Until the very end, at least outwardly, the belief never left D.C. United’s locker room.
Even following the club’s 2-1 loss against Houston on Sunday, a loss that guaranteed D.C. the fewest wins in MLS history, there was the sense that they were right there. That they were not – as the record would indicate, as the 22 goals in 34 matches would indicate – that much worse than every team they played.
“I think we’ve shown that we can play with the best teams in this league,” said United winger Kyle Porter. “This is a learning experience this year and we can only grow from here.”
It’d be hard not to.
In October, playing against teams either in the postseason or fighting for postseason positioning, two of United’s three losses were by one goal and the other match was a 1-1 draw. While Ben Olsen’s club still ended the year on a 12-match winless streak, the perception that the team was better than its on-field performance persevered throughout the trying season. That perception was fortified a bit when D.C. won its third U.S. Open Cup title, downing Real Salt Lake on Oct. 1, 1-0.
“When we match up against these teams that are playing for their playoff lives, the difference between us and them, it’s not that far off,” Olsen said following the loss to Houston. “It’s some key players, a little savvy, a little class in the final third.”
Already, the process of finding those key players – and letting go of others – has begun. Wednesday afternoon D.C. cut ties with Carlos Ruiz, Lionard Pajoy and Marcelo Saragosa, a trio that combined to appear in 41 games (20 starts) and score two goals. More changes likely are on the way as United attempt to return to winning form next season.
“I expect changes to happen every year, but even more so in years where things don’t go right,” D.C. midfielder Chris Pontius said before the Dynamo match. “There’ll be changes and some fresh faces next year. I think that always helps rejuvenate a locker room, especially after a tough year like this. … Obviously I’m not a part of any of those decisions, but it’ll be good to get some new faces in and head into preseason with the right mindset, a winning mindset – something we need to get back here.”