D.C. United preview: Defense the key

The D.C. United trophy case remains one of the most stocked ones in Major League Soccer, but a four-year playoff drought has left the team’s four MLS Cups collecting dust.

While the team may not quite be ready to add to their impressive trophy haul just yet, a strong nucleus of young talent and an off-season that included a handful of very encouraging acquisitions has D.C. United thinking about a return to the top of the Eastern Conference.

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The arrival at mid-season of Dwayne De Rosario helped rejuvenate D.C. in the second half of 2011, but injuries and poor form down the stretch doomed the club to a late-season collapse. Now the team is hoping a handful of winter additions are enough to propel the club back into the playoffs. Considering the team didn’t miss the 2011 post-season by much, it isn’t a stretch to believe the team can take a big step forward.

Albanian striker Hamdi Salihi has been signed as a designated player, and expectations are that he is the type of productive pure striker the club has lacked since Luciano Emilio was in his heyday. Pairing Salihi with De Rosario could give the club the perfect tandem to take advantage of a midfield with loads of promise.

Branko Boskovic is back after missing most of the 2011 season with a torn ACL. He should take on a key role in midfield, unless Olsen chooses to play De Rosario in the playmaking role. D.C. is stacked on the wings, with Andy Najar and Chris Pontius expected to start, and with Danny Cruz and Nick DeLeon providing impressive cover.

US Under-23 national teamer Perry Kitchen is being projected to take over defensive midfield duties after spending his rookie season playing right back. Kitchen has the qualities to excel at the position, but he is also very young and could endure some growing pains at a position not normally manned by 20-year-olds.

Olsen won’t have to worry too much about his attack, but the second-year coach will have to work on revamping a defense that played far poorly down the stretch last season. The return to health of Dejan Jakovic and arrival of promising center back Emiliano Dudar should boost the quality and competition for places, and the inclusion of veteran right back Robbie Russell should help provide some leadership in the back, something that was missing last season.

In goal, D.C. will continue watching the maturation of Bill Hamid, who has blossomed quickly into an unquestioned starter and regular US national team call-up. Hamid will miss time with D.C. United due to national team exploits this year, but those experiences should only serve to help him keep polishing his game.

For D.C. United, as much as the continued maturation of the team’s young players is, the club will also need Olsen to keep growing as a coach. He endured a baptism by fire in 2011, and deserved far more blame for the team’s late-season flameout than he received, but he has acknowledged that he had a lot to learn on the job and now heads into 2012 with a very important year of experience under his belt.

Just as important as that experience, Olsen heads into 2012 with the strongest D.C. United squad since the team’s Supporters Shield-winning side in 2007. If D.C. can stay healthy, and if Olsen grows into his coaching role (learning from the mistakes of 2011), D.C. will be a safe bet to snap that playoff drought and move a step closer to cracking open that trophy case.

2012 D.C. UNITED TEAM OUTLOOK

TOP PLAYERS: Dwayne De Rosario, Andy Najar, Chris Pontius, Perry Kitchen, Brandon McDonald

KEY ADDITIONS: Hamdi Salihi, Emiliano Dudar, Maicon Santos, Robbie Russell, Marcelo Saragosa, Danny Cruz, Nick DeLeon

KEY LOSSES: Charlie Davies, Santino Quaranta, Marc Burch, Clyd Simms, Blake Brettschneider, Jed Zayner, Austin Da Luz

MUST HAVE A BIG YEAR: Hamdi Salihi. The new designated player is being expected to team up with Dwayne De Rosario to work magic and score goals. He comes in with a resume as a difference maker. D.C. needs him to live up to expectations or risk another disappointing season.

BREAKOUT PLAYER TO WATCH: Perry Kitchen. The second-year player spent most of his rookie season playing out of position at right back, but now he will be given the task in defensive midfield, where young players sometimes have trouble handling the responsibility of the position. Kitchen is a special breed, though. He’s mature beyond his years and fearless, and D.C. will need him to do the heavy lifting in midfield so the playmakers can have the freedom to create.

BIGGEST QUESTION: Will the defense be good enough? Last year the D.C. defense was far too inconsistent. Between Dejan Jakovic being injured and Brandon McDonald losing his form soon after signing a big contract extension, the D.C. back-line was a mess. Now Jakovic is back, newcomer Emiliano Dudar is looking very impressive at center back. and veteran Robbie Russell is expected to lock down the right back position. If they can all come together to form a cohesive defensive unit, D.C. United will make the playoffs.

OUTLOOK: Ben Olsen has to be excited about the kind of attack D.C. will be able to field when everyone is healthy. Players like Boskovic, Pontius and Jakovic had their 2011 seasons ruined by injuries. This year, all three should play vital roles. Expecting De Rosario to match last year’s incredible MVP season is a bit unrealistic, but D.C. doesn’t need him to. Not with Sahili and fellow newcomer Maicon Santos upgrading the forward position, and not with Andy Najar poised to have a big year. Olsen’s biggest concern will be finding the right combination on the back-line to keep goalkeeper Bill Hamid from having to face barrages of shots like he did last year. If Olsen can find a strong back four, D.C. fans will be enjoying playoff soccer for the first time in a longer while than they are used to waiting.