SBI MLS Season Preview: D.C. United

By THOMAS FLOYD

Ben Olsen hasn’t been bothered by D.C. United’s fairly quiet offseason. He’s happy with the group he has. No need to tinker. And considering the club came within a game of the MLS Cup last year, it’s hard to argue the point.

But the coach does know all of the cohesion the group established during a resurgent 2012 campaign won’t mean a thing if the principles he’s established waver. When United capped the regular season with a 5-0-2 stretch and ousted New York from the playoffs following Dwayne De Rosario’s knee injury, it was with the disciplined execution of a 4-5-1 formation that the team found success.

As such, United found their identity. Now it’s time to build off it.

“We hope that we’re ahead of the curve because of the familiarity that we have with each other,” Olsen said. “But really, I felt last year we were organized and we were committed. And that was kind of what got us to where we needed to be. So if we don’t have those things, the chemistry doesn’t really matter so much.”

Here is a closer look at D.C. United ahead of the 2013 MLS season:

D.C. UNITED SEASON PREVIEW

2012 FINISH: 17-10-7, 58 points (second in Eastern Conference)

KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Rafael, F Carlos Ruiz, M John Thorrington, D James Riley, M Marcos Sanchez, F Casey Townsend, D Taylor Kemp

KEY LOSSES: D/M Andy Najar, M Branko Boskovic, F Hamdi Salihi, F Maicon Santos, D Emiliano Dudar

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: F Carlos Ruiz. While Olsen continues to voice his support for incumbent striker Lionard Pajoy, those missed chances sure do pile up. Enter the ever-polarizing Ruiz, 33, whose MLS track record (88 career goals) should have him competing with fellow newcomer Rafael for the chance to supplant Pajoy. Considering the wealth of attacking talent United boast, “El Pescadito” could be lethal with that kind of service — if, in fact, there is gas left in the tank.

THE PRESSURE IS ON: M Perry Kitchen. United’s late-season surge directly corresponded with Olsen placing Marcelo Saragosa into the lineup as an extra defensive midfielder, which freed Kitchen to chase after loose balls and find the game offensively. Whether it’s Saragosa or newcomer John Thorrington sitting next to him this year, Kitchen will need to maintain that high level of play for Olsen’s system to work.

OUTLOOK:

In qualifying for the postseason last year for the first time since 2007, United relieved much of the pressure that was weighing down the franchise after years of underachievement.

Now, with a returning attack featuring the likes of Dwayne De Rosario, Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon, as well as Kitchen winning balls in midfield and Bill Hamid anchoring the defense, this team can start setting its sights higher.

“We set the goal to get into the playoffs last year, and we did that,” Pontius said. “This year, I’d like to see us start taking games over a bit more. There were times last year where games could have gone both ways and we ended up squeaking out on top. I’d like to be more dominant.”

While United haven’t bolstered their lineup with any clear starters, getting De Rosario back in the mix could be seen as the club’s biggest offseason addition. If they can go on a run to the conference final with Branko Boskovic playing underneath a lone striker, logic says having the 2011 MLS MVP in that spot should only enhance the formation’s effectiveness.

As Olsen noted, “He almost becomes a new player too for us and how we play with him and how we react to the way he plays and our balance.”

In the back, Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald will continue a partnership that had grown quite stingy by the end of last season. While Andy Najar’s overlapping runs from right back will be missed, the locker room has faith that third-year player Chris Korb and veteran James Riley can handle the job.

The biggest question surrounds that forward spot next to De Rosario, where Pajoy offers work ethic but an errant finishing touch, Rafael is an unknown commodity, and Ruiz comes with questions concerning form and fitness.

But overall, it would appear the pieces are in place. When considering the success United had in 2012 and the nucleus they bring back this year, it’s all about execution — and not letting the raised expectations prove to be a burden.

“Last year, we went a little under the radar,” De Rosario said. “I think this year, we’re the team to beat.”

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17 Responses to SBI MLS Season Preview: D.C. United

  1. Dinho says:

    Let’s go Thor!

  2. Josh D says:

    Great write up! I agree, our strikers are the biggest question mark. I’m not convinced by either of them. I also worry about DeRo. We’ll be relying on him a lot, again. I also hope we see an upgrade to one of our sidebacks soon. All are good enough, without being stellar and in order to get this team back to where it was, we need class competing against class in each position.

  3. jcl says:

    No mention of Casey Townsend? He’s finally in an environment conducive to his success and I think he could blossom while all eyes remain on Ruiz… It’s easy to forget where his stock was a year ago before Chivas

    • Casey Jones says:

      I think Townsend will go on loan with the kickers. He’s pretty far down the depth chart right now.

  4. elgringorico says:

    The pressure is on. With a group of young guys who have only had more time to gel, I think going far in the playoffs again is a reasonable goal.

  5. Peter says:

    There’s no mention of Casey, because he will probably end up getting plenty of playing time down in Richmond. He will be given plenty of time to blossom and hopefully become a valuable contributor by the end of the season.

  6. ed - houston says:

    I hope DeRo does not get suspended for this weekend’s kick off.

  7. Nate Dollars says:

    want to echo the author’s note of Kitchen’s ‘high level of play': hadn’t really been impressed with him since we drafted him (yes, he had great potential, but looked out of his depth), but through the end of last season, game after game, he was consistently one of the best players on the field, for either team. hope he starts off this season just as well.

    • DC Josh says:

      Last year was his first full MLS season in his preferred position in midfield and he showed why he is the best US prospect in his position. The team depends a lot on him, and I think he will shine this year, pushing for an All Star appearance.

  8. Jacknut says:

    I’m looking forward to a great season from United. Hopefully we can take the next step and play more Pajoy-ball for the entire season and win every match 1-0.

  9. SEBASTIAN MORALES says:

    Last year, a mediocre team that overachieved. Parlayed a conservative, defensive style and hard work into more points than their talent deserved. It also helped that more than a few MLS teams remain disorganized messes. This year, having made no real improvements, DCU will regress. The 1-0 wins of last year will become 2-1 losses. DeRosario will play like someone who is old and trying to recover from a serious injury.

    • KEEP says:

      puff puff give bro……..

    • jimbo says:

      I fear that’s closer to reality than Ives’ assessment. No influential player in the midfield, one forward that can’t score to save his life and one that most likely won’t be his old self again. Hopefully one of the new guys emerge. Also hope deRo doesn’t drop back into the midfield where he was awful.

      • Rob says:

        No influential player in the midfield? Name a stronger wide midfield tandem than Pontius and DeLeon.

        Go on, I’ll wait.

    • Jake says:

      They played that style when their strikers went cold and then when DeRo went down. Earlier in the year they were exciting and dynamic and scored goals. They may regress since they didn’t really add any clear difference-makers, but you aren’t totally accurate in your description of last year’s team.