This Saturday, we will open the doors to RFK for our 2014 Home Opener. This Saturday, fans will flood the stadium, chanting and cheering for their beloved Black-and-Red. This Saturday, eleven D.C. United players will take the pitch, fighting for badge and city. This Saturday, we open the 2014 MLS season with a 0-0-0 record-a clean slate-a new year.
"Our goal is simple this year," said Head Coach Ben Olsen. "It is to be in the post season. We obviously want to do well in the Open Cup and compete in [CONCACAF] Champions League, but we, as a group, need to be extremely focused on how we get into the playoffs."
As we head towards March 8 with the goal of making the playoffs in mind, it is important to realize how far we, as an organization, have come already.
"I think we all learned a lot last season," said Olsen. "When you go through a year like that, I think you really have to evaluate yourself, your staff and your methods. I think we have all grown a lot from those tough times."
While any number of clichés about it being darkest before dawn would fit here, let's look at the real, tangible and visible aspects of this 2014 team that could make those clichés come true.
"I think we have a lot of versatility in the midfield," said Olsen. "I think we have experience in our backline. I think our goalkeeping situation is very strong, and I think we have guys in the attack now that can change the game."
"Although they are new with each other, they are all experienced defenders who have been around the block,” Olsen said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how quickly they've become a cohesive group that looks out for one another on the field."
After three games in Bradenton and three in Charleston, the combination of Franklin, Boswell, Parke and Fernandez only let in one goal, but they're not the only ones who impressed in the back line.
"We have guys now that can fill in if players aren't getting the job done back there, or if they are not able to play," Olsen said. "We have [Chris] Korb, [Taylor] Kemp, [Steven] Birnbaum, [Nana] Attakora; all of these guys are going to compete to play on the weekend, and it is important to have that competitive spirit throughout the week for everyone to stay on their toes."
Competition for starting spots is something Olsen admits was missing last year, something that is certainly present this year, making his job pleasantly more difficult.
"I didn't feel like I had that many tough decisions last year in that way, where I was keeping guys off the field that are very capable players in this league," he remembered.
Our midfield is where this healthy competition is most evident. As we began talking about different combinations of players and the depth of this position, Olsen's excitement grew.
"We are going to continue to tinker and find out our best four and the best look in our midfield," he said. "I talked before about versatility in Jared Jeffrey, Nick DeLeon, Davy Arnaud, and Luis Silva, who all can play different spots in there. So, that is something we are going to continue to look at. And again, that is going to be a very healthy competition in that midfield because it is so deep and talented. I am excited to have to make those tough decisions this year."
With Perry Kitchen returning for his 4th year in Black-and-Red and Chris Pontius working his way back to health, the midfield is looking strong. New relationships and chemistry are forming; not only between each other, but with our new and returning forwards.
"Offensive chemistry comes with playing with each other in order to create those partnerships and relationships," Olsen explained. "It takes time and playing real minutes together in games and in training. It is coming along; it's getting better."
Newcomer Eddie Johnson is beginning to find his rhythm with United and Fabián Espíndola started showing his flare and nose for goal, putting away a penalty kick and assisting on Kitchen's goal in the final match of preseason. Returnees Conor Doyle and Michael Seaton continue to show their talent and proved that forward will be another position with persistent competition.
"I am looking forward to it because both [Espíndola and Johnson] can make real plays, and that is something we were missing last year," he recalled. "When Chris Pontius comes back healthy, he will be competing for a midfield position and a forward position, again building on the competition aspect and being a deeper team. It is part of this good problem we have right now."
Competition, hunger, and depth. All are vital to success, and all are apparent right now. But what Olsen believes will be the key to D.C. United's success in 2014 will take time, patience, and games.
"We still have a ways to go," Olsen stated. "It takes time to create relationships and partnerships out on the field. And ultimately that is what is going to make us successful."
United kicks off the 2014 season this Saturday, March 8 at 7:00 p.m. when it hosts the Columbus Crew. Tickets are still available, purchase online.