep on grinding out results.”
To add to United’s return to the post-season for the first time since 2007 is its opposition. It is a rivalry with some real bite, although United has had the better share of the results. In the playoffs United is 5-1-1 against New York and has won eight of the 11 Atlantic Cups’s contested between the teams in the regular season.
The emotion behind a rivalry is rooted in history and the spark was ignited in Major League Soccer’s first season when United and the MetroStars (as the Red Bulls were known then) met in the 1996 playoffs. United won the playoff series on a Marco Etcheverry penalty kick in the 89th minute of the decisive game three at R.F. K. Stadium. It kept United on course for its first league title.
“It is the fact that they (New York Red Bulls) have no trophies,” United defender Dejan Jakovic said when asked about motivation in the rivalry. “We want to keep it that way and we know the fans want to keep it that way. There is a lot of history and it is going to be a big matchup.”
This past season the offenses flowed when United and the Red Bulls met with 14 goals in three meetings. United won the Atlantic Cup on total goals after the series finished 1-1-1. The playoffs usually offer a more defensive brand of soccer, although the Red Bulls are the third highest scoring team in the league.
“We are looking to disrupt their rhythm and get going offensively ourselves,” United midfielder Chris Pontius said. “As a team we have come together the past few weeks and the results have shown that we are a tough team to beat right now. I don’t think anyone looks forward to playing us.”
This will be the first playoff series for Pontius who just completed his third season. The youth of United provides the contrast to this series. United players have collectively played in ten playoff games. New York has galaxy of stars with international experience including Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Rafa Marquez.
“They have more World Cup games than we have playoff games,” Olsen joked. “Look it’s a great group. They have put together a star studded lineup. They are playing very well and guys like Henry are playing at their tops. Henry is playing better than I have seen him play in America. It is a big challenge.”