The heart of a lion is still beating. The lion’s heartbeat is in the team. As a player Ben Olsen was said by D.C. United supporters to have a heart of a lion. The team Olsen coaches reflected his commitment as a player in capturing the U.S Open Cup.
On Friday it is back to MLS play and a home game against Chicago. The league fixture is on the heels of United’s 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake Tuesday in the U.S. Open Cup final. The victory serves as vindication for Olsen’s steadfast belief that his side is better than its league record and a reminder for the Fire to beware.
The United side of October 2013 is a tricky one to play against. It is far from perfect, but it is not the injury plagued side that by July had effectively careened out of a MLS playoff position. The team is healthier and as a result has more depth. The improbable is now real and it left Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis standing on the field after United’s Cup win.
“It’s important you pay your respects to your opponent who came in here obviously and gave everything they had,” Kreis said his post-game time on the field. “They were willing to throw their bodies on the line to get a win and walk away from this season with something.”
On paper it doesn’t make sense that United with three wins in MLS is celebrating its 13th major trophy. Inside United’s locker room the belief that a trophy was possible had been building. There were flashes of potential in MLS, especially in a 2-2 home draw against an LA Galaxy side locked in a fierce Western Conference battle
“I’m so happy for the fans and the players and the organization for hanging in there,” Olsen added. “I think that we’ve done a good job this year of sticking together. The wheels never fell off and there were a lot of times when they could’ve when you go through this much turmoil within the league. It’s tough to stay together but they did that—the fans didn’t turn us off, and the organization supported us. And now we’ve found a way to get something positive out of a really tough season.”
The Fire enter Friday’s match on the outside of the MLS playoff picture looking in. From 30 matches the Fire has 40 points and that leaves the Men in Red below the last playoff spot held by Philadelphia with 40 points. In short a win over United can catapult the Fire back into a playoff position and help atone for last Saturday’s 2-2 home draw against Montreal.
The Fire has been fading. It was encouraging when the Fire closed August with a 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City, but in September there was only one victory, a 3-2 result over New England, in six games. Part of the Fire’s September swoon also included a 3-0 loss to Columbus and then against Toronto only a 1-1 tie.
With 18 goals on the season Fire forward Mike Magee is part of the MLS MVP conversation and a successful playoff run would help amplify that talk. Magee has had to adjust to being a marked man. After joining Chicago in trade with LA, Magee started on; yes fire, with eight goals in his first ten games.
After being held off the score sheet in four straight games, Magee has collected four goals in his last five games. Magee‘s partner up top is no longer Chris Rolfe. Recently signed Ecuadorian striker Juan Anangono is now in the first eleven. Rolfe has slotted back into midfield and is being brought on as a substitute.
United made changes to its front line in the Open Cup final with Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario starting together. Luis Silva was dropped from the starting lineup. Olsen noted Silva and De Rosario’s similar approach in making the switch. Lewis Neal and Nick De Leon worked the flanks with Perry Kitchen and John Thorington sitting inside in the midfield.
The inclusion of Neal in Tuesday’s starting lineup proved to be a stroke of genius. Neal scored the goal to secure the U.S. Open Cup and he was the one who bagged the game-winner when United clinched a playoff spot in 2012. Neal has only played in six league matches because of injury.
D.C. United returned from Salt Lake City late Wednesday. With the short week, only one training session, Olsen’s selection for Friday against the Fire is an open question. With young players like Silva, Conor Doyle, and Jared Jeffrey eager to impress, Olsen has more options than ever before and that might help United navigate through this grueling schedule.
Friday United will take the field brimming with confidence from winning a trophy, but will need the energy to deal with a Fire side desperate for three points. United no longer has a championship game to look forward to, but it will be in the CONCACAF Champions League next season and needs to continue playing like a team worthy of its heightened status.