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D.C. stoking hard work, competition within squad

Rough start has prompted Onalfo to offer men more opportunities

After Adam Cristman opened his D.C. United scoring account with two goals in a U.S. Open Cup play-in match against Dallas two weeks ago, he rightly received additional congratulations on account of the fact that his first child, a baby girl named Caroline, had entered the world a few days prior.

The wry 25-year-old was quick to allocate the real credit for that achievement, however.

“Actually, my wife had her,” he deadpanned. “It was impressive.”

But just as Cristman took inspiration from his spouse’s long hours of labor, he himself has become a symbol of hard work for a team that has returned to bedrock basics during a difficult 1-6 start.

United are exploring the international market for summer transfers and could well receive an infusion of talent from that avenue in the months ahead. But the current squad has learned the hard way that fitness, focus and unstinting effort will be core ingredients in any short-term success to be had in the meantime.

That, along with an injury epidemic which is only now beginning to recede, is a major reason why Cristman and Danny Allsopp have become the Black-and-Red’s strike partnership of choice while more experienced, and perhaps more skilled, attackers are on the bench or on the treatment table.

It’s also a factor in the surprising ascendance of 19-year-old backup goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who looks to have earned a third consecutive start in the United nets ahead of veteran Troy Perkins this weekend against Colorado.

“Competition is the best motivator,” said D.C. head coach Curt Onalfo this week. “Certainly Bill has done very well with the opportunities that have been presented to him. What that does is create competition and that’s a good thing. We need to have that and we want to have that in every position. With the injuries that we have, that’s been difficult for all the field player positions but we’re progressing towards some really good things that we’re proud of.”

Be it during the reigns of Peter Nowak, Tom Soehn or current boss Onalfo, one of the most consistent talking points around RFK Stadium over the years has been the crucial influence of training-ground competition, the day-to-day drive to outperform teammates and earn playing time that so often translates into outperforming the opposition on game days.

With a multitude of important contributors on the sidelines, Onalfo and his staff have shown an inclination to reward consistency and hard work, with less-heralded players like Hamid, Cristman and rookies Jordan Graye and Andy Najar earning meaningful minutes in the first team.

Onalfo clearly values Cristman, having traded for him during his time at the helm in Kansas City as well as in D.C., but he seemed to be a like-for-like backup to Allsopp when he joined United. Yet the two have struck up an effective partnership and their combined effect – burly, sometimes ungainly, but always a challenge for opposing defenders thanks to work rate and physical strength – have become emblematic of the workmanlike qualities that are United’s best hope at present.

“It’s good when you’ve got competition for the places up front,” said Allsopp. “I get along well with Adam and he works really hard, too. I enjoy playing alongside a guy like that.”

The duo began to craft their chemistry during a reserve team match against Crystal Palace Baltimore earlier this year, and had to watch the starting XI flounder in the opening games of the MLS campaign before earning their own opportunities. Now the coaching staff is hard-pressed to leave either one off the team sheet.

“Certainly they bring a work ethic that’s been contagious through the team,” said Onalfo of his first-choice strikers, who have scored four of United’s eight goals in all competitions this season. “Danny took advantage of his opportunity and that’s given him more minutes, and so has Adam.

“Adam scored two goals in the Open Cup game and he’s had a good assist against Kansas City, so that’s part of it. But we have other guys that can come in and do the job as well. So competition is a good thing and we’re just going to continue with it."