The last time we saw D.C. United on a Major League Soccer pitch, the Black and Red were shellacked by the Montreal Impact in the knockout round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Sure, there was disappointment across the board for United, but all they can do now is learn from the mistakes and shortcomings and find more success during the 2017 MLS season, which begins for D.C. at home against Sporting Kansas City on March 4.
“It wasn’t a fun night and we don’t want to go out that way if we get into the playoffs,” D.C. manager Ben Olsen told SBI. “It’s important for us to learn from that game and understand that against a good team, if you don’t have the right mentality from the start, you’re going to chase the game the entire way. You don’t get a lot of second chances in a one-off game.
“We dissected it a million times,” Olsen added. “There’s a whole of bunch of factors that go into it, but the overall theme would be to learn from that game and understand what our shortcomings are and build on them going into this year from a player and organizational standpoint.”
Most of the squad that was knocked out early in the postseason last year is back for the 2017 campaign, the final full year at RFK Stadium for the club before Audi Field opens in 2018.
Continuity is key across the board for the Black and Red. They have a defensive unit that has some of the best chemistry in the league, and behind the back four is one of the best shot-stoppers in MLS, Bill Hamid.
There won’t be a ton of new faces further up the pitch either, but the club brought in some solid additions to create more competition at those positions. MAC Hermann Trophy winner Ian Harkes will add some spark to the midfield, while Jose Guillermo Ortiz was added help for Patrick Mullins up top.
D.C. won’t be changing anything significant about the way it plays, and it doesn’t really need to given the chemistry the core of the roster has formed over the last few years.
“The continuity was a big theme in our offseason,” Olsen said. “We liked the group we finished with and we wanted to keep them together and let them grow and add a piece or two to enhance the group and we think we’ve done that. Who we are and what we’re about is pretty well established at this point.”
Here’s a deeper look at what the 2017 season holds for D.C. United:
2016 Finish: 4th in Eastern Conference (11-10-13)
Key Acquisitions: Jose Guillermo Ortiz, Ian Harkes, Sebastien Le Toux, Maxim Tissot, Chris Odoi-Atsem, Chris Durkin, Eric Klenofsky
Key Losses: Chris Korb, Andrew Dykstra, Alvaro Saborio, Collin Martin, Miguel Aguilar, Kennedy Igboananike
Newcomer to Watch: Ian Harkes
The son of former U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder John Harkes enters the professional ranks with an impressive college resume from his time at Wake Forest. Harkes earned college soccer’s highest honor, the MAC Hermann Trophy, and he led the Demon Deacons to the championship match of the NCAA Tournament. The pressure won’t be on Harkes to thrive in Week 1, but once he gets acclimated to MLS, he should make an impact of some sort during the long season.
Pressure Is On: Patrick Mullins
Mullins finally received consistent first-team minutes in his MLS career after being traded from New York City FC to D.C. last summer. The University of Maryland product benefited from the change of scenery, as he scored eight goals in 14 matches for D.C. Now the pressure is on the fourth-year forward to prove he can lead the line for an entire season.
When asked about the strength of the Eastern Conference, Olsen wasn’t shy in admitting the conference is the best he’s ever seen in the league.
“Yes. The East is clearly up for grabs,” Olsen said. “I don’t know who the favorites are for the first time in a while. I think that’s our league and it’s a credit to some of the teams’ offseason moves. You look at Chicago, New England, there’s a few teams that I think made some really nice moves and put themselves in the conversation to be very competitive in the East. Across the board, I think on paper it’s as good, if not better than the West right now.”
That’s a strong claim from the D.C. boss, but he isn’t wrong and that means his team will have to claw for every point over the next eight months. A spot in the top six could be United’s for the taking if Mullins shines like he did at the back end of the 2016 season.
“He’s going to have high expectations because of how he did down the stretch last year,” Olsen said. “It’s important for him to continue to do all the little things right. Last year he scored goals, but he also worked his tail off on the defensive end and changed the game for us and battled and did all the little things you want out of your forward. That has to be his focus and then again the goals will come.
“I use (Chris Wondolowski) as an example,” Olsen added. “The reason why he continues to score a bunch of goals every year is he does all the little things right and if you can do that, you can score goals consistently in this league.”
More eyes will also be on left back Taylor Kemp, who was called into the USMNT January camp this offseason. Kemp’s play has gone unnoticed by some in MLS, but that won’t be the case anymore now that he’s received a call from Bruce Arena.
“The stakes are very high with the national team,” Olsen said. “Bruce is probably going to go with guys that have a little more experience than Taylor. But Taylor’s a very good player and he showed well at the camp and he just has to continue to be in good form with our group and know that eyes are on him and that Bruce is watching.
“You can be guaranteed the national team puts stock into the American league and they know it’s a good league and if you’re doing well in that league it doesn’t go unnoticed.”
With Bill Hamid healthy and ready to go in goal and a defensive unit headlined by Steve Birnbaum and Kemp, D.C. should do alright against some of the high-powered offenses in the Eastern Conference.
The biggest concern for United may be the support around Mullins. If the forward hits a dry spell of form, D.C. will need someone to pick up the scoring slack. There are plenty of candidates for that on the roster, but a true support system for Mullins still needs to take shape in order for United to attack from all angles.
With all that being said, D.C. has the makeup of a playoff team, but then again so do most of the other 10 sides in the East. United will be in the playoff mix and their seed will be determined by how strong the defense holds up and how much production they can get out of the final third.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP