Maybe it was the way they started the season with two losses that seemed to suggest nothing much had changed from last year's historically awful campaign. Maybe it was the lack of star players. Maybe it was doubts about Ben Olsen's coaching intellect. Whatever it was, D.C. United never seemed to quiet the critics.
But from midsummer on, they were right there with the Seattle Sounders and L.A. Galaxy in the Supporters' Shield race. Sure, they fell five points short, but their 59 points also represented a franchise record. Yes, that was more than they claimed in any of their four Supporters' Shield winning seasons (granted, in two more games than in any of those seasons).
United did it with a collection of spare parts mostly unwanted by other teams, but that came together under Olsen's guidance. Whatever it lacked in beauty, it made up for in effectiveness. And give Olsen credit for never allowing Eddie Johnson -- who put his foot in his mouth more than once -- to become a locker room-killing distraction, and actually got decent production out of him after a slow start (seven goals, all after May 10).
They'll get a good test against the New York Red Bulls, starting on Sunday at 4 p.m. The Red Bulls are effectively the same team that won the Supporters' Shield last year, with the added benefit of Bradley Wright-Phillips doing his best Chris Wondolowski impression. This should be interesting.
It's a good thing D.C. got the week off ahead of their match with the Red Bulls, as it gives them a little extra time to get healthy. Sean Franklin appears to have made enough progress to be ready to start, while Chris Rolfe should at least be available. Olsen is even suggesting Luis Silva, who's been out for the past couple weeks, could be ready to play. Assuming they aren't quite ready to start, Chris Pontius and Eddie Johnson will likely be in.
New York Red Bulls (4-2-3-1): Luis Robles; Roy Miller, Ibrahim Sekagya, Jamison Olave, Richard Eckersley; Dax McCarty, Eric Alexander; Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Lloyd Sam; Bradley Wright-Phillips.
D.C. United (4-4-2): Bill Hamid; Taylor Kemp, Steven Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, Sean Franklin; Chris Pontius, Perry Kitchen, Davy Arnaud, Nick DeLeon; Fabian Espindola, Eddie Johnson
1.Can Bradley Wright-Phillips keep this up? BWP tied the single-season goals record with 27 goals. He followed that up with two more in the Knockout Round. Only Roy Lassiter (33 goals in 1996) and Carlos Ruiz (32 in 2002) have scored more goals in a regular season and playoffs. He's never enjoyed a season quite like this, though, and the Red Bulls need him to keep it up if they are to spring the upset.
2. Will Tim Cahill show up? It was only a few months ago that Cahill was wowing international audiences at the World Cup. That only served to overshadow a horribly disappointing club campaign in which he scored just two goals and had two assists in more than 1,500 minutes. He missed an absolute sitter against KC, but there's no way he and the Red Bulls can afford to waste chances like that against United.
3. Better former player turned coach? Olsen and Mike Petke are part of a new wave of coaches who got their first gigs relatively young and played long careers in MLS. They've each had some solid success in the regular season, but neither have quite replicated that success in the playoffs. This could well come down to who makes the better tactical adjustments.
United should win this series, but they aren't going to do so easily. Both teams won their home games in the regular-season series, with the Red Bulls scoring a 1-0 victory at Red Bull Arena in their most recent meeting. They're also playing about as well as they have all year. The Red Bulls won't get as many good looks as they did earlier in the week, but should still be able to pull out a 2-1 win.