Chemistry key for United's '09 hopes
By Charles Boehm / MLSnet.comWASHINGTON -- In many ways, D.C. United's hopes for the 2009 campaign hinge on the delicate process of integrating the club's fresh infusion of young talent into head coach Tom Soehn's existing veteran core, and fashioning that motley blend into an effective team.That project passed a notable signpost on Sunday. With a spectacular, last-second 3-2 comeback win against the New York Red Bulls at Giants Stadium, United's evolving squad took a massive step forward -- and simultaneously confronted their prime bugaboo of the young season, a troubling tendency to fumble away leads."You know, it was a gutsy performance. We still have a lot of young guys and I think we learned a little bit in the second half," said Soehn afterwards. "These are turning points when you win games like this. These are things that make you stronger as a team."D.C. has now produced thrilling late rallies to salvage results in their last two league matches. While the 11th-hour heroics against New England and New York obscured a distinct lack of ruthlessness in the early stages of both games, Soehn's chemistry experiment looks promising as a variety of contributors have made timely plays to build the side's collective confidence.Sunday's victory featured two goals from Rodney Wallace and Chris Pontius, the leading lights of United's rookie class. Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup play-in triumph over FC Dallas featured yeoman's work from Santino Quaranta and Brandon Barklage, while last week's 1-1 draw with the New England Revolution was inspired by the ultra-experienced duo of Jaime Moreno and Ben Olsen, who have provided influential leadership even when sidelined by injury and fitness concerns."They know what to do, day in and day out, to be successful. They've been on good teams and bad teams over the course of their careers and now where they're at, they want to win and they understand what it takes to win," said Quaranta. "That's a big part of why the rookies are doing well, too. These [veteran] guys play a big role in why they're successful; they watch these guys and just try to follow what they do."Young and old alike have paid lavish tribute to Olsen, who has been a steadying presence as well as an inspirational one, both on the field and in the locker room, since returning to action after last year's ankle troubles."Especially me being a rookie, when Ben's out there I'm a lot more calm, just because I know he's going to do his thing in the middle of the field," said Pontius, whose displays thus far have made him an early candidate for Rookie of the Year consideration."He settles everyone down, he directs all of us. He does a great job of that so it takes a lot of pressure off of us, because he's directing you every time. He may not have the legs that he used to have, but he communicates well and does a great job out there."The influx of hungry youth like Pontius is an annual spring ritual for most MLS clubs, though incorporating them into a cohesive unit without a dip in competitiveness is no simple task. Soehn and his assistants have clearly enjoyed having a diverse variety of talent and experience at their disposal -- something that was often missing last year -- and the coaching staff has worked to push their players' comfort zones without provoking alienation."When you've got new guys coming in, they're very eager, they're very anxious and they want to show the reason why they're here," said goalkeeper Louis Crayton. "It's a tough challenge for the old guys, and they have to step up their game right now. The coaches have left the doors open; there is no favoritism right now."Certainly, this season's squad has benefited from an auspicious mix of personalities at both ends of the maturity scale. Results like Sunday's win can only help in building the collective spirit that will be needed over the long haul, particularly when midsummer heat turns the daily routine into a grueling grind."The trick now as a rookie is to stay in it and put good performances consistently. It's tough as a first-year, it's a long season and staying in it mentally is always a challenge," said Olsen of his younger teammates last week. "So you keep on them and making sure they're doing what they can physically -- the college season is a little bit shorter. But they've been great so far and we look for good things in the future with them."