Looking at the front line
Following an early January press conference during which D.C. United coach Ben Olsen proclaimed that 20-year-old Brazilian striker Rafael was “our guy,” the club has traded for Casey Townsend and signed Carlos Ruiz creating plenty of competition at forward behind Dwayne De Rosario and Lionard Pajoy.
Once last season ended, Untied made it clear their main priority was to acquire a top-caliber striker. Now, just days away from the 2013 season opener in Houston, the team hopes it has more quality up front than it did last year.
“I think we’re somewhat ready,” Olsen said. “Preseason, we think we got a lot done. As much of a returning group as we have, there’s still some new pieces we have to integrate into our group. That’s been the challenge the last few days.”
Perhaps of all the forwards D.C. added in the offseason, the return of a healthy De Rosario could have the biggest impact. De Rosario said Tuesday he felt good after recovering from an MCL sprain and he showed it, too, burying a blast from 20 yards into the top left corner by goalkeeper Bill Hamid in a short-field scrimmage.
“De Ro comes back into the fold. He almost becomes a new player for us and how we react to the way he plays with us,” Olsen said of his captain. “Dwayne worked hard in the offseason. He’s a lot further along now than he was this time last year.”
De Rosario will play opposite Pajoy to begin the season. Pajoy, who the club acquired last year in a trade with Philadelphia, has been impressive this preseason, scoring four goals in three matches – one more goal than he scored in 12 matches with D.C. in 2012.
“Pajoy’s been great,” Olsen said. “Pajoy’s been an absolute stud in the preseason and we’re looking forward to him continuing to be our starter right now. His work rate really helps us and he seems to be getting his scoring touch, which is a very good thing.”
While last season Maicon Santos and Hamdi Salihi challenged one another for minutes early on, both fell somewhat out of favor and started sparingly down the stretch. Santos, now with Chicago, scored seven goals while Salihi added six. Whether or not Olsen will be able to depend on Ruiz and Rafael to produce more consistently than the aforementioned pair remains to be seen.
Though he’s a few weeks off from being 90 minutes fit, Ruiz brings with him a proven track record of scoring in MLS. Rafael, meanwhile, has playing sparingly in the preseason and likely won’t be rushed into action.
“[Ruiz and I] had several chats before he came and his words to me, essentially, were, ‘Have faith in me. I will repay you,’” Olsen said.
Said Ruiz of the forwards: “I think we have experience and I think we can fight every practice for the position and fight to see who’s going to play in the First XI.”