Ben Olsen
Ben Olsen Credit: PABLO MAURER

Nick DeLeon sent his penalty kick flying over the crossbar and just like that, it was all over.

D.C. United’s incredible run through the second half of the regular season was a desperately needed jolt to the franchise, but in the blink of an eye the team’s season ended with a knockout-round defeat to the Columbus Crew two weeks ago.

This year, to indulge in a sports cliché, was a tale of two seasons for D.C. United. And if the franchise is to experience a period of sustained success in 2019, it will be partially because the team responds well to a return to normalcy. No more lengthy homestands. No more honeymoon period with a big-name signing and a new stadium. No more ability to catch teams off guard with a new high-octane attacking style.

There is no room for sentimentality in MLS. The offseason has arrived, and tough decisions must be made.

“You go through this small mourning process and you pick yourself up and get back to work,” coach Ben Olsen told reporters this week. “The excitement for next year is real in the staff and the soccer community here and certainly within the team. We’re looking to bolster the squad and get better and see if we can’t put together a full season of quality soccer and results, that’s the challenge.”

New additions, in particular Wayne Rooney, bolstered United this season and a schedule backloaded with home games allowed the team to surge into the postseason by winning 12 of its final 20 games. Key players like Russell Canouse got healthy. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid returned after a brief spell in Denmark and most importantly, Audi Field opened to signal a new era for the club.

Tipped to make a lengthy postseason run by many MLS observers, United instead fell to Columbus in penalty kicks at Audi Field after a 2-2 draw through 120 minutes in the first round of the playoffs.

“For me it was one of the most unbelievable runs I’ve seen in MLS history for us to turn it around in less than six months and get a home field advantage spot,” Hamid said after the defeat to Columbus.

Before getting on with the business of the offseason, Olsen had a final opportunity to reflect on Tuesday.

“I personally enjoyed the last few months of this season more than I’ve ever in my coaching tenure here,” Olsen, who has been United’s manager since 2010, told reporters. “And that was because of the quality we had. That was because of the way we were playing. It was because I knew the importance of sending people home happy at a brand-new stadiuma new D.C. United if you will.

“I enjoyed the buzz around the city … people were genuinely excited about our brand, who we are and what we represented for the first time in a while.”

Moving forward, reinforcements will be needed. In a league where most teams are constantly looking to spend money to improve, staying still means being left behind.

The club will likely want to bring in new defenders to compete for starting roles at outside back and center back. Darren Mattocks was an able backup to Rooney in 2018, but it’s unclear if he’ll return. If not, the 33-year-old Rooney will need another striker to help shoulder the load.

The biggest questions on the roster may center around a pair of Argentine attackers: Yamil Asad, whose loan from Argentine side Velez Sarsfield is expiring and Luciano Acosta, whose incredible season has increased the pressure on United to extend a contract that reportedly has just one year remaining.

Olsen was tight-lipped on the future of the pair, who combined for 19 goals and 25 assists in 2018, only saying he’d like to keep both players around for the long term.

Should either player depart, United will have even more work to do this offseason. The stakes have been raised at Audi Field, and the club knows that it needs to not just equal what it did in 2018, but surpass it.

“I hope the edge is there next year from day one,” Olsen said. “First and foremost [we need to] make sure we get into the playoffs but then understand, now what’s next? Going out in the first round is not good enough.”