United's rookie class gears up ahead of their first professional match
Anyone who remembers last year's opening-night victory over Columbus can testify to the fact that there's just something special about season openers. The optimism of a fresh start combined with a first taste of competitive action usually makes for a memorable evening.
For a pair of United youngsters in particular, Saturday's match will mark an important career milestone. Whether or not rookies Nick DeLeon and Lance Rozeboom make their professional debuts against Sporting Kansas City, the duo are on cloud nine ahead of their first match as pros.
"I've mentally been preparing all week for it," said midfielder Nick DeLeon, United's top draft-choice this offseason. "I'll take it all in during the pre-game. As soon as game time comes, that's when you block it all out. From there it's all business."
If Rozeboom enter's Saturday's game, it will be the culmination of a week full of firsts for the supplemental draft pick out of the University of New Mexico. Signed on Wednesday, 'Boomer' - as his teammates call him - has a very specific plan for his debut.
"I'm going to be watching the guys who are playing my position, how they handle gameday and the pressure of the moment," noted the 22-year-old. "For me, it's about finding that balance between absorbing it all and learning from those guys that will be on the field."
One player Rozeboom will keep a close eye on is holding midfielder Perry Kitchen. The second-year pro shares a position with Rozeboom, and on Friday offered up some advice for D.C.'s rookie class.
"Have fun and enjoy it. It's a big step in their careers," said Kitchen, who made his debut in last year's 3-1 win over the Crew. "You are definitely - I don't want to say nervous - but you have butterflies. With all the fans, you are psyched and pumped and ready to go, it's something they'll always remember."
D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City kick-off at 7:30 on Saturday night at RFK. Buy Tickets.
After hundreds of interviews, here are some of United's best soundbites from preseason
Over a preseason that took D.C. United through Florida, Arizona and South Carolina, there were plenty of opportunities for the Black-and-Red to give us some juicy soundbites. To that end, here are your top five quotes from the preseason.
#5 - "I drew that up. I told Andy to beat five guys and hit Hamdi for an open net. Yeah, I'm a genius." - Ben Olsen
Sometimes Ben Olsen is in a good mood. When he is, the coach can often be playfully sarcastic with the media, as he was while describing United's top-notch strike against Charleston. Olsen is not always in a such a playful mood, as you will see later on.
#4 - "I try to win my spot every week, it doesn't matter who is in camp with us. It is not a spot that is going to be given to me." - Daniel Woolard
One of the questions entering this preseason was whether or not Woolard would be United's opening-night left back. Trialists Jose Burciaga and Guilherme each auditioned at the spot, but neither ever provided the consistency that has become Woolard's trademark.
#3 - "I'll play through pain, absolutely. This is my job, I don't like to sit on the sideline and watch… I'll do anything I can to play." - Danny Cruz
Asked his take on playing through pain, Cruz almost scoffed at the question. The victim of a reckless challenge against Charleston, doctors initially told the midfielder that he had broken his ankle. About twelve hours after x-rays proved them wrong, Cruz was jogging at practice.
#2 - "It's beautiful when you score, because you are doing your job"
Said in his instantly recognizable accent, Hamdi Salihi's response to a post-match question points to the striker's singular focus. Scoring is his job and little else matters to the man they call 'The Bomber'.
#1 - "We are a different team than last year"
Sometimes Ben Olsen is not in a good mood. When asked if anything could be discerned from last year's two Kansas City wins over United, Olsen fired back with a curt response. The coach, however, does bring up a good point. Of the ten field players who started the 2011 finale against Sporting, only four (De Rosario, Najar, McDonald, Woolard) are likely to open 2012 starting at the same position.
D.C. United continued their final preparations for Sporting Kansas City on Tuesday
With just days left before the opener, every competitive advantage counts. To that end, United head coach Ben Olsen closed the final half-hour of Tuesday's training session as the Black-and-Red worked on set pieces.
"Last year we weren't good enough on set pieces, both for and against," Olsen said after practice. "We wanted that to be a focus this preseason and making sure that we don't give up silly goals on free kicks."
Offensively, D.C. has plenty of options on dead balls. Between Dwayne De Rosario's right foot and Branko Boskovic's left, anything within shooting range will be a serious threat. From further out, Andy Najar is a proven option to provide a well-driven service.
