By THOMAS FLOYD
For D.C. United fans anxious over the club's four-year playoff absence, this past offseason was an exercise in patience.
While United came back from the worst campaign in club history in 2010 to compete for a postseason berth until last season's final week, a lack of experience in the back, consistency up top and depth all around derailed their chances. When the team gathered for preseason in mid-January, however, little progress had been made on the player-movement front.
But any fears were promptly quelled by a flurry of movies, including the additions of Argentine centerback Emiliano Dudar and Albanian striker Hamdi Salihi. When it comes to coach Ben Olsen and Co. ending United''s playoff drought, it would appear to be now or never.
"It was a very busy offseason," Olsen said. "It was a product of having a lot of needs. Fortunately, once the New Year came, things started falling that we had worked on to get. I felt we were very patient and not pulling the trigger on certain guys that were there. I’ve been guilty of that in the past. So we waited, and I think we ended up being in a very good spot."
Here is a closer look at United ahead of the 2012 MLS season:
D.C. UNITED SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 9-13-12, 39 points (seventh in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Hamdi Salihi, D Emiliano Dudar, D Robbie Russell, M Danny Cruz, M Nick DeLeon, F Maicon Santos, M Marcelo Saragosa
KEY LOSSES: F Charlie Davies, M Clyde Simms, M Santino Quaranta, D Marc Burch, F Blake Brettschneider, M Austin da Luz, D Jed Zayner
After the acquisition of midfielder-forward Dwayne De Rosario halfway through last season, United's attack leaned heavily on the Canada international. In just 18 games, De Rosario answered the bell and then some, notching 13 goals and seven assists while riding his prolific production to MLS Most Valuable Player honors.
In 2012, United will look to ease the burden on the 33-year-old's shoulders. Montenegro national team captain Branko Boskovic, back from a torn ACL, will hope to offer the kind of classy distribution out of central midfield that was missing when De Rosario played as a withdrawn forward last year.
After receiving mixed results from striker Charlie Davies during his stint on loan from French club Sochaux, United have replaced him with Salihi, a prolific poacher signed as a Designated Player during the winter transfer window. Playing the past three years for Austrian side Rapid Vienna, where he was Boskovic's teammate, the 28-year-old scored 53 goals in 90 matches.
"He's deadly," midfielder Chris Pontius said of Salihi. "Obviously his strike rate speaks for itself. So anywhere around the 18, teams are going to have to make sure they know where he is or he's going to punish them, and I think that's something that obviously will free up more space for the players underneath him."
In the back, United have added Dudar, 30, and right back Robbie Russell, 32, to a defense that struggled last season and at times featured three rookies in front of goalkeeper Bill Hamid. Russell's presence will allow Olsen to shift second-year player Perry Kitchen to a full-time holding midfield role, while Dudar will compete with incumbents Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald for time in central defense.
In fact, competition for minutes should be fierce all around. Young wingers Nick DeLeon and Danny Cruz were brought in as insurance for starters Pontius and Andy Najar, and veteran forwards Josh Wolff and Maicon Santos ensure Olsen has plenty of options to choose from up top as well.
"We have a lot of depth," De Rosario said. "We have a lot of guys fighting for the positions, and it creates a great competitive environment."
From a pure talent standpoint, this is easily the most gifted United squad put together since D.C. won back-to-back Supporters' Shields in 2006 and 2007. And that means raised expectations for Olsen, who has now firmly put his stamp on this team since taking the permanent coaching job in November 2010.
"We're starting to get a little more experienced crew here mixed with good youth, so I think the mix is right," Olsen said. "But this is all on paper."