With the March 10 season opener against Kansas City quickly approaching, the upcoming Carolina Challenge Cup offers Ben Olsen one final dress rehearsal ahead of his second full season as head coach of D.C. United. Thanks to a rash of call-ups, nagging injuries and late signings, the Black-and-Red have yet to put their entire team on the field at the same time this preseason, a fact not lost on United's young coach.
"The real end game out of this is to get this team on the same page," Olsen admitted hours before departing for Charleston late Wednesday afternoon. "We haven't had the luxury of having everybody together, so the next two weeks is vital for us to take a big step in our identity."
What exactly that identity is, remains to be seen. With newly-inked designated player Hamdi Salihi set to make his debut Saturday against the Chicago Fire, D.C.'s attack is still very much a work in progress. Midfielders Branko Boskovic and Andy Najar excelled in training over the last few days, but with plenty of options going forward, United fans can expect to see a myriad of different combinations in the attacking third.
"I think it's a real nice luxury to have six, seven, eight guys when you look down that bench that can come in and change the game," Olsen added. "It's an exciting group of attacking players but we've got to get out there and try to get these guys feeling comfortable with each other."
For United's players, the trip south serves as a final litmus test. Less than six months removed from breaking his leg, winger Chris Pontius is a perfect example of a player looking for confirmation in Charleston. Despite solid performances in recent practices, Pontius admits to having some work to do over the next eleven days.
"We are going to push my minutes down in Charleston," the Californian said on Wednesday. "That'll be a good gauge for me to get some long minutes heading into the season opener so hopefully I can be ready for that."
With three different opportunities to mix, match and evaluate personnel, Olsen says he plans on using multiple formations in the coming week. The tournament will be Olsen's first opportunity to get De Rosario, Salihi and Boskovic on the field at once, and though Perry Kitchen and Bill Hamid won't join the squad until next Saturday's match because of U-23 national team camp, United's coach believes there's really only minor adjustments left to be made to D.C.'s overall game plan.
"What formation is going to suit us is maybe something we'll tinker with," Olsen noted. "We've been playing catch up with that so we certainly will be trying some different things."
D.C. opens the competition Saturday at 5:00 p.m. against the Chicago Fire followed by a Wednesday night clash with the host Charleston Battery. United then wraps up play next Saturday against Columbus. You can watch all three D.C. matches via live stream on dcunited.com.