Preseason preparations for the 2011 season continued in earnest this week for D.C. United down in sunny Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. In the midst of his first preseason as the club’s coach, Ben Olsen hasn’t been taking it easy on his charges.
Difficult challenges lie ahead for Olsen and DC as the start of the season nears. For one, he’s got to find a way to improve the team both offensively and defensively, and in a short amount of time bring together a cohesive and competitive group.
According to some of the veterans in camp, the team-building process has been moving in the right direction.
“It’s been very good,” midfielder Santino Quaranta told MLSsoccer.com. "I said this early on – it’s always fun as one of the older guys to watch a team evolve in front of your eyes."
The early stage of preseason is never easy for players and coaches alike. As the players go through two-a-days and scrimmages, Olsen and his coaching staff are evaluating the talent in camp, seeing who should play where and to which fringe players have earned a contract offer.
United have a few trialists in camp, and Olsen indicated that all were performing very well thus far.“Right now, they’re making our job very tough,” Olsen said. “We’ve got four or five guys all fighting for a couple spots, and they have been great kids and have been working their tails off to get those spots.”
Injuries also have to be managed. Chris Pontius, who is coming off a hamstring injury that hampered him a year ago, is looking good despite a brief hip flexor setback last week. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid is still a couple weeks away from full training as he recovers from a surgically repaired shoulder.
At the end of Tuesday’s training session, newly acquired 'keeper Steven Cronin was injured and could have a fractured wrist, although it’s too soon to know much time he might miss.
Olsen’s most pressing decision is whether or not to keep Charlie Davies, who’s with DC on trial. Olsen indicated that a decision will come “very soon” and that the 24-year-old had performed fairly well while in camp.
“Some of the stuff is there,” said Olsen about Davies. “The physical side is back. His speed is good, but he’s just a touch rusty. You can see everyday he’s improving and he’s the type of kid I wouldn’t want to bet against.”
Davies would be one possible answer to Olsen’s biggest problem: improving an offense that scored a league-worst 21 goals in 2010.United have already acted on trying resolve the issue, jettisoning some of last year’s struggling forwards and bringing in Joseph Ngwenya from Houston and Josh Wolff from Kansas City.
But the preseason is also about improving on both sides of the ball and Olsen, a former midfielder, was adamant about working to institute the concept of all 11 players helping on defense.
“We’re going to work on team defending,” he said. “To me, it’s not about our back four. We’re a group and we’ll work on our defending as a team, because it’s not just our back four that let us down last year. It’s forwards, it’s midfielders.”
DC will continue training in Florida for just under a week. Next week, after a couple of days back in the nation’s capital, they’ll fly out to Southern California and spend 10 days in Oxnard.
In the meantime, Olsen wants to keep the emphasis on constructing a tight-knit team and ensuring preparations move forward.
“We need to continue to become a group,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of new faces. … We need to continue to learn about each other on the field. It’s a young group, so there will be a lot of teaching to get this group where we want to be.”
Travis Clark covers D.C. United, College and Youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter: @travismclark.