WASHINGTON – D.C. United kick off a new era under interim head coach Ben Olsen at New England this weekend, and if there’s an overarching theme, it’s this: No one is safe.
Whether playing for pride, proving their professionalism or merely auditioning to save their jobs, everyone on the United roster has reason to approach the final stretch of the season with newfound resolve.
The club’s front office fired Curt Onalfo this week with the clear intention of delivering a message to an underperforming squad, and Saturday’s meeting with the surging Revolution represents the first opportunity to respond to that challenge.
"We’ve asked for more commitment, more passion, a lot of things that have been lacking throughout this year," said Olsen on Thursday. "And that’s my fault as well. That’s all of our fault. We all feel responsible for Curt being let go. So now it’s time to fix it."
United have reached the semifinals of the US Open Cup and could conceivably still push their way back into playoff contention with a string of victories. But that possibility seems distant given DC’s recent performances, so "one game at a time" has become a mantra for the post-Onalfo period.
Whether United can mount a late push for the postseason or not, the final 12 matches of their league campaign will be used to evaluate which players and coaches are worthy of consideration for a role on next year's team.
"What we need now is and what we have needed is an urgency," said veteran defender Carey Talley. "Hey, there’s jobs on the line – somebody already lost their job and you could be next. That’s what I think is being told to us right now.
"We can only control what happens next season by how well we play this season. Decisions will be made at the end of the year and what influences those decisions is how well you do right now."
That process begins with a visit to traditional rivals New England, who have surged back into form after a poor start of their own, thanks in large part to the return of influential leaders Shalrie Joseph and goalkeeper Matt Reis.
Even with the availability of starters Kevin Alston and Marko Perovic in doubt due to muscle injuries sustained in Tuesday's SuperLiga semifinal, the Revs present a substantial challenge to a DC side which has struggled mightily away from home. There's little doubt that limiting Joseph's influence in midfield will be pivotal to the visitors' chances.
"Shalrie’s back for them, which they didn’t have the first time we played them, and I feel like everything goes through him," said Chris Pontius. "That’s one of the things that we need to key in on, the ways we can limit service in to him. He’s the quarterback of that team."
Olsen declined to discuss his tactical plans for Saturday, but he appears ready to tweak his side's approach in the hopes of throwing a new look at the Revolution and reviving his team's dormant attack.
Pontius may be pushed from the left wing into a forward role as United look for a sharper edge around goal, while creative forces Branko Boskovic and Pablo Hernandez will hope to continue their promising acclimitization to MLS.
Regardless of the means taken to secure it, DC are aware that the end result is what matters most as they try to rescue whatever they can from their disappointing season. The Black-and-Red faithful will be watching to see if Olsen's famous spirit is reflected in the team he now leads.
"We’re fighting for our pride and for DC United as a club," said Pontius. "We need to win our fans back. We need to prove to our fans, to ourselves, to our management that we deserve to be here next year and we can get it done with this team.
"If things don’t get turned around, obviously there’s going to be a lot more changes. So everyone needs to take it to heart – a lot of us are lucky to still be here."