By MITCHELL NORTHAM
Entering the 2013 Major League Soccer season, some fans, experts and pundits pegged D.C. United as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Others saw them as legitimate contenders and some just saw them as a team that would be competitive.
Few, if any, predicted the absolute collapse D.C. United would endure on the way to a three-win season in 2013, the lowest win total in MLS history.
They were not competitive and certainly not regarded as contenders. It was a long fall for a team that had won 17 games just the season before.
There was one bright spot for this team though, as somehow they were able to make a run in the U.S. Open Cup and add another trophy to their overflowing case as they beat Real Salt Lake, 1-0, in the final. The trophy relieved some of the pain from the abysmal season, and (probably) saved head coach Ben Olsen’s job.
Olsen kept his job and in the offseason the front office began to douse the dumpster fire that was the previous season by reshaping nearly the entire roster. United retained about four starters with Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon surviving the roster rebuild, while famous faces like former MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario were sent packing.
This season, the Black and Red bring in an almost a brand new back line with the additions of Jeff Parke, Bobby Boswell, Sean Franklin and a man with La Liga experience, Cristian Fernández. For depth, United also drafted highly touted center back Steve Birnbaum from the University of California with the second overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft.
Improvement up top was needed too, so D.C. United acquired the likes of Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola to help in the goal scoring department for a team that scored just 22 times in 2013, the second fewest in league history.
With a mix of old and new faces, along with young and veteran talent, D.C. United is in position to improve on last year’s dismal campaign.
Here is a closer look at D.C. United heading into the 2014 season:
D.C. UNITED SEASON PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: 3-24-7, 16 points (Last in the Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Eddie Johnson, F Fabian Espindola, D Bobby Boswell, D Sean Franklin, D Cristian Fernández, D Jeff Parke, M Davy Arnaud, D Steve Birnbaum, Alex Caskey
KEY LOSSES: M Dwayne De Rosario, D Ethan White, D Dejan Jakovic, M John Thorrington, F Lionard Pajoy
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Cristian Fernández. The easy choice here would have been Johnson or Espindola, who people should still keep an eye on, but it will interesting to see what type of impact someone with La Liga experience will have on United’s already veteran-filled defense.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: Chris Pontius. There are two pressures for the fan-favorite; to stay healthy and to score goals. He did neither last season on a consistent basis, scoring just twice in 18 appearances in MLS and Open Cup matches. Just two seasons ago Pontius appeared in 34 games and scored 12 goals, but for a guy that is club’s longest tenured and highest paid player (until Johnson signs his new DP deal) some United fans feel that 2012 was a lifetime ago for Pontius. He has to justify his salary by staying healthy and scoring; if he doesn’t, he’ll likely appear to most fans as just a walking cap figure.
OUTLOOK: With a new sponsor, a new jersey and new players, it’s almost a guarantee that the Black-and-Red will win more than three games this year. But with the roster improvements is there potential for more than just “better than last season?”
Olsen seems to think so, saying, “We have the right mix of individuals between youth, experience, guys that have been around and guys that have held trophies. I’m excited about the talent of this team. But the trick is to make them a team.”
Olsen is right, team chemistry isn’t something that develops overnight. With multiple new faces in each area of the field it’s hard to project how this team will finish in 2014.
A glass half-empty perspective says this team doesn’t click, and if they do it will have been too late to make a playoff run.
A glass half-full perspective says that Olsen is named coach of the year, Pontius stays healthy and scores goals, and all the new guys fit and fill their new roles perfectly; the team will find it’s groove just in time and make a run that puts them in thick of the playoffs in November.
Or at least, that’s the hope.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP:
Probable formation: 4-4-2