Unwanted recognition: D.C. United sets MLS record with three-win season

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Chivas USA can be forgiven for their 2005 win total. It was their first year in Major League Soccer. Their expansion brethren, Real Salt Lake, only won five games that season, too. There were a lot of reasons those Goats served eight years in the league’s record books, their win total spending almost a decade as the league’s mark for futility.

As of today, however, that Chivas squad is off the hook, replaced by one of the names at the opposite end of the league’s prestige spectrum. Whereas the Carson-based club as been the most mercurial in the league’s short history, D.C. United has been one of MLS’s most accomplished. But after losing 2-1 to Houston at RFK, the four-time league champions, four-time Supporters’ Shield winners, five-time Eastern Conference champions and three-time Open Cup victors hold the record for fewest wins in a season. Their three wins in 34 games lowers the league’s bar.

[MORE: Houston’s 2-1 win puts Dynamo in playoffs.]

How D.C. got here has been discussed all season, but on the day they made history, it’s worth remembering: They not only made least year’s Eastern Conference final but had plenty of reasons to think it wasn’t a fluke. Players like Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Nick DeLeon and Chris Korb could possibly improve. The defense and attack stood to be healthier, and Ben Olsen would have a valuable year of experience under his still unworn coaching belt.

None of that happened. The youngsters didn’t make progress. Health issues persisted. Olsen struggled to motivate his team or find solutions, and none of the team’s holes were filled. They failed to find a number nine. Perry Kitchen went without a consistent partner in midfield. The defense was still bad. The league’s second worst defense was complemented by the league’s worst attack, the type of perfectly inept storm that’s necessary to set records.

Despite all those failures, the biggest mystery of the season will be the team’s U.S. Open Cup run. Perhaps it says something about the stature and format of the tournament that a team of United’s quality can claim the trophy, but with that honor, the team will be in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League, likely costing a teams like New York, Kansas City, Portland or Real Salt Lake a spot.

It sparks a debate as to how the U.S.’s Champions League spots should be alloted, but it also shows United has some quality that never came out in the regular season. How could a team that claimed a must-win game at Real Salt Lake only summon that performance three times (at most) in their league season?

Those three wins:

  • D.C. United won their second game of the season, claiming a 1-0 victory over visiting Real Salt Lake. United ends the year as one of the few teams that can say their season would have been better had they played RSL more often.
  • On June 22, D.C. claimed another 1-0 win at home, this time over San Jose.  By season’s end, the Earthquakes would reclaim some of their 2012 Supporters’ Shield form, making this another head-scratching result.
  • D.C.’s final win of the year came over visiting Montréal on Aug. 3, a 3-1 explosion that gave United their third win of the season against playoff-caliver opposition. Against Toronto and Chivas USA, D.C. would finish the season 0-3-1.

After a season like this, there are two natural questions: Who’s at fault, and how do you move forward?

source: AP
Ben Olsen just completed his third full season with D.C. United after assuming the head coach’s role in the middle of the 2010 campaign. Despite a season that set a record for fewest regular season wins, Olsen is likely to return to D.C. United for the 2014 season. (Photo: AP Photo.)

The fault largely has to rest with the players, none of whom played to their potential. As much as you’d like to say that’s a coaching issue (and certainly, motivation was a huge problem), there are plenty of players that find a way to transcend their circumstances and perform. Between injury, age, immaturity, regression, or other inexplicable factors, no D.C. players stepped forward this season. Few of their starters had above-average seasons, let alone put themselves in the conversation for a Best XI spot.

Coaching was to a key culprit, too, and if it wasn’t for Ben Olsen’s unique position at D.C. United, he’d surely be gone. Yet, as bad as the 36-year-old boss’s results have been, he’s also considered to have shouldered an undo amount of blame for a front office that misread the situation. Rather than see last year’s team for what it was — a good team with some key, potentially debilitating flaws — they made the mistake of assuming past performance leads to future results.

While assuming the best (while ignoring the worst) is common, good front offices always examine the contributing factors. United’s front office failed to do so, with the likes of Carlos Ruiz, John Thorrington, James Riley and Rafael failing to provide the winter solutions the squad needed. By the time Luis Silva, Conor Doyle, and Jared Jeffrey were brought in, D.C. was already looking toward 2014.

Thankfully, that mid-season injection gives D.C.  a path forward. Add those three to Hamid, DeLeon, and Kitchen, and D.C. has a decent young core, one that gives them clear targets for those precious cap resources. They need better talent in defense and a reliable striking option – acquisitions that may require finding homes for other big salaries. The road back to respectability, however, does not need to be a long one.

If that’s a silver lining, it’s an incredibly thin one, one’s that’s unlikely to distract from the frustration of a long and unexpectedly dour 2013 regular season. The U.S. Open Cup triumph has helped fans deal with the trauma, but as of today, that trauma lives on in the record books. D.C. United’s three-win season will now be synonymous with MLS futility … until the next D.C. United comes along.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.