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Onalfo firing won't cure D.C.'s ills


Everything you need to know about what's wrong with D.C. United can be found in Kevin Payne's recent comments.

The club's president keeps going on about "what it means to play for D.C. United," as if banging on the badge can summon magical properties.

Payne has passionately delivered soccer and the club to the Washington, D.C., area for the 15-year duration of Major League Soccer. He's done tons for the game, and that cannot be disputed. But all this business of "what it means to play in the United shirt" has laid the problems bare.

The team is a disaster right now. The system is broken. And it starts at the top, where Payne and others seem to live in a place that no longer exists.

Yes, there once was a time where D.C. United ruled the league in a regal pose. United won a disproportionate share of early titles and did indeed begin to establish itself as a burgeoning flagship franchise. But the bid to become that predominant league giant on a more enduring basis fell apart long ago, and look at what we have now: The worst team in the league, one reduced to firing managers after just seven months on the job. (And replacing him with a respected figure in former player Ben Olsen, albeit one who has almost no coaching experience.) It looks like madness.

Trying to explain it all, straining yet again to convince himself that the system isn't cracked, Payne keeps implying that it's all about understanding the privilege of playing for United. But that is precisely where it all breaks down, where everything goes askew. That's why Curt Onalfo, signed to a three-year deal just seven months ago, was fired this past Wednesday.

When you peel back the layers this has little to do with Onalfo. There's no other way to see this except as extraordinary failure at the top level. Payne, owner Will Chang and general manager Dave Kasper either got it horribly wrong when they fired Onalfo on Wednesday or they got it horribly wrong when they hired him. That's it. Take your pick.

United is a bad team right now, no doubt. The side was shut out in 12 of 18 league matches, so perhaps Onalfo's firing was justified. (Read it another way and it's even more telling: the side managed to score a goal in only six of 18 matches. That's awful.)

However, Onalfo may not have been perfect in his ridiculously brief spell, but a man who gets just seven months to "build" simply can't be held accountable for too much. Rather, he's the victim of club that desperately needs to recalibrate expectations, one with absolutely zero chance of reinforcing all the sagging walls until they can bluntly and objectively assess the precise degree of disrepair.

Even the media has been taken in by it all, perennially speaking of D.C. United as some empire in decay. Empire? Truly, was an "empire" really built in four years? More likely, United's initial success was just an early burst of prosperity in a league that bears little resemblance to a Major League Soccer that's now 15 years old.

What, then, does it really mean to play for United?

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To some degree, United was Major League Soccer's first big winner because club leaders figured out how to game a vulnerable system before others -- and that's a system that no longer exists. That early success around RFK between 1996 and 1999 created a false sense of self and, more to the point, a skewed sense of what's possible in a larger, more structured and more settled MLS. You could even make a case that it created a sense of entitlement, and all that works against the club now.

Payne and others at United still seem to see themselves as what they were in 1999, the class of the league, the organization that got it done in more ways than one. For six days a week it was the closest thing Major League Soccer had to a real soccer club -- and then they went out and won on Saturdays.

But that changed long ago.

If you assume that the club will fail to make the playoffs this year, here's what the D.C. United body of work over 10 years will look like: One MLS championship but five years of failure to qualify for the playoffs. Five! That's shocking in a league where playoff qualification has generally been a piece of cake. (By the way, one of those years when United did sneak into the playoffs, they did so with a losing record, as 8 of 10 clubs qualified for the 2003 postseason.)

United's attempt to establish itself as the giant of MLS has long since petered out, as dead as any of the unfortunately failed bids to develop a proper stadium in the nation's capital. Stuck at decrepit RFK and anchored to all those long-faded ideals, the club has since been lapped by the field. More or less, every team that has a stadium has a better scene going these days. Even in venues with flagging attendance, the daily training situation is far superior to what United players see every morning. That's the here and now, no matter what an organization in denial wants to believe.

Let's say a real talent from abroad desires an MLS address. So he and his agent put everything on the table, all the plusses and minuses from all 16 clubs (18 if they're looking at MLS for 2011) and examine it objectively. Where would D.C. United fall? It's anathema for Payne and Co. to hear, but you could argue that the club would fall into the bottom five or six.

That's why it's just not good enough to beat on the badge and demand that people know what it "means to play" for the D.C. United shirt, as if shallow howls for greater effort and commitment can somehow overcome a growing legacy of personnel bungling. The whole culture at D.C. United has to change, and that starts with realizing what the franchise looks like today.

D.C. United's best chance now is to do what the L.A. Galaxy did two years ago: go out and hire a coach who has the juice to remind the suits that he is in charge of the team. Period. It took an enormous personality like Bruce Arena to finally tame the circus at the Home Depot Center.

The guy D.C. United clearly needs is Bob Bradley. He's earned the respect and knows Major League Soccer. That provides him with the gravitas to go into RFK and take charge, to inform Payne and Kasper what he needs and then expect them to go get it while remaining salary cap compliant. They must seek a figure who can assume control in a more sustainable and sensible chain of command.

Even if it's not a man who has an MLS title in pocket and four years as U.S. national team manager on his resume (as Bradley does), United needs a fresh, objective mind to oversee personnel and plot overall team direction. (And one who won't habitually overrate every player who comes through the door; that's a huge problem today at RFK.) Hans Backe, for instance, has done as much at the Red Bulls, where managing director Erik Stover is less of a public face these days, having settled into his place in the process.

The solution at RFK starts with Payne, Chang and Kasper seeing things for what they are today. Short of that, the product over the next 10 years stands little chance of improving. Suffice to say, they won't be partying like it's 1999.

Chicago vs. New York Red Bulls: This one is absolutely brimming with storylines. Thierry Henry looks peppy and purposeful, like someone about to give MLS defenses a really bad time. New teammate Rafa Marquez is eager to make his debut, although a start may be asking a bit much of the Mexican captain. And recent arrival Freddie Ljungberg could make his starting debut for Chicago. Ljungberg got into last week's win over Los Angeles, but the game was all but decided by then, so we really didn't get a fix on how Fire coach Carlos de los Cobos plans to deploy the Swedish attacker, who never generated Designated Player-level production in Seattle.

Real Madrid vs. Los Angeles Galaxy: This delicious season of friendlies against global heavyweights is nearing an end, but not before the current league leaders host the Spanish giants in the Rose Bowl. In one sense the timing is poor for the Galaxy, a busy team struggling for form and one that has a right to be tired. On the other hand, when is a good time for a matchup with Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of the Galacticos? Any time you can get them to show up, of course. A year ago, a similarly timed match against Real Madrid rival Barcelona drew 90,000 to the Rose Bowl. Good times.