Preseason friendlies are opportunities to test players, formations and team strategy while also measuring individuals' baseline fitness levels. The goal of any professional team is to win, even if a match is only a preseason friendly, but the 2-1 loss to Malmö FF of the Swedish top tier on Feb. 8 gave head coach Ben Olsen plenty of positive takeaways.
United's players were eager to get on the field and prove themselves to coaching staff to push toward earning their spot in the starting XI in United’s 2018 season opener against Orlando on March 3. After a week of intensive training focused on improving aerobic capacity and strength, the game tested players physically and mentally. Olsen admitted that the game was a chance to push the players to their physical limits in an effort to gain critical fitness ahead of the 2018 season.
“I was pleased with the performance," Olsen said. "There were two different teams out there—one played the first 60 minutes and the second played the final 30. I thought the first group started well in the first 25-30 minutes, then I think you could see the players’ legs get tired, the discipline went and it became a tough battle. We know we’re setting them up to fail at this point in preseason because they’re playing with heavy legs, but we’ve designed it that way in an effort to get them fit for the season."
The start of the second half was a highlight for Olsen as he saw signs of improvement at both ends of the field. He also recognized the positive impacts of new signings Darren Mattocks and Ulises Segura, whose performances impressed Olsen.
"In the second half, we looked pretty sharp in the first 15 minutes. There were some conditions that favored the team going with the wind but it was much better from our group offensively, and it was good to get a goal," Olsen said. "I thought Darren [Mattocks] had a pretty good day and [Ulises] Segura looked bright. The back four also held up but then there were a few moments where we needed to solve the problem better. By and large, we saw some of the things we’ve been working on defensively at training in our ability to defend the box and cover each other.”
Mattocks, who scored his first goal for the Black-and-Red in the 56th minute, also noted the importance of using preseason games to get better individually and as a group moving forward.
“The first game with the guys was pretty good. We got our fitness up, and we still have a lot of work to do, but so far so good,” Mattocks said. “There are a couple of things to work on but that’s preseason. When the season starts we’ll be ready.”
The starting lineup featured five new faces, as the friendly was the first real opportunity for players to gel and build relationships on the field. With such a major shift in personnel on a team, questions are often asked about the group’s leadership and their motivation level to compete for each other. After 12 days of training in Clearwater, Fla., Olsen was pleased with how the group came together.
“I’m pleasantly surprised at the mentality of this group and their willingness to work for each other, and how they’ve sustained the load that we’ve asked from them in the last two weeks," Olsen said. "We put them through a lot physically in addition to on-field work and classroom sessions. It was a good first camp.”
The Black-and-Red now return to Washington, D.C., for some critical rest before heading back to Clearwater, Fla., on Feb. 14. The second camp yields two friendly matches against the Philadelphia Union on Feb. 17 and Jacksonville Armada FC on Feb. 21 at the 2018 Rowdies Suncoast Invitational. Olsen's squad then travels to play Las Vegas Lights FC on Feb. 24.