WASHINGTON -- Over the years D.C. United squads have customarily adhered to a flowing, possession-oriented approach with creativity and movement inspired by Latin American imports, in terms of personnel as well as philosophy.
This proud loyalty to the concept of "attractive soccer" has become a club tradition, but at times it's also run aground in the rough-and-tumble physicality of MLS, where size, strength and directness are often employed to great effect. United struggled to match the hustle and muscle of league opposition on many occasions last year and head coach Tom Soehn looks to have addressed that with several of his team's offseason acquisitions.
It's been most noticeable in defense, which has been bolstered by center backs Dejan Jakovic (6-2, 178 lbs.) and veritable man-mountain Anthony Peters (6-5, 205 lbs.) -- "I don't think I've seen him lose a head ball yet," said Devon McTavish -- while Greg Janicki (6-3, 190 lbs.) has been brought back after a successful late-season loan spell in '08.
But athleticism has been sought up front, too. D.C. added Chris Pontius (6-0, 170 lbs.) and Congolese-born speedster Ange N'Silu (6-0, 185 lbs.) to complement to the guile and experience of Jaime Moreno and Luciano Emilio. Top 2008 SuperDraft pick Andrew Jacobson (6-2, 185 lbs.) returned from Europe to shore up the center of midfield, and fleet-footed Generation adidas rookie Rodney Wallace hopes to contribute two-way play on the left wing.
"I'm happy with the team we've built here and you always look to increase the size and strength along the way," said Soehn. "Fortunately we were able to do that with the guys we picked up."
Last year's defensive frailties have been well-documented by United observers, and going back several seasons, teams using forceful, direct play have troubled the D.C. back line at crucial moments. Meanwhile, the attack -- while indisputably skilled -- sometimes lacked the incisiveness that pace and power can offer against well-organized adversaries.
Now, with an array of towering defenders to choose from, Soehn and company hope to better blunt the dangers posed by set pieces and aerial service into their penalty area, while adding dynamism and unpredictability at the other end of the field.
"I don't think it's a secret that this league gets faster and more athletic each year," said veteran Ben Olsen, whose tenacity in midfield was also missed last year. "So you have to adapt to that. In the past I don't think we've been as athletic as we needed to be, and I think it's been a point that's been addressed by our front office and the coaching staff."
The newcomers have nonetheless had to prove themselves capable of slotting into the United philosophy of passing and possession. N'Silu arrives in Washington after stints in the Swiss and French leagues and while his physical attributes inject a healthy dose of athleticism to the Black-and-Red strike force, coaches and veterans have taken particular note of his positional savvy alongside a range of strike partners.
"He keeps the ball, he doesn't keep it too long, he keeps the play moving and he can finish," said McTavish. "He's pretty athletic and that's kind of what you need as a forward, especially with the style that we play: someone that can hold the ball but also make runs off the ball. I liked what I've seen out of him so far, and obviously the coaching staff has too."
Wallace and Pontius, D.C.'s pair of first-round draft picks, are likewise learning the ropes at a club where energy and enthusiasm is just the beginning.
"I think with Rodney, he still has to learn it's not all about athleticism," said Soehn. "There's a lot he can do to impact the game by reading the game right, using his head. He's relied a lot on his athleticism up until now. So you have that side of it, but there's just such a big upside because he is such an athlete. Chris has done a great job in the fact that he's athletic and he's got a good soccer mentality, a good soccer brain."
Now the question is how many of those lively newcomers will jostle their way into the starting lineup. In the second half of Wednesday's 2-1 Carolina Challenge Cup loss to Toronto FC, Soehn sent out a younger side that largely looked quicker and sharper than the first XI -- a sure recipe for continued competitiveness on the training ground.
"The guys seem to really like each other off the field," said Olsen. "On the field, you're already going to get your (complaining) and moaning and fighting -- I see a lot more of that this year, and a lot of times that's good. I like to see guys upset and getting into some arguments, and some big-time tackles in preseason, because people are looking to play and get spots and earn a career in this team."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com