Earlier this preseason, Olsen admitted that defensive set pieces have been an achilles heel for D.C. In their latest contest, a 3-1 win over Charleston in the Carolina Challenge Cup, United's defense allowed multiple free headers off free kicks.
What was at first thought to be a major injury has turned into little more than a speed bump for outside midfielder Danny Cruz. A victim of a brutal challenge in Wednesday's game against Charleston, Cruz has already returned to action, participating fully in Tuesday's practice.
Though he admits to some swelling left in the injured ankle, Cruz said Tuesday that he is ready for opening night against Kansas City. Ben Olsen called the midfielder "durable" and noted that Cruz's relentless style has left him accustomed to playing through pain.
"He's right, it comes with the way that I play," Cruz agreed. "I expect it every game. If you look at the amount of times that I get fouled, it's a lot compared to my minutes. I'm getting hit a lot, so I'm used to getting hit."
Intent on finalizing the squad ahead of MLS First Kick on March 10, D.C. United continues to adjust their roster.
Over the weekend, the Black-and-Red released trialist Jose Burciaga. The move clears space for another trialist, as the club welcomed midfielder Lewis Neal on trial from USL side Orlando City. Neal's addition leaves three players in camp without a contract. Lance Rozeboom has impressed throughout the preseason but remains unsigned. Beyond that, Ryan Richter and Neal are likely competing for the one roster spot Olsen says he has left to fill.
Prior to his arrival stateside, the Leicester, England native enjoyed a decade-long career in England's lower leagues. The 30-year-old has played for Stoke City, Preston North End, Notts County, Carlisle United and most recently Shrewsbury Town.
After claiming the Carolina Challenge Cup, D.C. United returns to RFK ahead of opener
D.C. United is back in Washington following an extended trip to Charleston for the final leg of preseason. Here's some of what we learned about the Black-and-Red during the eleven day journey.
DEPTH IS FOR REAL
All through the offseason, we heard Ben Olsen and the club's brass talk about adding depth. If the Charleston trip proved anything, it's that that depth is very real.
Take the outside midfield position, where Danny Cruz - who started all four games in Houston's run to MLS Cup last year - is entrenched firmly behind starters Andy Najar and Chris Pontius. Cruz has already embraced the role, proving his end-to-end worth in a very positive display Wednesday night against the host Battery.
Another spot where United confirmed its depth was in net. With Bill Hamid away with the U-23's, Joe Willis again validated Olsen's faith in the young goalkeeper. Against the Fire, his denial of Pavel Pardo's early penalty kick proved that Willis has a knack for the same momentum-swinging saves that D.C. fans have grown accustomed to seeing from Hamid. With their top-choice goalie likely to miss time at some point this season, expect D.C.'s staff to be more than comfortable relying on Willis.
STIFF COMPETITION AT THE BACK
In 2011, D.C. United allowed 52 goals. Only four MLS teams conceded more, making defensive overhauls not only a likelihood but also a necessity.
While Daniel Woolard held down the left back spot for most of last season, it was clear United's coaches wanted to push the 27-year-old defender heading in to 2012. Trialists Jose Burciaga and Guilherme were both given ample opportunity to compete, but Woolard's consistent play makes him the odds-on favorite to start against Kansas City.
At the center of D.C.'s defense there are three options for two starting spots. Following the CCC opener, Olsen credited Emiliano Dudar for bringing calm and organization after a first half in which Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald struggled to contain Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko. McDonald's physical style of play is a tremendous asset in defense, so Jakovic and Dudar are likely still competing for the last available spot in the back four.
CHEMISTRY QUESTIONS REMAIN
As promising as the pair of victories against Chicago and Charleston were, not getting in the final match against Columbus could be an issue for United.
The contest - which was cancelled after heavy rain flooded the field at Blackbaud Stadium - would have given Olsen a first chance to see his entire first team on the field at the same time. In addition, a pair of partnerships that D.C. will rely upon in the coming months were denied a final chance to build chemistry.
