By RYAN TOLMICH
Throughout Ben Olsen’s D.C. United tenure, things have been quite cyclical. Olsen’s time with the club has gone from bad, to good, down to really, really bad and, last year, really, really good.
For Olsen, this season is all about bringing some consistency into the fold.
Last season’s D.C. United squad rode the league’s stoutest defense all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference. Relying on a bunch of newcomers and discarded veterans, the club’s successes last season came as a surprise, if not a downright shock.
D.C. United won’t be shocking anyone this year, as the team has returned nearly all of last season’s contributing members. Roster-wise, 2015 is much of the same: same award-winning goalkeeper, same defiant defense, same breakout attacking unit that will be looking to once again prove their mettle.
The 2014 season proved that D.C. United was capable of rebounding from anything, turning a historically bad campaign the prior year into a historically good one.
Now, D.C. United just needs to show an ability to maintain a high level, and potentially even contend for a title.
Here is a closer look at 2015 D.C. United:
D.C. UNITED SEASON PREVIEW
2014 FINISH: 17-9-8, 59 points (First in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: M/D Markus Halsti (free), F Jairo Arrieta (trade from Orlando City), M Michael Farfan (free), M Miguel Aguilar (MLS Draft), GK Travis Worra (free)
KEY LOSSES: M Lewis Neal (Expansion Draft to Orlando City) GK Joe Willis (traded to Houston Dynamo), D Samuel Inkoom (traded to Houston Dynamo), D Nana Attakora (12/8/14 – option declined), M Alex Caskey (12/8/14 – option declined), D Jeff Parke (12/8/14 – option declined), M Kyle Porter (12/8/14 – option declined), D Conor Shanosky (12/8/14 – option declined)
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Markus Halsti. The Finnish international provides plenty of versatility to a D.C. United that opted to stand pat in most areas. Able to play across the backline, Halsti, who started six UEFA Champions League games this past fall, figures to slot into the midfield to kick off the season. With the CONCACAF Champions League and perhaps even a U.S. Open Cup run intersecting with the regular season, head coach Ben Olsen will be able to call on Halsti’s versatility and experience to lead the team, no matter what position he’s in.
PRESSURE IS ON: Luis Silva. D.C. United’s forward line will be heavily depleted at the start of the season due to Fabian Espindola’s six-game suspension and Eddie Johnson’s medical woes. That puts the goalscoring pressure onto the shoulders of Silva, who had a strong 2014 campaign with 11 goals and four assists. Silva will need to fire early and often for D.C. United early in the season to avoid getting stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack from the get-go.
For what D.C. United lacks in pure star power, the club features plenty of proven, stable MLS talent across the board. Unlike the Toronto FCs and LA Galaxys of the world, D.C. United feature no true world-beater, no game-defining talent, but rather a workman attitude and a cohesive unit that knows how to play within the game at hand.
That classification of team is just fine with head coach Ben Olsen, who says that last season’s progress taught him about exactly what it takes to put together a team that has the ability to contend.
“I guess my biggest takeaway was what that I understand what type of players works in this league and that a group with the right edge and the right grit can accomplish big things,” Olsen told SBI. “We had a group that was very motivated, guys that were let go by other teams, guys that wanted to prove that the year before was a one-off.
“There was a real axe to grind with the entire team and organization, which brings me to this year and we need to have that each year to try and become a consistent playoff team. That’s a very tough thing to do, I think, in this league, and that’s a real sign of success and that’s something that we’re looking to do this year.”
Much like last year’s iteration of the team, 2015’s version of D.C. United starts from the back.
As evidenced by last week’s CONCACAF Champions League loss in Costa Rica, goalkeeper Bill Hamid remains D.C. United’s most vital piece, as the 24-year-old shot-stopper continues to be the closest thing the team has to a superstar. Recognized as last season’s MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, Hamid single-handedly kept the team in games last season.
In front of Hamid will sit the proven center back pairing of Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum, the latter of whom was rewarded for last season’s breakout rookie year with a U.S. Men’s National Team start last month. Boswell, meanwhile, earned plaudits as an MLS Best XI defender, and there’s no reason to believe that the pairing will be anything but one of the league’s top defensive duos.
To the left and right of Birnbaum and Boswell will likely be the returning Taylor Kemp and Sean Franklin, continuing to fortify the D.C. defense down the sidelines.
D.C. United’s biggest change from 2014 lies in the midfield, which will be anchored by Finish international Markus Halsti. The 30-year-old, who joins from Sweden’s Malmo, has the potential to be a real handyman for Olsen due to his ability to play anywhere in the midfield or in the defense.
“That’s the beauty of him: he can do what you need him to do,” Olsen said of Halsti. “Versatility down the spine is a rare thing, especially with the quality that Markus has. We’re looking forward to seeing where he fits best for us and I’m sure, at times, it’s going to be in both spots (defense and midfield).”
Joining Halsti as a new addition will be Michael Farfan, who comes to the capital after an unsuccessful stint with Cruz Azul. Farfan and Halsti, along with draft pick Migheul Aguilar, join a core group that established themselves last season, including Davy Arnaud, Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen and Chris Rolfe.
The forward group is where things start to get interesting, as the team’s two Designated Players, Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola, are set to miss time to start the year. Espindola’s time is more definite, as the forward will be suspended for the opening six games, while Johnson’s status remains up in the air due to a medical condition.
In their stead, the goalscoring requirements will lie with veteran forward Chris Pontius, 11-goal-scorer Luis Silva and offseason acquisition Jairo Arrieta, who joins the club following a trade from the Columbus Crew.
Combining those options is sure to be an inexact science for Olsen, who says that the team is still working out which forward unit will be ideal going forward.
“At this point, we’re not sure who the frontrunner is going to be at the start of the season. Fabi’s out for six games,” Olsen said.” If he wasn’t, he’d be in there. Finding that combination is going to be a bit of a process. It’s something we’ve been working on in preseason.
“Arrieta is probably the one true forward out of that mix. Can we get away with two nine-and-a-halfs with a good relationship, like Pontius or Rolfe, or do we need a number nine with Arrieta with someone running off of him? That’s stuff that we’re going to find out.”
Overall, 2015 is about building on success and consistency, Olsen says. The 2014 season is over, done and dusted. Now, if D.C. United wants to be counted among the league’s elite, progress will have to be made in the here and now.
“It’s about consistency for me ,” Olsen said, “and which guys, which players and which coaches, putting myself on the hot-seat, can be in the playoffs on a consistent basis. I think that’s what we need to focus on, not just one year, and hopefully, we can start to become that team.
“Anyone can have a good year in this league,” Olsen added. “With the fortunes as they are in MLS, you can have one of those. The teams that I’m impressed with and the players that I’m impressed with are the guys that are there year-in, year-out in the postseason, and that’s what we’re striving to do now.”