After three wins and only 12 goals in 18 league matches, DC United coach Curt Onalfo was fired today and replaced on an interim basis by assistant coach Ben Olsen. This coming despite the fact that only two weeks ago, GM Kevin Payne said this:
So, what changed? I have no idea. This organization operates so opaquely sometimes that figuring out why certain decisions are made is like the old job of watching parade photos to figure out who is and is not in favor at the Kremlin. That said, I think there might be a couple of reasons to explain why this happened now.
- Chang applied pressure to the front office and thus, it had to do something. One of these days, owner Will Chang made the mistake of opening his hometown San Francisco Chronicle to page c32 of the sports section and saw the MLS standings in the agate section. Remembering that owning a team is about more than gallivanting around the tailgate in a logoed warm-up gear, he called Payne and said “this is unacceptable. I don’t care what you said before, but we need to start getting this season back on track. Do what it takes, fix this. This is your job. Bye.” This is one way to explain the massive chasm between what Payne said before and what the organization actually did.
- Chang did it himself. I’ve heard whispers for months that one of the problems with the organization is that that Chang micromanages. If that’s true, it wouldn’t surprise me if he just pulled a Steinbrenner and told Payne to fire him and fire him now. It’s an easy thing for Chang to do, especially as he’s not in DC to deal with the fallout. If Chang did want to can him, he’s going to have to pay for the privilege considering we’ve learned that he was apparently on a three-year guaranteed deal.
- A replacement candidate has come available that United wants and wants badly. This is of course the “Bob Bradley Theory.” This would mean that Untied has received word that Bradley would be willing to come to United after the Brazil friendly and that this is the club’s way of showing that A) That they want Bob and B) They want Bob now and that they’re not screwing around. This has been my preferred solution ever since the end of the World Cup. Bradley fits every single typical competency that United looks for including having been associated with the club back during the “good old days” as an assistant under Arena. Can United go and get Bradley? That’s a different question.
- Kevin Payne simply was lying through his teeth when he was quoted above. Amongst most of United’s most diehard fans, Payne is seen as both arrogant in style and utterly incompetent in his results. If Payne simply lied to everyone when he gave the entire organization the vote of confidence a few weeks back, it wouldn’t surprise anyone.
Moving on from the reasons it happened, let’s talk about the fallout for a second. We’ve already started to see a bit of a pushback from Onalfo’s camp starting with this quote on Steven Goff’s blog today:
My guess is that was either Onalfo’s agent or maybe one of the assistant coaches. That said, that individual isn’t lying. DC United is a trainwreck at this point. And Onalfo, whether he likes it or not, is now tarred with the parts, oil, and other detritus from the mess. If I’m Curt at this point, I’d think long and hard about dishing whatever dirt I have on the organization at this point, just to save my own bacon. He’s looking at two firings in three seasons in MLS. Unless he’s interested in going the Andrulis route and coaching in college, doesn’t Onalfo need to say something, either directly or through his agent, describing just how bad the roster situation was at DC United? Sure there is the classiness issue, and Curt does seem like a very quality human being, but if he wants to stay a head coach in American professional soccer, I think he almost has to get some exculpatory evidence out there.
My opinion is that while Onalfo does not appear to be great coach at this level, he is only one small reason why DC is where it is right now. The roster that was laid at his field before this season was a joke. Every “major” signing the FO made before the season is either gone (Castillo), hurt (Pena) underachieving massively (Perkins), or seemingly unable to get off the bench (Allsopp).
Like Ed, on the surface, I feel bad for Ben Olsen at having to take over this mess. But the more I think about it, Ben is far better placed to escape with his reputation intact than Onalfo. Here, roughly, are the various ways Olsen’s interim tenure could go:
- United finishes the season with anything nearly resembling a .500 record. If that happens, Ben is a genius and the only distraction he’ll face from saying in DC will be the calls for him to succeed Bradley in charge of the US. (I’m only joking there… sort of.)
- United continues on its current death spiral and finishes the season with a firm grip on a few records for MLS futility. In that case, everyone will say that it doesn’t matter who the hell coached this roster, too many of the players were crap and the ones who weren’t crap were hurt. If things get truly ugly, Ben could escape to go work virtually anywhere else in the league or maybe even as a US assistant. It would be a massive vote-of-no-confidence to the organization, but unlike Onalfo, Olsen doesn’t have to worry about working in professional soccer again.
- United muddles along, maybe getting slightly better but not much. In this case, you can still say that Olsen got the team out of the death spiral and that that achievement by itself is enough to keep him a real coach-of-the-future in American soccer.
Now, let’s come to the big elephant the room. That is the fact that the two people most folks blame for United’s woes, Payne and TD Dave Kasper, are still there. While some fans might rally around a folk hero like Olsen, I suspect many are going to withhold judgment until somebody in the FO is either fired (maybe Kasper), or at least takes some kind of responsibility for the fact that United will miss the playoffs for three years running. If Payne expects this firing to suddenly lift the pall of death that hangs over this club right now, he’s out of his mind. Really, the only thing that can do that is stadium progress. But stadium progress is something that has proven far beyond this front office’s level of competence for a long time now.
That brings me to the next issue of competence. Payne and United have to hire a new coach now. I suppose they could “punt” and just throw Olsen to the wolves by hiring him on a longer-term basis but I’m not sure Olsen would necessarily accept that at this point. Remember, during the protracted search that led to Onalfo, United seemingly was turned down by everyone else including college coaches like Akron’s Caleb Porter. Only Onalfo, needing to restore his reputation, was available. Can United go and get Bradley, someone who, while pilloried after this World Cup, has proven he can succeed in MLS in both well-run organizations like Chicago and crummy ones like Chivas and the Metrostars? He’s one of the few “names” out there that DC could reasonably expect to accept and offer and he’s one of the very few names that could go a small way towards giving DC’s angry/resigned fanbase any reason to buy tickets and go to the stadium. If United emerges from this process with a big bowl of “meh” like Dave Sarachan (to name one example), I don’t think much will change.
Speaking for myself, I know I’ll have a lot more faith in this team (at least on-the-field) if Bradley is here. Bradley has the credibility and capability to force change on the organization especially in the areas of scouting and roster management, where DC has looked almost clueless for three years now.