MLS Season Preview: D.C. United hopes for reinvigorated attacking corps
Two winning seasons, two early playoff exits. D.C. United may have finished first in the Eastern Conference in 2014 and held the same position through mid-August last season, but the nation's capital still hasn't seen a playoff series win since 2012.
After going 2-6-1 down the stretch last season, United triumphed over New England in the knockout round but fell 2-0 on aggregate to the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Mere minutes had passed after that second leg defeat when coach Ben Olsen contemplated the viability of his team's resolute roster and grind-it-out philosophy.
"Is this who we are? Are we peaked out?" he asked. "I don't know — it's a fair question. It's something we'll evaluate."
"It's a different group. We're not rebuilding, but there is definitely some restructuring going on with the group," Olsen said. "There are going to be some new players in the starting lineup, and that excites me. It's time for some fresh blood and some fresh energy with this group."
Factor in the likes of versatile midfielder Nick DeLeon, target forward Alvaro Saborio and first-round draft pick Julian Buescher, and United boasts what Olsen described as "the deepest offensive group that we've had."
United also must rely on depth between the posts, with standout goalkeeper Bill Hamid likely sidelined until the summer after undergoing offseason knee surgery. In his absence, veteran backup Andrew Dykstra is poised to get his longest run as a No. 1 goalkeeper since his 2010 campaign with the Chicago Fire.
The United back line, meanwhile, remains stable. The first-choice unit of Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, Sean Franklin and Taylor Kemp is returning for another go-around after the club tied for ninth in MLS in goals conceded last season.
"A lot of the very important pieces remain," Dysktra said. "When each one knows what the other one is going to do or how they like to play, their tendencies, it's not a step we have to take. We're right back on our feet again and can go worry about other things."
While there are plenty of new pieces, the spine of this United roster does remain. The club's playoff setback surely contributed to a degree of change, but Olsen and Co. weren't ready to overhaul a team with the best record in the Eastern Conference over the past two regular seasons.
"I don't see any reason why we should change what we're about and our goals throughout the season," Olsen said. "This league is about getting into playoffs and being in the right state of mind and form in and around that time."
D.C. UNITED SEASON PREVIEW
2015 FINISH: Fourth in Eastern Conference (15-13-6), eliminated in conference semifinals
NOTABLE ADDITIONS: M-F Luciano Acosta, M Marcelo Sarvas, M-F Lamar Neagle, M Patrick Nyarko, M Julian Buescher
NOTABLE LOSSES: M Perry Kitchen, M-F Chris Pontius, M-F Conor Doyle, F Jairo Arrieta, M Michael Farfan
TOP NEWCOMER: Luciano Acosta. Luis Silva's injury troubles and subsequent trade to Real Salt Lake deprived United of a reliable third option in its attack, with too much of the burden falling on Rolfe and Espindola. Enter Acosta, the 21-year-old playmaker on loan from Boca Juniors. United hasn't had much luck with foreign signings in recent years, but preseason performances hint that Acosta could represent the end of that dry spell.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Steve Birnbaum. There was a bit of a sophomore slump for Birnabum in 2015, as injury concerns and inconsistency limited him to 21 starts — several of which came in an unfamiliar fullback role. But with Birnbaum coming off a strong camp with the U.S. national team, the 25-year-old seems braced for a bounce-back season.
"We all know he can be one of the best defenders in this league," Olsen said. "I think he's going to have more of a presence from a leadership standpoint — he's got that in him. He's got a lot of experience for a young guy and he's got a persona that he's able to lead, and I hope he gives more of that."
But the offseason additions make United a more dynamic team, with improvements made to the club's depth and overall attacking quality. Although Hamid's extended absence looms large, a Defender of the Year-caliber season from Birnbaum would go a long way toward softening that blow. Olsen's teams have learned to overachieve, after all, so don't be surprised if United does so again in 2016.