In the center of midfield, United looks to have a duo that brings a little bit of everything to the table. Finally healthy, Branko Boskovic's 13th minute assist against Charleston was just the type of classy through-ball United has needed from the Montenegrin since he arrived in D.C. two seasons ago. Pairing with Boskovic, Perry Kitchen will be the ball-winner of the group, but one who is especially good at changing fields and communicating with those around him. How well they mesh will be essential to United's 2012 fortunes.
Up top the partnership of Dwayne De Rosario and Hamdi Salihi is poised to deliver results, but the duo would have benefitted greatly from some extra time together on Saturday. Salihi is an extremely intelligent player off the ball, and De Rosario still has to get used to the dangerous - but sometimes non-standard - runs the Albanian forward has shown a penchant for making. Because of Salihi's late arrival, a mid-summer timeline for the pairing to truly click may be rather likely.
After a successful U.S. U-23 camp, two important pieces rejoin United
Some things never change.
As United's players loaded up a pair of cargo vans in preparation for Friday's training session, a familiar face was leading the pack. Fresh from a successful stint with the U.S. pre-Olympic side, Perry Kitchen was - as he has been since his first day in Black-and-Red - first in line to help load equipment into the vehicles.
"Good to be back," Kitchen said after arriving at the team hotel Thursday afternoon. "It's weird [not being around the guys]. Of course I'm following my team, this is who I play for first and foremost. I'm always hoping we are doing well."
Also in camp with the U-23's, goalkeeper Bill Hamid joined Kitchen in keeping tabs on his United teammates from afar. By this time a veteran of multiple national team camps, the D.C. academy product acknowledges a certain boost in confidence that can come with an international call-up.
"Playing with the elite players on the U.S. team and against Mexico, who has a lot of young stars in the Mexican league, you are getting great experience," said Hamid. "You have to take [the opportunity] and make yourself better in both environments."
For both Hamid and Kitchen, the highlight of their recent call-up came on Wednesday night. Following victories from both the men's and women's national teams, the U-23's topped rival Mexico 2-0, capping a banner day for American soccer.
"It's a good thing for U.S. Soccer, the three wins," Hamid added. "You see social media and you see the fans are happy. That is what we want to continue, helping the sport grow in this country and national teams are a big part of that."
With Saturday's match against Columbus serving as a final tune-up ahead of the March 10 season opener, both Kitchen and Hamid must acclimatize themselves quickly to United's preseason camp. To that end, head coach Ben Olsen - himself capped 37 times with the U.S. national team - offered some helpful advice to D.C.'s pair of rising stars.
"When I'm with the Olympic team Ben wants all my focus there, he told me that," Kitchen said of a preseason chat he had with Olsen. "When I'm here, he obviously wants all my focus here. He also said to enjoy it. Representing your country is an honor."
Midfielder Danny Cruz may return for March 10 opener
Some notes following D.C. United's second consecutive preseason win, a 3-1 victory over the host Charleston Battery at the 2012 Carolina Challenge Cup.
DANNY CRUZ UPDATE
On the wrong end of a red-card challenge, there were serious concerns about the status of D.C. midfielder Danny Cruz as United departed Blackbaud Stadium on Wednesday. Fortunately, further testing late last night revealed only bone bruises and no fractures in either of the young midfielder's ankles.
In fact, Cruz was walking without crutches Thursday morning and attended - though did not participate - in team's morning practice. According to United's training staff, Cruz will be evaluated on a daily basis with hopes that he will be available for selection for the March 10 season opener.
OLSEN EVEN KEEL
In just his second year in charge of United, Ben Olsen has picked up on one of the trademarks of the coaching profession - you can't let your emotions get too high ... especially in preseason. Following the Black-and-Red's impressive 3-1 victory, Olsen was quick to point out some of the deficiencies in Wednesday night's performance.
"I think it was still one half that wasn't so great and one that was a little better," Olsen said after the Black-and-Red had claimed its second victory of the Carolina Challenge Cup. "When we play the game simply and move the ball with one and two touches and don't complicate everything, we are a pretty good team and we'll be successful. But if we complicate things and take three touches instead of two we are going to struggle."
The top highlight from Wednesday night - and maybe all of United's preseason - came in the 88th minute. Andy Najar went on a run that displayed every promising characteristic in the 18-year-old's blossoming repertoire. A brilliant first touch under pressure set up a forty yard dash, where the Honduran showed strength, balance and the ability to change speeds all while keeping the ball glued to his foot.
