United depth to be tested
WASHINGTON -- D.C. United's players and technical staff have been talking about the depth and versatility of the 2009 squad since the season's earliest stages.Now the team will have the ultimate opportunity to prove it, during an intense period of late-summer activity that will go a long way towards determining whether this year's group will be able to fulfill their own lofty expectations for major domestic and international honors.D.C. has enjoyed a relatively quiet July thus far but with the onset of CONCACAF Champions League play next week, United will be competing on multiple fronts and important matches will soon crop up with biweekly regularity. This stretch presents daunting travel requirements and also happens to arrive during the hottest time of year in the nation's capital, both of which reduce D.C.'s amount of practice time and shrink the margin for error in terms of fitness and preparation."It was an important stretch for us to also build our fitness level," said head coach Tom Soehn of his team's recent lull. "We've worked pretty hard, and we've now tapered off to get ready for the next stretch run. There won't be a lot of quality training sessions through this next stretch, so we wanted to make sure we focused and made sure we got everybody where we needed to be before we start."Given the magnitude of United's upcoming task, it's understandable that Soehn's side greeted Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup semifinal win over the Rochester Rhinos in fairly businesslike fashion -- with the cup final scheduled for September 2 at RFK Stadium against Seattle Sounders FC, that tournament now fades into the distance for the Black-and-Red."It's always good to be back at RFK playing a final," said captain Jaime Moreno. "So we've got to prepare for that one, but now we've just got to prepare for such a hard stretch that is coming up. We've got to rest and recover."While Soehn and general manager Dave Kasper conducted an offseason roster makeover with such situations in mind, their work will truly be tested with six matches over the next three weeks, starting with this weekend's cross-country jaunt to California. United has certainly not stood pat, acquiring U.S. youth international Danny Szetela and entering negotiations with defender David Habarugira, a Burundi international who recently spent a week on trial at RFK."I think it's really cover in general," said Kasper when asked about the team's personnel needs. "As we've seen this year, we have a lot of versatility with a number of guys. When we get into playing Saturday-Wednesday, Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday for five weeks straight, I think you know what we need, and that is a lot of quality, a deep roster so that we can get results. And compared with last year we're a lot further ahead with that regard."Last year's D.C. squad rallied from a poor start to climb into the Eastern Conference lead by midsummer, only to be decimated by injuries before the rigors of CONCACAF Champions League landed the final blow to an already-overstretched group.The MLS and CONCACAF schedule makers have been somewhat kinder to United this season, however, and Soehn can undoubtedly call on a broader array of talent than in '08 -- and he says he has every intention of doing so."I think we prepare ourselves this year by building a deep team, and we're still doing that," said the third-year boss. "Danny's the first of probably a couple more that we're going to do to make sure we have a full roster of guys who can complement, and we can actually trade guys in and out so that we don't feel the bulk of so many games."Szetela expects to have his international transfer certificate ready in time to suit up for his new team against the Earthquakes on Saturday. While it's been months since his last competitive match (with Italian Serie B side Brescia) he's eager to make his United debut and believes he'll reach full fitness sometime next week. D.C. also welcomed central defender Dejan Jakovic back from Canadian international duty this week, and midfielder Santino Quaranta should provide a further boost when he returns to United at the conclusion of the United States' Gold Cup run."Everyone counts and everyone has to be ready," said Moreno. "When the national team guys come back, then we will have a full squad again. Hopefully we will take off this other half of the season, which is the most important one. So we want to accomplish that and keep improving -- that's the main thing for us."Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com.