United Ready to Start Over

New season provides fresh beginning for DC United
by Peter Muller   |   Wednesday, March 05, 2014

John Hefti Photography - Eddie Johnson, DC United

When D.C. United opens its 2014 Major League Soccer campaign on Saturday against Columbus Crew the club will be looking to banish the memories of last year’s catastrophic season and begin this year on a winning note.

United underwent a major overhaul in the offseason in an effort to make the club competitive, and Saturday’s match will be the first real test of whether the rebuilding effort has been successful. 

But there will be other compelling storylines for D.C. United fans to follow as this year unfolds.

Roster rebuild

In rebuilding a roster that scored the fewest goals in the league last year and won just 3 games, DCU General Manager Dave Kasper and manager Ben Olsen chose the safe route by bringing in established MLS veterans. 

Eddie Johnson, Fabian Espindola, Bobby Boswell, Jeff Parke, Sean Franklin and Davy Arnaud are accomplished players with much experience in the league.  While it may take some time for them to come together as a team, they all know what it takes to be successful in MLS.

One thing they will certainly improve is United’s attacking threat. Johnson and Espindola will be counted on to combine for 20 or more goals and both have a track record indicating they are more than capable of reaching that target. And a fully rebuilt backline is bound to strengthen United’s defense – particularly on set pieces, which was an Achilles heel for the team last year.

But while United will be a more competitive team in 2014 there are questions about how high its ceiling is. Is this team capable of competing for a title against last year’s Supporters’ Shield winner Red Bull New York or teams like Toronto FC and Philadelphia Union that have added major pieces of their own?

The answer will depend on just how well Johnson and Espindola mesh, whether Boswell and Parke will be able to keep up with speedy attackers like Jermain Defoe and whether Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon return to their 2012 form.

Olsen and Kasper

For Olsen and Kasper, whose MLS careers have been inextricably tied to D.C. United, 2014 is a make or break year. Team ownership gave them the opportunity to return after last year’s debacle and they were provided the resources necessary to reconstruct the club. 

Olsen, in particular, is a sentimental favorite of the supporters and despite last year’s miserable performance most are still behind him and want to see him succeed. But how much rope do he and Kasper have left?  If the team gets off to a rocky start will ownership have the patience to stick with them or pull the plug early in an effort to save the season?

One challenge Olsen will face is blending new personalities, including the mercurial Johnson, into a unified team.  He appeared to keep the ship together last year despite the poor performance on the field, but he has a new set of strong personalities this year that he must manage.

Pontius and DeLeon

This may prove to be a decisive year for attacker Chris Pontius.  Now the longest tenured member of D.C. United at age 26, the club’s fortunes this year may depend on Pontius’ health and whether he can return to the form he showed in his breakout year of 2012 when he scored 12 goals.

But he is not off to a good start.  Injuries have again slowed him down and he has yet to participate in full training with the team or play any of United’s preseason matches.  As this point he is projected to miss at least the first couple of weeks of the season.

DeLeon, on the other hand, is healthy, fit and determined to get his career back on track.  An early season injury sidelined him last year and when he returned to the lineup he was never able to show the same attacking threat as in 2012.  With a new cast around him more attacking options to share the responsibility DeLeon seems poised to have a comeback year.

Hamid and Kitchen

Goalkeeper Bill Hamid and midfielder Perry Kitchen are 2 of the bedrock pieces of United’s spine.  Hamid, 23, is a product of United’s youth academy and as one of the top young goalkeepers in MLS he is now a semi-regular with the U.S. Mens National Team program.  Kitchen was United’s top draft pick in 2011 and at 22 he has already played more than 100 matches with the club in a defensive midfield role.

Having survived last season with a substandard supporting cast, both players need to take advantage of the veterans that now surround them and take their games to the next level.

Hamid has strong shot-blocking skills but needs to show that he has overcome his youthful lack of maturity and be a strong presence guiding the defense in front of him.

For Kitchen the next step is to grow into a true box-to-box midfielder in the mold of a Michael Bradley or Kyle Beckerman.  Kitchen has shown signs of being this type of player and is highly regarded by Olsen but must develop into more of an offensive threat.

In addition to the MLS campaign United will try to defend its 2013 U.S. Open Cup title and will participate in the 2014-2015 CONCACAF Champions League.  After a long offseason and a near-total rebuild Saturday’s game will provide the first indication of how United will fare this year.

NEXT UP: March 8 - DC United vs. Columbus Crew, RFK Stadium, Washington, DC, 7 p.m. EST, MLS Live.


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Peter is a government relations professional in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA. He has been a DC United season ticket holder since 1997 and has attended every MLS Cup except one – in 1998 when he was busy helping his boss get re-elected to Congress.