D.C. United are a franchise more rooted in tradition than perhaps any other in MLS. But almost every tradition is interrupted eventually, and with the firing of head coach Curt Onalfo on Wednesday, United have acknowledged the depths of their current predicament by breaking a custom as old as the organization itself.
Onalfo’s dismissal marks the first time in team history that a head coach has been officially fired, and it's also the club’s first midseason coaching change. But given the fact that United have the fewest points, fewest goals scored and the worst goal differential in the league, few can question why DC’s long-standing preference for stability has been trumped by an urgency for change.
“It’s not so much that I was a slave to tradition,” D.C. United president Kevin Payne said on Wednesday morning. “Typically I don’t think [a change in midseason] is a good practice. That’s why we haven’t done it. So to get to the point this year where we felt like we had to do it is really disappointing. But I did feel we had to do it, and I think it was the right thing to do.”
D.C. United are 3-12-3 this season, with just 12 goals scored in 18 league games. They haven’t posted a win in league play since a 3-2 victory over Seattle on June 10.
“I think everybody knows that we’re fighting for our lives and our jobs," said veteran Jaime Moreno, who said he was sad to see Onalfo go but understood the reasoning behind the decision. "Whoever wants to stay here, things need to be changed. We’ll see what happens.”
The choice of Onalfo’s replacement is more surprising than the firing itself. Ben Olsen is still in the early days of his coaching tenure after calling time on his 12-year playing career last winter, and his selection as interim head coach vaults him ahead of more experienced assistants Kris Kelderman and Mark Simpson.
Olsen has been frank about his own need for acclimatization to his new trade and, on Wednesday, his somber reaction to Onalfo’s sudden departure made clear that he sees his new position as a duty as much as an opportunity.
“This certainly isn’t an ideal situation for me because of the mixed emotions, the Curt situation," Olsen said. "But I am here with the club and I’ve got a job to do now. So they’ve put me in charge. I’ll obviously do the best of my ability to get this team going in the right direction.
“Today was a day of letting everything sink in for the guys,” he added. “This was a big adjustment. There’s a lot of love for Curt in that locker room, and there’s a lot of love from me towards Curt. Today we’re just trying to get over the hump a little bit.”
Payne and general manager Dave Kasper made no secret of the fact that Onalfo’s sacking is intended as a message to the club’s fans as well as the playing squad. They view Olsen as the best motivator and leader on the staff, but claim there is no plan to give him the job on a permanent basis. The search for a new boss has already begun, but Kasper and Payne said that no decision will be finalized until the end of the season.
“[Olsen] is an interim coach, and I want to stress that,” Payne said. “It’s inconceivable to me that he would remain in the head coaching job beyond the end of the season, and he knows that. He understands that. Someday he will be our head coach, I think. But I want him to be prepared properly when he takes the responsibility on.
“Ben’s got a lot to learn yet. He’s been thrown into the deep end and he’s taking one for the team, as he did his entire career for us,” Payne added. “But I don’t think there’s anybody better to get the message across to the players and the fans of what is expected, and what our commitment is to our fans, than Benny.”