Ready to strike
As D.C. United kicks off the final stretch of the preseason, the Black-and-Red welcomed the club's biggest offseason acquisition on Monday with the introduction of Albanian forward Hamdi Salihi. The 6-foot-1 striker took part in training Monday morning and, despite not having played a competitive match since last year, D.C.'s newest designated player immediately impressed United's technical staff.
"We've been searching for the right number nine for some time and we think we found it," United coach Ben Olsen said during a Monday afternoon press conference held in RFK Stadium's Volkswagen Lounge. "We are very lucky to have his services at this point."
Salihi admits there were plenty of choices when deciding the next step in his career. The 28-year-old says he was "very close" to signing with Glasgow Rangers, before the Scottish club, besieged with financial difficulties, entered administration earlier this month.
"I had lots of possibilities and offers," added the Albanian international. "But always in my career, I try to look at which team and which people are giving me the most respect and respecting what I've done in my career."
In need of a consistent front-line presence, United was poised to give Salihi all the respect he deserved. The potent goalscorer first emerged on General Manager Dave Kasper's radar nearly 18 months ago, as the club conducted its scouting of Branko Boskovic. After a 2010-2011 campaign in which Salihi tallied 29 times in all competitions, he moved quickly to the top of D.C.'s offseason wish list.
"He thinks like a goalscorer," Kasper said Monday. "He's trying to get involved in the build-up, and once guys are in position to either shoot or make a play, he finds the spots. That's really his strength. We have a lot of attacking pieces that will provide service for him."
One of those attacking pieces is Boskovic, a player Salihi should form a quick bond with. The two played together for one season (2009-2010) at Vienna, leading Rapid to third place in the Austrian Bundesliga and the accompanying Europa League spot. Boskovic, now entering his third season with D.C., played a key role in delivering Salihi to the Black-and-Red.
"What was really important for me was that he told me that the team is hungry to win, to go to playoffs and they are trying to build up a good team," Salihi said of his conversations with D.C's skillful midfielder. "He told me lots of [very good] things about the team."
Penciled in atop United's forward depth chart, Salihi carries some large expectations into his first season in Major League Soccer. Players responsible for 14 of D.C.'s 49 goals in 2011 won't be back in 2012, and those tallies must be replaced. Despite the expectations, Olsen preached patience on Monday as far as what is expected of Salihi early on.
"Obviously, he's not 90 minutes fit right now," Olsen said of Salihi, who has been training with his former club in recent weeks to maintain fitness. "The next couple weeks are very crucial for us to get on the same page, but I have no doubt that he's the number nine for now and future of D.C. United."