By THOMAS FLOYD
WASHINGTON — This past fall, when D.C. United general manager Dave Kasper contemplated his goals heading into the offseason, two of the first priorities that came to mind were adding veteran leadership and strengthening his team's back line.
It turns out he didn't have to wait long to check those boxes off his to-do list. Just a week after the MLS Cup, United acquired 32-year-old defender Robbie Russell in a trade with Real Salt Lake.
After spending the first seven years of his career in Scandinavia, gaining UEFA Champions League experience with Norwegian club Rosenborg BK along the way, Russell returned stateside and made 68 starts in four seasons with Salt Lake, establishing himself as one of the league's more dependable right backs.
And he's also tested when it matters most, having made 12 playoff appearances for Salt Lake. When the club earned its first MLS Cup crown in 2009 with an upset win over the Los Angeles Galaxy in penalty kicks, it was Russell who converted the winning shot.
"We're very excited to have his experience as a winner," D.C. coach Ben Olsen said. "He's got championships under his belt, so it's always good to have that mentality around."
In the simplest sense, adding Russell has allowed Olsen to shift second-year player Perry Kitchen to his preferred defensive midfield role after the Akron product spent much of last season filling in at right back.
But Russell, who targeted a move to the nation's capital so he could be closer to his wife, a D.C.-based attorney, with Salt Lake has been a part of one of the league's top back lines in recent years — a welcome presence for a United team that allowed the fourth-most goals in MLS in 2011.
"One of the things I kind of pride myself on is attention to detail," Russell said. "It's the little things that kind of add up to make a good back line."
With the additions of Russell and Argentine centerback Emiliano Dudar, a former Swiss league Defender of the Year whose career was slowed by a concussion in 2010, United have bolstered a back line that at times last year featured three rookies.
With D.C.'s season opener against Sporting Kansas City exactly one month from Friday, the unit is now concentrating on developing chemistry, an aspect of the game exasperated by the fact that first-choice centerbacks Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald rarely played together last season because of injuries.
"You can can kind of see the pieces falling into place," Russell said. "I think we'll be focusing a lot in the next couple weeks how we work together, our formation, how we want to play. We've had lots of conversations about it in meetings, talks, and it's coming together. … It's really about fine-tuning it and kind of getting us into a well-oiled machine, so to speak."
After parting ways with club staples including Clyde Simms and Santino Quaranta to make way for Russell, as well as fellow incoming veterans Dudar, Marcelo Saragosa and Hamdi Salihi, United are relying on those players to change the mood of their locker room after missing the playoffs for four straight years.
"One of the things we felt we needed to do with this team was to begin to create a new culture," United president Kevin Payne said. "That's why there's been a big focus not only on the quality of the players we bring in but the character of the players. And we're really excited about that. We have a chance to develop a new sense of responsibility and competitiveness and leadership among the group in the locker room now that maybe we've lacked in the last few years."
For Russell, the situation doesn't seem terribly different than the one he entered in 2008, when he signed with Salt Lake. At the time, Jason Kreis was, like Olsen, in the early stages of a coaching career not far removed from his playing days. And the club was concluding a roster overhaul, just like a United team whose longest-tenured player is now fourth-year midfielder Chris Pontius.
Seeing as Salt Lake won the MLS Cup in Kreis' second season with the club, Russell is hoping the parallels don't end there.
"Everything was revamped right when I came in," he said. "This is a very similar situation, and you kind of hope that same energy, that same passion is there. And I think it is."