WASHINGTON, D.C. - Despite having a rebuilt roster and an MVP candidate as its on-field leader, D.C. United won't be playing in the MLS playoffs this season. The one team in the Washington area that is best known for winning championships has now gone seven years without an MLS Cup trophy and four years without participating in the playoffs.
The 2011 season wasn't completely filled with disappointment for United though. It was an unequivocally vast improvement over the 2010 season that saw United finish last in the league, and with one of the worst statistical records in MLS history.
Following the team's 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers at RFK Stadium last Wednesday that knocked United out of playoff contention, goalkeeper Bill Hamid summed up the season as a whole.
"There's a lot of things this season that we can take with us into the next. Keep our heads and chins up. Its disappointing because we want the playoffs," he said. "But we can look at the positives. Look at where we were last year and look at where we are this year, fighting to make it. A lot of positives."
The positives include Hamid himself, who has gone from D.C. United Academy player to the presumptive starter for the U.S. Olympic team in just 24 months. Hamid is one of three homegrown players for United that made major contributions this season. After winning the MLS Rookie Of The Year award as the lone bright spot for United in 2010, winger Andy Najar continues to improve. Rookie Ethan White also stepped up when called upon to provide a strong presence in central defense.
These three young players give head coach Ben Olsen something to build upon for the future. So does Perry Kitchen, who moved from the backline to a central defensive midfield position late in the season. Kitchen looks like he could turn into one of the best in the league with some additional development down the road. Olsen happily expressed about the team's first round pick in the 2011 MLS Draft.
"It's exciting to have him in this organization. He's a big-time player and he's got a huge heart," he said.
United has lots of issues to address heading into the offseason though. The team may forcibly lose a player in the MLS Expansion Draft to the newly minted Montreal Impact in the days following MLS Cup 2011 next month. With Kitchen's emergence in central midfield, veteran Clyde Simms could be on the bubble of the 11-man protection list, and could then be headed up north.
Making a decision on Charlie Davies will come next for United. The young American forward scored 11 goals for D.C. this season, but failed to make enough of an impact otherwise for the team. Davies filled a major need for United up top, and generated plenty of buzz at the box office, but fell out of Olsen's favor late in the season, and may not be invited back. Davies was in D.C. on a one-year loan from French club Sochaux.
United will face a much less complicated decision on MVP front-runner and Golden Boot winner Dwayne De Rosario. It's quite simple. Just pay the man. The 34-year old midfielder/forward finished the year with 16 goals and 12 assists, contributing to over 70 percent of United's goals since arriving in D.C. at the end of June. That's an impressive tally, and it's hard to imagine that United would have been any closer to the playoffs without De Rosario.
In the end though, the team came up short when it mattered most, collecting just one point from its last six matches. That's not good enough. That's not a playoff team.
The disappointing end to the season wasn't enough to bring Olsen down though. As refreshing as it is to see a coach miss the playoffs but yet face no threat of dismissal, Olsen knows that he didn't do enough.
"We're a good enough team to make the playoffs. I can promise you I'll get better as a coach, and this team will get better," he said.
The youth on United's roster will improve as it gains more experience. Olsen knows it, and Hamid knows it too. If the big talented goalkeeper has anything to say about it, 2012 could see yet more improvement for United.
"Obviously we expect more of ourselves. We wanted to make the playoffs. So I'm very disappointed we didn't make the playoffs. But like I said, there's a ton of positives to take from this season. We did it with a young team. For us to come together like this and almost make it. Comparing ourselves to where we were the previous year. We've gotta take those positives and work with that. And next year make ourselves a title competing team."