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.
United’s Head Coach and Head Athletic Trainer talk about the first day of preseason
An energetic Ben Olsen and coaching staff greeted players this morning as D.C. United officially reconvened at RFK Stadium for the start of 2012 preseason.
We asked United’s Head Coach about the first day with the group.
What are your initial thoughts on having the group back together again?
Olsen: “It’s always nice when everybody comes back together. We have a few new faces and several trialists in our group, so it’s a good day to get re-acquainted with everyone. This week will involve a lot of physical preparation to make sure we know where everybody is standing, so we can move ahead with more intensity. It was a great day to get back to work, and I think there is a really positive vibe right now.”
There are several key players coming back from injuries, such as Branko Boskovic, Chris Pontius and Ethan White. How is their recovery process coming along?
Olsen: “Branko is ready to go, Chris is moving along very well, and Ethan is jogging. Everybody is moving along at a really good pace. Hopefully in the next week or two we will have a full squad, with everybody healthy. Preseason is a long journey and you have plenty of time to get these guys fit. As much as we want them back, we need to be smart and patient and make sure we are not pushing them too quickly.”
How did 2012 SuperDraft pick Nick DeLeon do on his first day?
Olsen: “He came in today and got acquainted with the guys and saw how we do things around here. We will know more about him going forward, but he seems like a good kid and really eager to learn and work out here.”
Speaking of draft picks, with the departure of Clyde Simms, what are your thoughts on Perry Kitchen filling in the role of defensive midfielder this season?
Olsen: “I don’t think it’s any secret that our plans with him were to put him centrally [in midfield]. We think he has a lot of qualities that are going to make us a better team in that central area. It’s a key area, and Perry has both the leadership qualities and physical presence to get us to another level. He is dealing with turf toe, but should be ready to go in the next couple of days.”
BEGINNING OF 'A LONG JOURNEY'
As Olsen mentioned, United's preseason is "a long journey" and with several phases. D.C. United Head Athletic Trainer Brian Goodstein emphasized Olsen's point and said the focus is to have the team ready for First Kick 2012 on March 10 against Sporting KC.
How did the guys look on the first day?
Goodstein: "Good. We are just getting to know these guys. The first week is a gradual introduction process and getting baseline fitness as a group."
What's next this week?
Goodstein: "We are running the Cooper Test tomorrow. Wednesday is the beep test."
What are the goals for preseason?
Goodstein: "The big goal is to get ready for the opener, to get ready to peak in the middle [of the season] and get ready to peak for playoffs and make these guys champions."