WASHINGTON -- Even now, Tom Soehn still sounds bemused by the way 2008 turned out.His D.C. United squad had won back-to-back Supporters' Shield trophies in the years prior, a mark of regular-season excellence unequaled in MLS history, and it seemed natural for the club to grow a bit more adventurous as international competition became a regular routine.
So United boldly lured a plethora of South American talent, highlighted by designated player and World Cup veteran Marcelo Gallardo, and made plans to contend for a host of honors both home and abroad. But what followed was more akin to a nightmare as injuries, underachievement and simple bad luck conspired to produce one of the most trying years in the club's existence.
"All of it goes together -- having the right guys, and the right mix of guys, and staying healthy," Soehn said. "I can't say it enough: I still think we had a good team last year. But we didn't have many of the same guys on the field and it was a lot of the key guys [out]. It makes the going tough sometimes."
This offseason D.C. worked to incorporate the lessons of '08, a campaign that started with so much promise and ended with no postseason, no international glory, and just one trophy, the U.S. Open Cup. The injury-plagued Gallardo returned home to Argentina and Christian Gomez, the United legend who was traded west to Colorado last year, was re-acquired as the Black-and-Red handed the playmaking duties back to a proven MLS performer.
Gomez's August 2004 arrival helped spur United's run to their fourth MLS Cup championship and in the proceeding years his creativity and dynamism became a central ingredient in the team's success. Gomez enjoyed strong chemistry with fellow attackers Fred, Jaime Moreno and Luciano Emilio and will look to pick up where he left off two years ago. At age 34, questions about his fitness and durability are inevitable but his teammates like what they've seen so far this spring.
"It's great, it's like he never left in the locker room," said Clyde Simms, the sturdy holding midfielder tasked with supporting Gomez in the center of the park. "On the field, he's the same player I remember two years ago. He's great with the ball and his awareness is unbelievable."
Gomez endured a disappointing close to his time with the Rapids as a coaching change relegated him to the bench in the second half of last season, so it was fitting that on his first day back at RFK Stadium following the trade, he was greeted by the sight of an old friend mischievously clad in the blue No. 10 jersey he once wore in Colorado. It was Ben Olsen, another missing veteran who hopes to turn the clock back after a year of frustration wherein he saw just 15 minutes of match play due to a chronic ankle problem.
Olsen's work rate and inspirational leadership were sorely missed and while the pain in his troublesome left ankle may have to be managed rather than fully healed, he is determined to contribute, whether on the right flank or at the base of midfield. His quietly focused approach to the upcoming campaign has set the tone for the team as a whole.
"Last year didn't go as planned and this year I think rather than focusing on all these things we want to do, we've got to take baby steps and really earn the respect that we want, starting with the first game against L.A.," he said. "So I think we're getting a workmanlike mentality right now as a team, having that respect."
Last season also highlighted the need for quality and value at both ends of the roster. Faced with a crowded schedule featuring four competitions, injuries and fatigue routinely gutted the first XI and in the final league match of the campaign -- a must-win game in Columbus -- Soehn found himself fielding a starting lineup that was almost four years younger than the one used in their first match seven months prior.
The situation ultimately led to United sliding out of a playoff berth. But the young reserves represented themselves surprisingly well, even in the daunting environment of CONCACAF Champions League, and players like Greg Janicki, Boyzzz Khumalo and Francis Doe parlayed their displays into fuller opportunities in 2009. The club also rewarded steady contributors like Simms, Bryan Namoff, Santino Quaranta, Marc Burch and Devon McTavish with new contracts.
While not as frantic as last year's calendar, this season again includes Champions League and U.S. Open Cup play, so the Black-and-Red bench will undoubtedly be called upon. D.C. was significantly more active in this year's SuperDraft, snaring highly-touted first-round picks Rodney Wallace and Chris Pontius along with other promising newcomers.
"The one starting point you always want to have is an honest, hard-working group, and we definitely have some guys with flair, so we have some balance -- and a deep team," said Soehn. "I know more than anybody with all the games we have, we need a deep roster and we need to have options so when guys go down we can't drop off far. That's what we've tried to accomplish this year."
Chemistry has also been a focus. Last year's squad got along reasonably well but a range of players at different cultural, economic and career levels didn't gel to the extent the season's demands required. Soehn and general manager Dave Kasper hope that their current squad, with its veteran nucleus and ambitious crop of new faces, can be tougher, faster and tighter than its predecessor.
"Anytime you have a group of guys with common goals, common interests, fighting for each other like a bunch of friends, great things happen," said Soehn. "I've always said the the locker room is a place where championships are won -- if you have a good locker room. So we've really addressed that this year, making sure we get that right."
But question marks remain along the back line, United's Achilles heel last season. South American imports Gonzalo Peralta and Gonzalo Martinez failed to bed in at center back and have moved on, replaced by a bevy of physically imposing, but untested, youngsters.
Janicki and new arrival Dejan Jakovic, a Canadian youth international fresh off a stint with Serbian powerhouse Red Star Belgrade, seem to have the inside track for starting roles. But waiting in the wings is Anthony Peters, a well-traveled 25-year-old from Louisiana whose massive size (6-5, 205 lbs.) and commanding presence could prove useful in the months ahead, while utility man McTavish has performed well in his stints at center back.
So while the team's free-flowing attack seems likely to provide plenty of fireworks for the loyal fans at RFK, the squad's prospects for hardware will again hinge on the defense's dependability. Though it remains unclear whether this re-tweaked Black-and-Red blend can measure up to the glories of the past, it should make for fascinating viewing either way.
"At D.C. United you expect to win championships," said McTavish. "We don't know how good we are right now, but we know how good we can be. And I think we have the ingredients as a team to win some trophies this year. Some stuff has to go our way and players have to play to their ability. If that can happen then I think we'll be a very good team."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com.