With a week and a half between the latest loss and the next match, there's extra time for soul-searching at D.C. United. But there is still a belief at RFK Stadium that the second-worst start in team history couldn't have been predicted.
"It's been a perfect storm," United general manager Dave Kasper said. "No one expected this, especially the number of starters we had last year coming off a strong finish and the playoff experience, with young guys growing into their roles. Every game has been something for [coach] Ben [Olsen] to have to juggle. We've not found our game in any sort of rhythm."
Suspensions, injuries and poor performances have all played a role in a five-game losing streak that has United (1-6-1, 4 points) at the bottom of the MLS standings. Each successive calamity has increasingly affected the rest of the roster, where new and inexperienced players have been called forward earlier for bigger roles than the team had intended.
Struggles scoring recently forced the recall of Casey Townsend, who had been on loan as part of a new agreement with the lower-tier Richmond Kickers. But when the second-year forward didn't get any minutes off the bench against Philadelphia on Apr. 21, he also missed out on the 90-minute game he could've played 100 miles to the South the night before.
"I don't think in the first year that the whole thing was going to be perfect," Kasper said. "There'll be some back-and-forth with players, which was to be expected, but I think on balance, [Kickers coach] Leigh [Cowlishaw] is happy and certainly we are happy that the guys are doing well and further developing their careers."
United has explored the possibility of finding help through a recently-introduced intra-MLS loan mechanism, but options are limited. A better option is the summer transfer window, but the team has shown so little that it's difficult to know where to start.
"The thing is, we haven't had our full group together to really see how it's all going to gel," Kasper said. "[Scouting coordinator] Kurt [Morsink] is out in Europe now, and we're preparing for a number of different possibilities, but we really need to get our group together, hopefully in the next 3-4 weeks, and get going here so we can fine-tune really what our main targets will be for the summer time."
Meanwhile, some of the team's injury news has turned the corner. Outside midfielders Nick DeLeon (hamstring) and Chris Pontius (groin) could both be healthy in time for to face Houston at home on May 8, and central midfielder John Thorrington (knee) is 2 to 3 weeks away. The trick could be convincing increasingly disgruntled fans what is still possible. The Los Angeles Galaxy started last season 3-8-2 before winning the MLS Cup.
"I think the fans see the number of players we have out, certainly it's painful for everyone supporting our start," Kasper said. "They care about the club, and there are expectations from last year moving into this year. I believe that they're patient and understand that it's been a real challenge."