Perhaps the most exciting element of Najar's magical run is what the ambitious teenager did once he finally ran out of Battery defenders to beat. A give-and-go with Josh Wolff unlocked the play and allowed Najar to get behind Charleston's back four. With the hard work - and half of Charleston's defense chasing him - the midfielder finished the sequence with a precise pass to Hamdi Salihi.
All told, Najar took ten consecutive touches and beat five Charleston defenders before pairing with Wolff and picking up his first assist of the Carolina Challenge Cup.
D.C. United has parted ways with trialist Guilherme. On trial from Brazilian club Botafogo, the 20-year-old left back had been training with the Black-and-Red since last Monday.
He played the final 30 minutes in D.C.'s 1-0 win over Chicago on Saturday, but did not enter Wednesday night's match against Charleston.
Brought in for his bite, Cruz is proving he's a two-way player
Here are some of the top storylines from practice as D.C. United prepares for its penultimate preseason match on Wednesday night against the Charleston Battery. The match, which starts at 7:15 p.m., can be seen via live stream exclusively at dcunited.com.
When D.C. United shipped allocation money to Houston in exchange for Danny Cruz earlier this year, exactly where the feisty winger would fit in D.C.'s crowded midfielder was very up in the air. Through most of preseason, people have penciled Cruz in as a defensive late-game sub, capable of locking down an opposing player if the Black-and-Red are holding on to a lead.
But over the last few days of training, Cruz has come to life on the offensive end of the field. In a full side scrimmage Monday, the 22-year-old sliced in from the right flank before burying a left-footed shot into the far corner past Andrew Dykstra. The trend continued Tuesday, as Cruz was among United's most efficient players during a series of finishing drills.
"You are always trying to score more goals and get more assists, and that's what I want to try and do," Cruz said after training. "Right now, I'm playing behind a very good player and the minutes that I get I expect to come in and give that bite to the team and hopefully a winning mentality."
Cruz, who represented the U.S. at the 2007 U-17 World Cup, knows a thing or two about winning. He started all four playoff games as the Dynamo made it to MLS Cup last year, and was also a part of the 2009 Houston team that advanced to the Western Conference Final.
When D.C. United announced yesterday that the club had signed Andrew Dykstra, Ben Olsen knew he was getting some solid depth in net. Turns out Dykstra brings something else to the table as well, an intricate knowledge of D.C.'s Wednesday night opponent, the Charleston Battery.
Dykstra played eleven games with Charleston last season, backstopping the Battery to a playoff spot. On Tuesday, Dykstra offered some thoughts on his former team.
"They are a team that are pretty good for their league and I respect the heck out their coach," said United's newest signee. "I expect it to be a good game and for them to want to prove something to us and to themselves."
The young goalkeeper singled out forward Dane Kelly and center back Colin Falvey as players to watch on Wednesday night.
NOW OR NEVER
With time running out before Ben Olsen must finalize his roster, Wednesday night's match against the Battery is one of a few last chances for those players still without a contract to earn one.
As of Tuesday's training session Lance Rozeboom, Ryan Richter, Jose Burciaga, Guilherme and Seth C'deBaca were unsigned, but still in camp.
Rozeboom, Richter and Guilherme all played on Saturday, and will likely see time again Wednesday. Burciaga teammed with Dejan Jakovic, Ethan White and Daniel Woolard in defensive drills on Tuesday and should be ready to go if called upon.
With Olsen looking to establish a weekend-to-weekend rhythm for his probable starters, Wednesday's playing-time plan is likely to include plenty of minutes for those further down the depth chart.
Boskovic prepares for key preseason action
Under unseasonably warm conditions, D.C. United held their final practice before departing for Charleston, SC on Wednesday afternoon. Below are some of the highlights as the Black-and-Red made final preparations for the Carolina Challenge Cup.
United opened Wednesday's session with some possession games. In one of them, Branko Boskovic and Dwayne De Rosario served as 'neutral' players, playing only offense for whichever team had the ball. The dynamic pair seemed more than comfortable being the focal point of the drill.
