United have plenty to work on during difficult road-trip to west coast
On Thursday, United held their final training session in Washington before departing on an ten-day road trip. With matches against Los Angeles and Vancouver looming, we take a look at three keys that will help the Black-and-Red maximize points on their long journey from RFK.
SET PIECE DEFENDING
Four days before United's season opener, D.C. Head Coach Ben Olsen closed the final half-hour of practice to work on set-pieces. So when Sporting Kansas City found their last-minute winner via a corner kick, it was disappointing on multiple levels. Up until C.J. Sapong's breakthrough, the Black-and-Red had done well man-marking Kansas City's considerable aerial threats on free kicks.
Whether it is an on-going issue or a one-off mistake, United must sort out their set piece deficiencies on this road trip. There is no better service on dead balls than that of David Beckham and - unless he gets the full 90 off on Sunday - D.C. can expect to have their hands full.
Against Sporting, United didn't help themselves with some careless tackling in their defensive half. The at times unnecessary fouls led to free kick chances, a luxury D.C. will be wise to deny both L.A. and Vancouver.
With the spine of the team still gelling, it makes sense that United will perhaps rely more on its wings now than at any other point in the season. Fortunately for D.C., in Chris Pontius and Andy Najar the Black-and-Red have two players who can more than shoulder that load.
That being said, Najar and Pontius need to be used more. In the opener, Pontius had tons of space on the left flank but rarely got the ball in a position to be dangerous. Najar was a bit more involved early, but of the Honduran's 17 completed passes against Sporting just five were in United's attacking third.
While Sporting applied plenty of pressure Saturday, D.C. committed an uncomfortable amount of passing errors. Simply put, United did not have a good evening in distribution.
"There pressure was good but it wasn't pressure that you cant play through," Ben Olsen acknowledged during an appearance on The Capital Soccer Show. "Our passing wasn't good all night long. We had times where if we were just better in possession - A to B, ten and twenty yard passes - then we get a little rhythm and make them defend. Overall our passing just wasn't sharp."
Unfortunately, the numbers support Olsen's take. D.C. completed just 64% of its passes against Sporting, the lowest completion percentage across MLS on First Kick weekend. Kansas City also owned the ball Saturday night, taking 57% of possession against the Black-and-Red.
Andy Najar speaks about his call-up to the Honduras U-23's
As preparations gear up for Sunday's match against the Los Angeles Galaxy, Head Coach Ben Olsen closed Wednesday's practice to the media. Nevertheless, here are a few storylines from around RFK as United ramp up for the defending champions.
With yesterday's news of Andy Najar's call-up to the Honduran Under-23 side, the United midfielder was all smiles after Wednesday's training session. Because Honduras is training in Los Angeles, Najar will play with D.C. on Sunday before joining Los Catrachos.
As for how Najar will be used by Honduras, the 18-year-old seems open to pretty much anything.
"I'm ready for wherever the coach decides to put me," Najar said when asked about his position in a spanish-language interview on Wednesday. "Just because you have a preferred position, doesn't mean you don't have to learn other positions as well. Wherever I end up playing, I will give my all for the team."
Najar and his Honduran teammates are in CONCACAF's Group B, which will play at the Home Depot Center. They'll face Panama (3/23), Mexico (3/25) and Trinidad & Tobago (3/27).
NEAL JOINS THE MIX
Over a twelve-year career, Lewis Neal has worked tirelessly towards one goal ... playing top-flight soccer. Until this week that goal had eluded the Englishman, but after signing with the Black-and-Red on Tuesday, the 30-year-old is ready to contribute right away.
"In my career I've played all across the midfield whether it's from the left to the right," Neal said when asked about where he might fit in to Ben Olsen's plans. "I like to get the ball down and play, and keep the ball. I've got a pretty trusty left foot, I like to think. Hopefully I'll be able to show the D.C. United fans - when I get an opportunity - what I can do."
A comfortable and efficient player on the ball, Neal will be expected to provide cover in midfield as the season wears on. The left-footed player is likely to back-up Chris Pontius, but can also play in a central role.
POP UP TOP
When United faces Los Angeles on Sunday, there's a chance that two of the most prolific scorers in all of Major League Soccer will be on display.
