Ryan Nelsen
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Learning through difficulty

In 2001, D.C. United had a very bad season. The three-time MLS Cup Champions posted a record of eight wins, 16 losses and two ties. That was bad enough for a franchise low 26 points in the League standings. Yuck.

Technically speaking, the season was cut short due to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but, even still, that was an awful year for United. The 2001 season came during what I refer to as the 'dark ages' of D.C. United, where D.C. missed the playoffs for three straight seasons. Yet, as difficult as that stretch was for the Black-and-Red, there was something to be learned from that period.

In 2004, D.C. United returned to the pinnacle of MLS for an unprecedented fourth MLS Cup title. Four of the starters from that championship match were a part of D.C. United during the 'dark ages.' Ryan Nelsen, Bryan Namoff, Ben Olsen, and Jaime Moreno all were a part of those three trying seasons in the Nation’s Capital, and they all eventually managed to persevere.

Who knows precisely when Ryan Nelsen became one of the best defenders in MLS, but it happened. And to be honest, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine Dejan Jakovic in that same category a season or two from now. It’s also not unreasonable to consider that Chris Pontius, Rodney Wallace, or Andy Najar will also be among the best in the League at their positions.

Undeniably, some things need to change in order for today’s D.C. United to get back on the right track, but the talent level of the players may not be the biggest problem. From 2000-2002, the players for United were not able to get consistent results on the field, yet those same core players, were all leaders on the championship team shortly thereafter. The main lesson to be learned from the struggles of 2001 is that because of the structure in MLS, things can change very quickly. Talent is important, but the same group of players can suddenly go from bottom dwellers to champions when they can find a healthy dose of cohesion, creativity, and confidence.