2011 was all but a wash for Boskovic, who tore his ACL early in the season. Now recovered, his passing was on full display in the small-sided affair, offering up one and two-touch combinations that split defenders again and again.
"I've been here two years. I know Chris [Pontius] and Andy [Najar], DeRo, everybody," the Montenegrin international said after practice. "Hamdi [Salihi] is not new for me either. I think we know each other and we just need everybody to be fit and we are going to have a very good team."
Just 1,843 people were at the Maryland SoccerPlex to see it, but Boskovic's last performance for the Black-and-Red was also his best. In a late-April U.S. Open Cup match against New England, he scored twice and dominated play before coming off injured.
RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK
Returning from any injury can be daunting, but a broken leg is a completely different matter. United midfielder Chris Pontius is one of a handful of promising MLS players looking to overcome that specific hurdle in 2012.
Another talented youngster recovering from a broken leg - Seattle midfielder Steve Zakuani - said in a recent interview that one of the last things to return is the explosiveness that often defines an attacking player. On Wednesday Pontius acknowledged that his injury - though serious - was less complex than Zakuani's, and that what's missing at this point has more to do with the Californian's mind as opposed to his leg.
"I've sat and watched practices all year and it's not like being out on the field having to make quick decisions," Pontius admitted. "I'm a little bit rusty on the ball at times and my decision making is slow."
Pontius may be his own harshest critic. Watching the 24-year-old patrol the flank in practice one would never know he suffered such a traumatic injury less than six months ago. Pontius said he hopes to get some longer minutes in Charleston to boost his match fitness ahead of the March 10 opener against Kansas City.
CONTINUING TO IMPRESS
He's only been with the team three days, but Brazilian trialist Guilherme continues to impress.
United spent much of Wednesday's session doing 3-v-2 and 2-v-1 attacking exercises. On consecutive turns, the Botafogo player slammed a close-range effort past Andrew Dykstra and then curled a shot from distance around Joe Willis' 6-foot-5 frame.
We'll learn more about Guilherme's abilities as a one-on-one defender in Charleston, but his offensive skill set is certainly the type that gets personnel evaluators excited.
Happy to have his long-term future settled, Dwayne De Rosario looks to get to work
Flanked by President Kevin Payne, General Manager Dave Kasper and Head Coach Ben Olsen, Dwayne De Rosario was all smiles at Tuesday's press conference to announce his new deal. For the league's reigning MVP, the signing brought to an end a difficult two year stretch during which De Rosario was twice traded. For a full write-up on yesterday's proceedings, check out Steve Goff's piece in The Washington Post and Craig Stouffer's article in The Washington Examiner, but below I'll pass along a few anecdotes from the press conference that might be of particular interest.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
It was never a secret that the club wanted to extend Dwayne De Rosario's contract and reward the player for one of the most inspiring stretches of play the league has ever seen. But as United's season opener approached, there were some concerns externally that if a deal wasn't reached before March 10, in-season contract negotiations could create an uncomfortable situation in the locker room.
As we found out Tuesday, those fears were far from reality for the men involved in what appears to have been a very open, and amicable, negotiating process.
"It was very important for us as an organization that this be taken care of," Payne said Tuesday afternoon. "We've known it was going to be taken care of from the early days of our conversations, so we never had any concerns about timing."
Despite Payne's confidence, it's not like similar situations - where a player performs well and wants an extension - haven't turned sour elsewhere in the past. To that end, Dave Kasper spoke about De Rosario's attitude throughout the entire process.
"It's not easy," admitted Kasper, who also thanked DeRo's European-based agent David Baldwin for his hard work during the negotiations. "Dwayne was MVP of our league last year and there are a level of expectations that goes along with that, but it never affected him in the locker room or the field."
DERO LOVES D.C.
Sure, any player signing a long-term contract is going to talk about how much they love their new city, but when De Rosario speaks about D.C. there's a genuine - and educated - slant to what he's saying.
"This is a very knowledgeable soccer community," De Rosario said Tuesday. "We want to expand and grow that soccer community and we have players that can play a very attractive soccer. Who wouldn't want to come out and see this team play this year.
Obviously, my family is very comfortable here," added the 2011 Volkswagen MLS MVP. "We like the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area. Our kids are comfortable in terms of schools and stuff like that. It was big factor in terms of where my future lies."