Hamdi Salihi brought 163 career goals with him when the Albanian striker signed with the Black-and-Red late last month, a number that is bested by only a trio of MLS players.
1 - Thierry Henry (326)
2 - Kris Boyd (208)
3 - Robbie Keane (188)
We'll have to wait until Sunday to see if Bruce Arena uses Keane, as the Galaxy forward is likely to have played in three games over a seven-day stretch.
With a key road-trip on the horizon, United must quickly move past Saturday's disappointment
With the reality of Major League Soccer's 34-match schedule, getting too caught up in a single result is an exercise in both futility and foolishness. And so, despite the disappointing nature of Saturday’s defeat, D.C. United forges ahead with plenty of opportunities left to erase the sour taste of opening night.
Still, the manner in which the Black-and-Red fell - giving up a stoppage time goal - brought back some familiar emotions for a group that saw point after point slip away late in 2011.
"It brings back memories," admitted Perry Kitchen on Saturday night. "The only thing we can do is respond in the next game and not let that become another habit."
Though simple in principle, Kitchen's words won't be easy to carry out. The months-long build up that accompanies opening day carries with it a certain amount of emotional baggage. So close to delivering a blank-sheet against one of the most talented attacking teams in MLS, the Black-and-Red must overcome the psychological blow of last-minute disappointment.
"It's heartbreaking," added newcomer Robbie Russell. "It can really kind of take the wind out of your sails and really demoralize a team. But we've got to remember it's the first game of the season and they are a really good team."
Good may be an understatement when describing Sporting Kansas City. Peter Vermes' front line is so loaded the young coach has the luxury of bringing U.S. National Team forward C.J. Sapong in off the bench. Sapong dealt the fatal blow on Saturday from - of all places - a corner kick. In light of last year's struggles, defensive set pieces have been a priority this preseason, making the manner in which Saturday's game-winner was scored as difficult to swallow as its timing.
"It was on a corner kick. That was the most disappointing part," Josh Wolff confirmed from United's locker room. "[Last year] we did give up a lot of set pieces and we did give up a lot of late goals. It's not something that we are too happy about."
If United's players need a model for how to shake off Saturday's malaise they need look no further than their coach. During 2011 - when home results continuously eluded his team - Ben Olsen's post-game press conferences became tense affairs where the coach's facial expressions often told more than his words. On Saturday night, a more upbeat Olsen praised his players for their work.
"The guys put on what was a hell of an effort," said United's second-year coach. "They fought through fatigue and I thought should have earned the draw. There are a lot of disappointed guys in that locker room."
When the team returns to training on Tuesday, that disappointment must give way to focus. With an impending road trip that includes reigning champion Los Angeles and a much-improved Vancouver side, D.C. has little time to sulk.
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.
Orlando City SC midfielder Lewis Neal has joined the team on trial and will be in training all week. The Englishman began his career with Stoke City of the English Championship and has played for Carlisle United and Shrewsbury Town. In all, he has made over 150 professional appearances in England and scored 17 goals. Last year in Orlando, he notched four goals and three assists in 21 matches.
Meanwhile, guest player Jose Burciaga, who was with the team during camps in Arizona and South Carolina, has been released from training.
JERSEY NUMBER UPDATE
Goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra, who signed with the team last week, has opted to wear number 50 this season. Buy a jersey
D.C. United players will be making a number of media appearances this week. Additional interviews will be booked in the coming days, but be sure to tune-in for the confirmed appearances below.
Wednesday, March 7
- 8:30 AM - Ben Olsen on 87.7 FM La Nueva (Spanish-language)
- 9:00 AM - Dwayne De Rosario on 106.7 FM The Fan with the Sports Junkies
Thursday, March 8
- TBD: Dwayne De Rosario feature on NBC4
- 10:30 PM - Dwayne De Rosario on SportsTalk Live on Comcast SportsNet
Friday, March 9
- 10:00 AM - Ben Olsen on the all-new Capital Soccer Show podcast on dcunited.com
- All day - Excerpts from an exclusive Ben Olsen interview on WTOP
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.