D.C. United's 2011 season begins on Saturday when the Black and Red host the Columbus Crew. Here is a preview of their season from Martin Shatzer, who is also the lead editor of SB Nation's D.C. United blog Black and Red United.
When a team finishes last place in the league and scores fewer goals than any other team in the league, its easy to say that the team should rebuild. Easy to say, but not always easy to do.
Well D.C. United has done it. They've lowered their average age by about 20 years.
But in getting younger, the team hasn't sacrificed quality. Just experience. Two of the new additions, midfielder Dax McCarty and forward Charlie Davies, have both earned multiple caps from the U.S. National Team despite their youth. Many of the new additions will be expected to make an immediate impact, and almost all are seen as upgrades over last year's roster.
Former club icon Ben Olsen claimed the title of head coach this season after serving in an interim role following the dismissal of Curt Onalfo midway through last season, and he has crafted the team in his image. They are hard-working, aggressive and intelligent players. An experienced coach leading inexperienced players might not sound like a strong recipe for success, but no MLS team will be looking forward to playing D.C. United this year, as they did in 2010. United will be much harder to beat.
D.C. has picked up two new goalkeepers this offseason. One just happens to moonlight as the team's assistant coach as well. Forty three-year old Pat Onstad, who retired from soccer after eight years in MLS to join Olsen's coaching staff, is now set to be the starter in net for United this week. He was called upon to come out of retirement as an emergency due to injuries to both of the goalkeepers who were supposed to compete for the starting job this year. Twenty-year old Homegrown player Bill Hamid is the presumptive eventual starter, but the team has also added Steve Cronin via trade from the expansion Portland Timbers, sending last year's starting goalkeeper Troy Perkins in exchange.
United has also rebuilt its back line, getting much younger by adding No. 3 overall draft pick Perry Kitchen, who is expected to start from Day One. He'll be joined by two holdovers from last season as Dejan Jakovic and Jed Zayner will remain together on the unit that improved late last season once Olsen took the helm. Daniel Woolard was signed away from the Carolina Railhawks and has passed 2010 starter Marc Burch on the depth chart at the left back position.
The midfield has the most questions remaining for D.C., but only because the team now has so many players capable of starting. Indeed, United's midfield might be the deepest in MLS. Rather than starting whichever players have the healthiest limbs, the fewest cracked ribs,and the mildest concussions, this year United will actually be able to start whichever players are performing best. The competition for playing time in midfield will include the 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year Andy Najar, along with other returning players like the Montenegran veteran Branko Boskovic, Santino Quaranta, Clyde Simms and Chris Pontius. They will also be joined by McCarty, a box-to-box central midfield whose playing style is said to resemble Olsen himself. The starting lineup on Saturday will likely consist of Najar, Simms, McCarty and Pontius, an aggressive player now in his third year who suffered from injuries throughout the 2010 season after an impressive rookie campaign the prior year.
The attack is what struggled most for United in 2010, scoring a league-low 21 goals, and setting a new MLS record for scoring futility. To address that, not a single one of D.C.'s four forwards from last season have returned. They've been replaced by former Houston Dynamo player Joseph Ngwenya, former World Cup standout Josh Wolff and Davies, an enigmatic fan favorite who will help the team create and finish goals in addition to helping them at the box office.
Will the changes pay off for United? The playoffs certainly don't seem out of the question in a weak Eastern Conference that has seen some teams take a step back, including United's opening day opponents, the Columbus Crew.
But the playoffs might still be too optimistic for a team that finished in last place just one year ago. United is rebuilding afterall. They are rebuilding smartly though. Rebuilding a young team that will be aggressively competitive for years to come. Ben Olsen wouldn't have it any other way.