D.C. United is well aware of the calendar. It is June and thats not when trophies are handed out. United has every reason to be proud of winning four of six matches in May and grabbing first place in the Eastern Conference, but there is more work to do.
It is not about where we are, it is about the next game, Uniteds head coach Ben Olsen emphasized. Now that we are in first place we have a bigger target on our back and we can expect teams to fight harder against us. We have a full squad for the first time, so that is a good thing.
With a healthy team Olsen has plenty of options as United prepares to jump back into MLS play after a 22-day break with a road game Saturday against Philadelphia. It is the Union that spoiled Uniteds break from league play by knocking them out of the Open Cup in a round-of-sixteen match last week.
The loss to the Union in Open Cup play was jarring to United. Olsen called the defeat to the Union a wakeup call that served notice that his team might not be as good as they think they are. Olsens belief in the team is still as strong as ever, but he is hoping out of the disappointment of the Union loss a new resolve will emerge.
I would like to see us play with more anger, added Olsen. Successful clubs often play with chips on their shoulders and take on a real us against them mentality. We should have that anger against Philadelphia because they took what we wanted. They were hungrier.
There are definitely some hurt feelings, added defender Robbie Russell. Theres definitely some bitterness. Losing in the Open Cup like that and then playing that same team the first game back, theres going to be some emotion left over.
There will probably be a lot of emotion to go around. The Union has had a turbulent week. Peter Nowak was dismissed as head coach on Wednesday and Saturday will be interim head coach John Hackworths first game in charge. Hackworth was Nowaks assistant and the two had been together since the launch of the franchise in 2010.
Under Nowak, who led United to a MLS Cup title in 2004, the Union went 21-30-24. In the Unions second season there were signs of progress culminating in a playoff appearance. Since then the team has changed dramatically with goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, defender Dan Califf and forward Sebastian Le Toux and Danny Mwanga among the players to leave the Union.
The win over United in the Open Cup has been by far the highlight of the Unions season. Only Toronto FC has been worse in MLS play. In fact the Unions last MLS game was a 1-0 loss to Toronto. The Union has only two wins in eleven matches and has managed only eight goals, but in sports a team playing its first game for a new coach, even an interim one, is often dangerous.
Back to United and its desire to play with a new focus and yes even a new anger in an effort to maintain the first place standing it worked so hard to achieve. It will be up to Olsen to find the right mix among his now healthy and rested arsenal of players.
Midfielder Dwayne DeRosario and defender Dejan Jakavic were away with the Canadian Mens National Team for World Cup qualifying. Only De Rosario played in Tuesdays 0-0 draw with Honduras, but he should be ready to go for Saturday. De Rosario is two goals shy of 100 career MLS goals.
Regardless of who plays, Olsen has made it clear how he wants United to play. It is not just about channeling emotion, but also maturing as a team and becoming one that can manage prosperity. The Black and Red have come a long way since its low point in 2010 and is dictating the flow of games.
Its a concentration issue, Olsen said of Uniteds need to improve. We start to move it around and get some joy on the ball and that is okay, but we have been getting complacent. Against New England it was like we had a two-goal lead and thought that the job was done. We have been grinding it out for the last month.
With a first place target on its back United will try to do more than just grind it out in Saturdays rematch against the Union.