Olsen's magnificent D.C. turnaround
Following Wednesday's emphatic 3-0 victory over free-spending Toronto FC, it's hard to imagine anything happening in Houston this weekend that would prevent D.C. United from heading into next week's All-Star break as the hottest team in MLS.
United, which has won four straight games and five of its last six, now sits just one point behind the Seattle Sounders and defending champ Sporting Kansas City in the race for the Supporters Shield. And even if that run of good fortune ends Sunday in Texas -- where they've never beaten the Dynamo in 15 tries -- it doesn't matter.
Whatever the outcome of that single game, it's now impossible to ignore that MLS' original marquee franchise finally looks like a legitimate title contender once again.
Few could have predicted it a year ago.
Heading into the 2014 season, DCU, winner of three of the first four MLS Cups following the circuit's launch in 1996, was coming off the worst season in its 18-year history. Ben Olsen's club managed just three wins last year, a new league mark for futility.
"If you look at the successful teams in this league, they have consistency," Olsen, United's boss since 2010, told ESPNFC in a phone interview earlier this week.
"But as much as we kept some of our core guys, we did blow it up. We have seven new starters. We've made a lot of changes. We still have a long way to go as far as getting the most out of this team, but fortunately we have enough guys that have been around the block to get results. We've kind of found our identity."
The growing stature of Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen and Bill Hamid has helped. But more than anything, the squad's personality has been forged by the arrival of a host of proven MLS veterans who, for one reason or another, were deemed surplus to requirements elsewhere.
Central defender Bobby Boswell, who began his career in D.C. before moving to Houston, shored up a porous backline. Davy Arnaud, a former captain in Kansas City and Montreal now in his 13th season in MLS, has provided crucial leadership. Attackers Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe and Luis Silva have also contributed, as has controversial forward Eddie Johnson, who on Wednesday scored for the third time in as many matches.
"Every game, he got better for us," Olsen said of Johnson, the longtime U.S. national team forward who became D.C.'s highest paid player when was acquired from Seattle last December.
Johnson got off to a slow start in the nation's capital, which contributed to his exclusion from the Americans' World Cup team.
"That was a big blow for him, but he's responded," Olsen said. "Over the last month, his understanding of our team, and our team's understanding of what he needs to have success, has been much better. I'm happy with what he's given us so far."
As unlikely as D.C.'s turnaround may seem, last season wasn't a total failure. One of the biggest factors in Olsen sticking around may have been United's U.S. Open Cup triumph. Not only did that hard-earned accomplishment -- secured with a shutout win at perennial league power Real Salt Lake in the tournament finale -- add another piece of silverware to the club's trophy case, it provided a crucial building block for this season, according to Hamid.
"The Open Cup was a huge deal," the keeper said. "Teams in this league only have two chances to win a trophy every year, and we took home one of them. That experience was massive, particularly for the young guys. It gave us confidence."
It also reinforced club executives' belief in the manager. And Olsen has taken advantage of his opportunity to right the ship -- even if, with almost half a season still to go, he knows the job is far from over.
"I'm a romantic when it comes to this club, but you have to win to have a job as a coach. It's simple." Olsen said. "All I want to do is give our fans success and reward ownership for having faith in me."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.