The giants of MLS in the league’s early years, DC United are tied with the Los Angeles Galaxy for the most MLS Cup victories with four each; the difference is that, while the Galaxy have won the past two crowns, United have gone nearly a decade since their last title. Last season’s second-place finish in the East brought DC their first playoff berth in five seasons, and it will only get tougher this season to maintain a top-five position.
DC returns basically all of its starters from last season, reinforcing rather than radically overhauling any parts of their roster over the offseason. That continuity should help United at least remain competitive in the hunt for the postseason, as the team knows one another’s tendencies from goal to goal. The only major loss is the departure of Andy Najar; the defensive midfielder became the first MLS Homegrown player to earn a permanent move to a European league.
Head coach Ben Olsen, who patrolled the right side and the center of the DC midfield for a dozen years, has turned the club around after taking over midway through a 2010 season that proved to be the worst statistically in United history. Improving the team from 22 to 39 to 58 points in his first three years at the helm, Olsen needs to make sure the squad stays hungry and vigilant lest they fall prey to teams hunting for them in the tough conference field.
DC United played six preseason matches, spending their training time in Florida. Their first two matches took place in Bradenton before United moved onto Orlando for the Disney Pro Soccer Challenge. Their first outing, against the Columbus Crew, ended in a 1-0 defeat as Olsen fielded a side of newcomers and trialists. They would recover against Swedish side Malmo FF, trialist Joseph Nane negating the Swedes’ early lead as United survived for a 1-1 draw.
They packed up camp and headed to Orlando from there. Lionard Pajoy and Taylor Kemp scored two goals apiece as United routed the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL 4-0 in their Disney Challenge opener. Bobby Convey and Soony Saad ruined the good vibes in the next match, the duo connecting for Sporting Kansas City as DC fell 2-0. Their final group match, against the Montreal Impact, appeared like it was about to be another loss before Kyle Porter struck five minutes from the final whistle for the equalizer in the 1-1 draw.
DC was paired off against the Philadelphia Union in their final match of the tournament. Showcasing his attacking skill, Dwayne De Rosario joined Pajoy on the score sheet as United outpaced the Union 2-0. With the victory, DC finished their preseason a tidy 2-2-2.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
Bill Hamid has solidified his starting role at the back end for United as he has started the majority of the team’s games in goal in each of the past two seasons. Hamid led the league last season in save percentage, saving over 77% of all opportunities on his net, and his 1.03 goals against average was third-best among MLS goalkeepers. Olsen will look to him to carry the load again. Behind Hamid is Joe Willis, who played in 11 games for DC last year and went 4-4-3 with 1.76 goals against per game. Andrew Dykstra, who spent last season on loan to the Charleston Battery of USL Pro, leading the Carolina club to the league championship, earned 17 starts in 2011 for the Chicago Fire.
Brandon McDonald, who obliterated Jeff Agoos’ record last year for minutes played in a single season by the equivalent of nearly two full matches, will anchor the defense in front of Hamid. Croatian center-back Dejan Jakovic should be the starter alongside McDonald. The fullbacks are Daniel Woolard on the left and Chris Korb on the right. Robbie Russell could also push Korb for starting time and provides great depth on the flanks. Chivas USA acquisition James Riley, Homegrown player Ethan White and 2013 SuperDraft first-round pick Taylor Kemp will all hope to work their way into the starting four on the back line during the season.
Team captain Dwayne De Rosario will be suspended for his first two matches of 2013 after headbutting Philadelphia’s Danny Cruz in a preseason friendly. Once he returns he will return to his usual role as the attacking catalyst in the five-deep midfield. He could also play forward or as the attacking mid in a four-man unit. Other central midfielders who will be in the mix are incumbent starter Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa along with offseason acquisition Chris Thorrington. Lewis Neal, acquired before last season, also could get a look after playing in 18 games in 2012. Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius will push the pace up the wings in either formation. Panamanian international Marcos Sanchez arrived in DC on loan in February to provide depth on the right side, while 23-year-old Kyle Porter was impressive throughout the midfield in the preseason as well.
Up front, Colombian veteran Lionard Pajoy has been playing directly alongside Dwayne De Rosario on the front line, but the suspension of the latter for his first two matches of 2013 after headbutting Philadelphia’s Danny Cruz in a preseason friendly. With Olsen testing more two-striker looks this preseason, Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz could also get playing time at the position with De Rosario dropping back to midfield. Rafael Teixeira, Casey Townsend and 16-year-old Michael Seaton are also on the bench ready to go.
DC United aren’t appreciably different than the squad that proved to be the second-best in a tough Eastern Conference. They are also a team that is so dependent on its starting XI that it could be susceptible to backsliding from any extended injuries that might befall the first team. This season, DC could finish anywhere from first to seventh in a conference where they might have trouble replicating the 17 wins of 2012.