DeRo is backing up his kind words with - amongst other things - a website, DeRoUnited.com. On it fans can find out about De Rosario's unique diet and his youth soccer tours which will be coming to our area sometime this summer
NO LONGER THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
As you may have heard before, Dwayne De Rosario almost joined the Black-and-Red over a decade ago. After a 15-goal campaign with the A-League's Richmond Kickers in 2000 - and an appearance with D.C. during a club trip to El Salvador - DeRo was front-and-center on United's radar entering the 2001 season. On Tuesday, Kevin Payne recalled just how close D.C. came to landing DeRo nearly eleven years ago.
"Our plan was to pick Dwayne in what was in those days called the Supplemental Draft," Payne said. "[D.C. United assistant coach] Frank Yallop left for San Jose just a few days before the draft and San Jose picked one spot ahead of us in that draft, so Frank picked Dwayne. Otherwise, we probably would have a couple more stars on our chest and Dwayne would already be a part of the lore of D.C. United. Now his job is to help us get those stars back."
Dudar shows class with leadership and distribution
Less than a day ahead of departing for Carolina Challenge Cup, D.C. United held a spirited training session at Arlington’s Long Bridge Park. Here are some quick notes from Tuesday’s practice.
CLASS AT THE BACK
Reports of the skillful play of central back Emiliano Dudar were among the first things we heard from United's two preseason trips. With a pedigree that includes Europa League, Champions League and Copa Libertadores, Dudar has obviously plied his trade at the highest level, nevertheless, a transition to MLS brings with it no guarantees.
Working alongside Dejan Jakovic at Tuesday's training session, Dudar's skill was on full display. Far cooler under pressure than the typical MLS defender, the Argentine excels in distribution. During an 11-v-11 scrimmage, Dudar hit a dead-sprint towards the loose ball on the sideline with a pair of attackers in hot pursuit. After beating them both to it, the 29-year-old controlled the ball with his right foot, spun, and split another pair of defenders with a left-footed pass that sprung Josh Wolff on a counter attack. Though he made the play look simple, it was of a caliber that is rarely seen on MLS practice fields.
Asked afterwards about the play, and his distribution out of the back in general, Dudar offered a modest response.
"I don't know, maybe there aren't players who do that type of thing, but I'm just trying to bring my positive qualities to the group," Dudar said in a Spanish-language interview after practice. "I'm here first to prove to myself that I can play in this league and to prove to the people who believe in me that I'm at a level to play at a big club like D.C."
PUTTING IN THE EXTRA WORK
At a season-ticket holder meeting late last season, Ben Olsen was asked about the emerging trend in world soccer where right backs are as important to an attack as any midfielder or forward. The first-year coach acknowledged that it was an element he wanted to add to United's style, but that there were more pressing concerns with his defense than its ability to get forward.
Fast-forward to Tuesday morning, where, as most of United's players trickled off the practice field a pair stayed behind to hit right-footed crosses. Midfielder Danny Cruz was joined by Robbie Russell, who figures to occupy the right flank of D.C.'s back four.
"It's something I enjoy doing," Russell said after Tuesday's session. "I like getting forward and I like getting assists, it's a part of playing that is important to me personally. If it can then be worked to where the team needs it, all the better.
It's not necessarily just about getting crosses in, it's just getting forward and getting that look every once in a while where you have that option out wide."
SET PIECE SPECIALIST
Set pieces are a key component of every team's preseason preparations, but the emphasis is clear at United's practices. During Tuesday's scrimmage, free kicks were handed out in dangerous spots all over the field, and if the execution wasn't just right - from offense or defense - the dead ball situation was tried again.
Two things stood out from all this.
First, Andy Najar continues to be D.C.'s best option for taking offensive set pieces. The 18-year-old's ability to hit driven balls in behind defenses has only improved in the offseason, and even his corner kicks created issues.
Second, is that the defensive lapses that killed D.C.'s playoff chances a year ago will not be tolerated. When midfielder Nick DeLeon slipped wide open on a well-hit free kick from rookie Lance Rozeboom, Ben Olsen came rushing in from the sideline with some choice words - and instructions - for the defensive group that allowed the opportunity.