By Charles Boehm
D.C. United haven’t played a league game in three full weeks, and they return to MLS action with a tricky rivalry match against the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. on Saturday (7 p.m. kickoff, broadcast live on Comcast SportsNet, Galavision).
Major League Soccer has largely been on hiatus this month due to international competitions, and United have spent that time in first place in the Eastern Conference after climbing into the top spot last month. Ben Olsen’s side has gone 8-2-3 in the league since opening the season with two unimpressive losses, but the D.C. head coach ripped his side after their 2-1 overtime loss to the Union in their U.S. Open Cup meeting at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, Md. on June 5.
“We’ve been asking for this loss,” Olsen told reporters that night. “I look at myself first and I look at our staff first. We have to realize that that is not a good enough performance. Too many guys were on their own page today, we were cute all over the field and we thought it was going to be enough to step out here and beat a team because they were a little down on their luck.
“I’ve got enough players out there to beat Philadelphia…They were down, they were missing more pieces than we were. They wanted it, they fought, they were revved up. It’s just poor overall execution from the team and myself.”
Adrift, uninspired and riven by controversy, the Union have struggled in 2012 after reaching the playoffs in their second season of existence last year. The personnel decisions of fiery coach Peter Nowak, who coached Olsen during a three-year stint in D.C. highlighted by a 2004 MLS Cup win, increasingly came into question as Philly stumbled to a 2-7-2 mark and the Polish boss was finally dismissed earlier this week.
His assistant, former U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team coach John Hackworth, was named interim coach and will try to lead the Union out of their current ninth-place position in the East. He’ll look to former United stars Freddy Adu and Brian Carroll to run the midfield, while slashing Colombian striker Jorge Perlaza, recently acquired from the Portland Timbers, may make his Union debut up top.
Several hundred United fans will be making the 123-mile trip up Interstate 95 to support their team, and probably make light of Philadelphia’s current predicament, in the rapidly-developing rivalry between these nearby clubs. That, combined with Olsen’s words and the increased visibility and expectations that come with first place, makes Saturday something of a statement game for United.
“We understand the situation and I think we understand that there’s always an emotional response when you have a new coach,” Olsen told the Washington Post on Thursday. “In particular, a coach [Hackworth] I think the team is behind. So yeah, it was going to be an emotional game regardless.”