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.
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.”