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.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

AP Photo/Felipe Dana
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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.

Report: Guardiola close to adding $43m Benfica goalkeeper

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Year Two of the Pep Guardiola era at Manchester City could feature another big goalkeeper purchase.

Claudio Bravo hasn’t panned out in sky blue, and Joe Hart doesn’t look likely to be coming back. Wily Caballero is getting the lion’s share of the minutes right now, playing every minute aside from a trio of FA Cup matches since February.

[ MORE: Podolski scores screamer in German finale ]

$43 million is the fee noted by Abola when it comes to the latest target for Guardiola, a neck-tattooed Brazilian by the name of Ederson.

The Benfica backstop, 23, has 20 clean sheets in 32 appearances this season. He signed a new six-year deal in late January, but money may talk here.