D.C. United coach Ben Olsen, at 34 years old and just 18 months removed from his playing career, typically provides a sense of levity on the practice field, cracking jokes while bringing his unique comic energy to the proceedings. Despite his prominent title, he often seems just like one of the guys.
Not this week, though — not after United dropped a 4-1 contest at Houston on Friday. During United's first training session since that lackadaisical effort, he was all business as he stood on the sideline, arms crossed, barking instructions and vehemently calling out players on their miscues.
"We're in not a state of panic, but it's real worrisome," midfielder Santino Quaranta said. "We're not as mature as a group to be able to laugh and joke. He has to treat us like we're playing. And I'm all right with that because we're not playing good, so we don't deserve to be given as much respect."
After producing some promising results in this season's early stages, D.C. has lost its past two matches by a combined seven goals to fall to 2-4-1. If United wants to keep pace in the standings, the club will need to rack up some points during its upcoming three-game homestand, which starts Wednesday night against the Seattle Sounders (3-2-3).
"We talked a lot, and I'm kind of tired of talking," Olsen said. "We all looked in the mirror a little bit, and hopefully we'll have a response."
Defensive lapses and mental errors plagued D.C. throughout its loss to Houston. Just two minutes after tying the game 1-1, United allowed the Dynamo to retake the lead on a goal from striker Will Bruin. The rookie, who entered the game with one MLS tally to his name, ultimately paced Houston to victory with a hat trick.
"We definitely got our butts kicked," midfielder Clyde Simms said. "As a team, we got to stick together. This is a time where a lot of teams start pointing fingers and things can go downhill."
In a full-field scrimmage Monday, Olsen slid Dejan Jakovic from his usual central defensive post to right back while partnering rookies Perry Kitchen and Ethan White in the middle. Whether he decides to use that experiment Wednesday, it's clear the first-year coach is tinkering with his roster to try to find some new combinations.
One weapon he will not have at his disposal is midfielder Branko Boskovic. The Montenegro national team captain, who inked a designated player contract last summer that made him the club's highest-paid player, suffered a torn ACL during United's 3-2 U.S. Open Cup qualifying loss to New England last week and likely will miss four to six months.
Although Boskovic was out of favor to start the campaign, the 30-year-old had been rounding into form and seemed poised to establish himself as a starter before the injury. He was United's most dangerous option as a halftime substitute during a 4-0 loss to New York on April 21, and he scored two goals as he nearly led D.C. back from a 3-0 second-half deficit against New England.
"I think it took him a little while to get his fitness and get adjusted to the league, but the past couple games you've really seen what Branko is really capable of," captain Dax McCarty said. "He's a true attacking midfielder, probably the only one we have on this team, and a true creator whose mind is always turned on, thinking about where the next ball can go."
He's a player D.C. certainly could use against Seattle, which has had United's number since entering MLS in 2009, going 3-0 in all competitions at RFK Stadium, and is unbeaten in its past six this season. Last July, with its playoff aspirations on life support, D.C. opened a critical two-game homestand with a weeknight game against Seattle. United lost that contest and the next one, and then-coach Curt Onalfo was fired shortly thereafter.
As United kicks off a stretch of three home games in 11 days Wednesday, the team will hope history doesn't repeat itself.
"For us, the mentality has to be nine points," McCarty said. "For my money, we have the best fans in the league - certainly the most passionate. To come in and make sure we not only entertain them but get three points each and every game is vital to us. That's our mentality. You have to forget about the bad losses and just move on."
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