WASHINGTON, March 7, 2014 — According to the coach and players, a transformed D.C. United is ready to make a comeback after last year’s last place finish in the results standings.
United coach Ben Olsen has recruited a group of league veterans and remade his team, which could like field seven new starters when it opens the season against the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Olsen, now in his fifth season at the helm of the team, is excited about his new squad but urges caution.
“We have guys in their prime and guys in their youth and all that looks good on paper,” Olsen said. “But you throw eight new starters into a team it doesn’t happen overnight. That can take hopefully six weeks or two months to get clicking. The trick is to get results early in the season. Columbus is not going to be perfect and we are not going to be perfect.”
Olsen then added: “Do we have enough character to get points?”
United appears to have made the changes in order to answer that question.
The roster for the season opener against the Crew reportedly could look something like this: Bill Hamid in goal; Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Jeff Parke and Spanish defender Christian Fernandez on the backline; Davy Arnaud on the right wing, Nick DeLeon covering the right flank and Luis Silva just in front of holding midfielder Perry Kitchen, along with Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola as an attacking partnership up front.
United will be expecting a lot from U.S. team star Johnson, 29, who signed a contract with the club this week making him a Designated Player, meaning he will be the team’s highest-paid player, reportedly earning around $600,000.
“I’ve played with Ben Olsen on the national team,” Johnson said. “I understand what type of player he was and what type of coach he is. To acquire me, at a challenging time in his young coaching career, says a lot about how much he values me and how much he thinks I’m important to this team. So as a player coming into a situation like this you want to bust your butt for him and reward him at the end of the day.”
Johnson will play alongside striker Espindola, who Olsen calls an “improve” player, and will be likely have a free reign on the field.
Olsen feels he has the veterans that can stabilize the team that often many too many silly errors last year, especially on the backline.
“The big difference,” Olsen said, “is we have a lot of problem-solving players and communication through the players. They are confident in what they know and they are comfortable enough to speak up and that helps me a lot.”
United need early results this season, starting with a win against Columbus to restore confidence in the club that managed just three wins last year. And Olsen believes he has the team to do that.
“A realistic goal for this team is the playoffs,” Olsen said. “Coming off being last placed in the league we can’t think about anything but making the playoffs. We’ve a whole new squad. We have such a long way to go to really understand who we are because of how new this group is. But I like the character, I like the group, I like the experience, I like the balance and positives about this group, so if things go right, and we get a couple of bounces, and we start to create relationships and partnerships out there, we can make the playoffs for sure.”
Some odds makers list United coming in 17th in the 19-team league, with the Los Angeles Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City, New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders as the favorites to win the MLS Cup.
There are some worrying factors for United. Veteran attacking midfielder Chris Pontius is still a few weeks away from regular duty after recovering from hamstring surgery in the off-season and defender Chris Korb will be out for weeks after knee surgery.
“Pontius is moving forward,” Olsen said. “It’s never as fast as we want it to be.”
Team notes: United also acquired midfielder Alex Caskey from the Seattle Sounders this week, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in.
“I could add some depth to the midfielder,” Caskey said. “I know with CONCACAF games coming up I could get in the team.”
John Haydon wrote a weekly soccer column for The Washington Times for 20 years. He has covered two World Cups and written about Major League Soccer from the league’s inception in 1996.
Follow John on Twitter at @Johnahaydon or email [email protected]