It seems like more than a decade ago, but it has actually been just 10 years since D.C. United ruled Major League Soccer as the league's dominant force.
The team that Bruce Arena built in the early years of MLS didn't just win, it dominated, winning titles in three of the league's first four seasons (and arguably fielding its strongest team in 1998, the year it lost in the final to the Chicago Fire). The standard set by those D.C. teams has yet to be matched. Not by anyone else in the league, and certainly not by D.C. United itself.
Once the league's unquestioned power, D.C. United heads toward 2010 in a state of flux. The club has missed the playoffs for two straight seasons and is still searching for a replacement for Tom Soehn after watching top choice Caleb Porter return to coach the University of Akron. The club's heart and soul, midfielder Ben Olsen, has retired, while 2007 MLS MVP Luciano Emilio looks like a good bet to leave the league after D.C. failed to pick up his contract option following a disappointing 2009.
D.C. fans don't like the sound of the words "rebuilding season," but 2010 is in danger of being just that for a club that has spent the better part of the past decade chasing the ghosts of success left behind by those powerhouse teams of the late '90s.
"Those were some special teams, but that's not something I think guys on the team now spend time thinking about now," said Olsen, a member of D.C. United's title-winning teams. "We can't spend time thinking about the past. I think we've done pretty well in the years since then. We've won a title and we've had Supporters Shields, which I believe are important, and we've won a U.S. Open Cup.
"Did we underachieve this year? I think we did," Olsen said. "Do I think the team can do better next year, without the extra matches that come with playing in some of these tournaments? I think so."
The reality is that, after missing the playoffs for a second straight year, D.C. finds itself in the latest down cycle in a decade that has been largely disappointing for D.C. fans who enjoyed so much success in the early years. Consider this telling statistic: D.C. United has won a playoff series in just two of the past 10 seasons, with one of those seasons being in 2004, when the team won its last MLS Cup.
It isn't as if D.C. hasn't won hardware in that time, as Olsen noted. Along with the 2004 MLS Cup, D.C. has also added a pair of Supporters Shields (2006-2007) and a U.S. Open Cup title (2008). That's a collection of silverware during the past six years that fans in New York, Chicago and New England would envy.
So is D.C. a struggling franchise or a strong one? The truth lies somewhere in between. The club has played some of the best soccer in the league at times, but has also underachieved far more than most clubs. In short, D.C. is a team that has displayed a pattern of inconsistency that is only magnified when compared to the thoroughly dominant seasons of the club's early history.
"The team gets the share of the blame for all those years of underachieving, but the truth is the league will probably never see a team as dominant as those early D.C. teams ever again," said a member of D.C. United's title-winning teams who chose to speak anonymously. "You can look at different times in the team's history where the front office has blown things up and made a lot of changes, and usually that is when things have started to go wrong.
"If anything, the team hasn't shown patience during those times and you wonder how much of that is from pressure to live up to the history."
You need only look back to the 2008 season as an example of a team in a hurry to make serious changes. D.C. United was coming off a season in which it won a Supporters Shield, but rather than simply tweak things on the same squad, D.C. made major changes and brought in a plethora of foreign signings such as Marcelo Gallardo, Gonzalo Peralta, Gonzalo Martinez and Franco Niell. Those signings failed to produce, and not only did D.C. miss the playoffs just one year after having the league's best regular-season record, not a single one of the team's foreign signings lasted more than a year on the team's roster.
D.C. spent the 2009 season rebuilding and retooling after 2008's disappointment and the result is a club that boasts some talent, but not quite the strength or depth of the league's better teams. Once again, the current D.C. team pales in comparison to the '90s D.C. United squads, which boasted some of the deepest and strongest lineups the league has ever seen, with legends such as Marco Etcheverry, John Harkes, Eddie Pope, Jeff Agoos and Jaime Moreno leading the way under the watchful eye of Bruce Arena.
"Back then, you could look around and it was like we had have a national team player at every position," said the former D.C. United player. "Now, you've had some teams, like Houston and New England, who have been able to build teams and maintain success over a long period of time. With D.C., you've had a good year here or there, and some good soccer, but its really been hit-or-miss."
The inconsistency of the past three years ultimately cost Soehn his job even as he walked away having garnered two Supporters Shields and a U.S. Open Cup in his three years at the helm. Some of the blame for the team's struggles in the past two seasons can be attributed to fixture congestion, which has affected most MLS teams that have had to compete in multiple tournaments, but that explanation rings like an excuse on some level for a club that won a CONCACAF Champions Cup in 1998.
"It might sound like an excuse but it's real, and we should see how things go next year, with just the league to play in," said Olsen, who believes the team could be a force in 2010, and who still considers D.C. United the league's premier club.
"We've had some ups and downs, but we've still had more ups than any team in this country," Olsen said. "I think we have a good bunch of guys coming back. We're not rebuilding. We missed out on the playoffs by one point and we had a lot going on. We're not losing much and I think with a year more experience for the young guys we'll be just fine."
What lies next for D.C. remains a mystery as the club continues searching for a new head coach after having its top candidate for the opening pass on the job. With Olsen's retirement and Emilio's likely departure, D.C. has other voids to fill as it tries to avoid missing the playoffs for a third straight season, which would mark the second time this decade the club endured such a drought.
As uncertain as the future is for D.C. United, the team's fans might take some solace in one promising trend in the club's history. Of the team's five previous head coaches, three of them have won titles in their first season at the helm, while a fourth (Soehn) won a Supporters Shield in his first season.
Whether D.C. will be able to catch lightning in a bottle in 2010 remains to be seen, but one thing seems clear. While the club may still enjoy success at times, D.C. United's days of dominating the league like it did in the '90s are long gone and don't look to be coming back any time soon.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.