At a basic level, professional athletes are paid to perform in their sport, regardless of the circumstances. But when the losses have piled up and your team has been essentially eliminated from every competition in which it was entered, new motivation may be required.
That’s the situation facing D.C. United. Ben Olsen’s struggling squad had invested all their remaining hopes into the US Open Cup, only to be knocked out at the semifinal stage by the Columbus Crew’s comeback on Wednesday night.
Now, they must play out the string with eight more league games that offer only a mathematical chance of playoff contention.
“I’m not going to lie, it was a big part of the rest of the season,” Olsen said after Wednesday's defeat. “But that’s not the case now, and we’ll move on. These guys are professionals. There’s a lot to play for.
“We still need to get up in the standings. I don’t want to be last place, when all this is said and done. And that’s our goal, is to make sure we’re not in last place by the end of the season.”
Saturday’s rematch against the Crew offers the first step in that process and United should have few problems in getting motivated for a chance at “quick revenge,” as Devon McTavish called it.
“Obviously we’ll have a bitter taste in our mouth,” the D.C. utility man said. “We’re trying to get out of the cellar and we’re still trying to get points, still trying to improve as a team.
“That was a huge game for us, trying to get into the final of a major tournament and it’s a tough loss. We’ve had a lot of those this year. So we’re going to try to take it out on them in the next game.”
The tense atmosphere of a cup semifinal is difficult to match, but the bad blood generated by Wednesday's events should make it easier for both sides to maintain their intensity. One controversial ejection, five yellow cards and plenty of aggressive play over 120 minutes left the longtime rivals with tired legs and some grievances to nurse in the lead-up to this weekend.
D.C. scheduled a similar back-to-back meeting with Real Salt Lake earlier this year and Julius James admitted that emotions can easily carry over.
“We had the same situation with Salt Lake and there’s always going to be ill feelings when you play guys twice,” the United defender said. “There’s a couple [Columbus] guys that were making foul after foul after foul on their team, and we didn’t see any cards at all. It was a difficult game to play in.”
United’s pride and professionalism will also be nourished by the dedication of their long-suffering supporters, the most dedicated of whom continue to add sound, color and motion to RFK despite their team’s wretched campaign. Olsen and his players want desperately to bring them some joy in the final stages of 2010.
“This is a really tough time for us, and especially for them,” James said. “We try really hard, you know? We train, we have our families, and the most important thing is that we satisfy the fans and we haven’t been doing this year.
“I just want to sincerely thank the die-hard guys for still coming and supporting us. We need to give the fans something.”