Inside MLS 2015: D.C. United look to build from 2014 success

D.C. United coach Ben Olsen received a multi-year contract extension last year after guiding his revamped from worst to first in the Eastern Conference.

Tommy Gilligan/Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

ESSENTIAL FACTS

Last year in a sentence: A raft of veteran signings and a renewed team spirit spurred the most dramatic worst-to-first turnaround in MLS history.

Offseason in a sentence: United stayed the course and tinkered around the edges ahead of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal tie against Alajuelense and another bid to finish atop in the Eastern Conference.

(as of February 24)

Incoming: Miguel Aguilar (San Francisco/SuperDraft), Jairo Arrieta (Columbus Crew SC via Orlando City), Michael Farfan (Cruz Azul/Mexico), Markus Halsti (Malmö FF/Sweden)

Outgoing: Nana Attakora (option declined), Alex Caskey (option declined), Samuel Inkoom (unattached), Thomas McNamara (New York City FC), Lewis Neal (Orlando City SC), Jeff Parke (option declined), Kyle Porter (option declined), Conor Shanosky (option declined), Joe Willis (Houston Dynamo)

Fabian Espindola injected himself into the heart of most of D.C. United’s best attacking work a year ago.

FUNDAMENTALS

Key player: Blame Felipe Martins for disrupting Fabián Espindola last season. His cynical tackle sent Espindola to the sidelines for six weeks during the summer. That unfortunate incident halted Espindola’s outside candidacy for MLS MVP honors, but it did not take away from his substantial contribution to the cause. His precise work in the final third and his selfless running to facilitate others typified the earnest work submitted by the club last season.

Philosophy: United coach Ben Olsen prefers a no-frills 4-4-2 setup designed to place his players in positions where they can perform reliably. Most of the creative work comes from Espindola dropping off the line or the wide players tucking inside. The rearguard is solid and uncompromising in front of MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Bill Hamid.

Strengths: There is a clear understanding about how to produce results with the squad in place. The core of the side is rock solid, while the veteran presence provided by Davy Arnaud, Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin reinforces the promising youthful streak. Hamid and Perry Kitchen rank among the league’s best in their respective positions after taking substantial steps forward a year ago, while Boswell and Steven Birnbaum feature prominently on the list of center back tandems. Nick DeLeon and Chris Rolfe provide ample options out wide, while Chris Pontius beckons as a potential joker if he can stay healthy. The addition of Markus Halsti creates much needed depth in central defense and central midfield, while Michael Farfan supplies another potentially useful piece in midfield.

Weaknesses: Depth is a glaring concern up front with Espindola set to miss the first six matches through suspension and Eddie Johnson sidelined with an undisclosed medical ailment. There is also a lack of creativity in the central areas, particularly with United opting to stand pat given the success from last year. Those two issues make United somewhat predictable going forward at times.

United will have to figure out a way to produce goals regularly with Espindola sidelined for the first six league matches and Eddie Johnson ruled out through an unspecified injury.

KEY QUESTIONS

* Who will produce the necessary moment of magic? Thierry Henry offered a painful reminder about the difference between regular-season success and postseason glory as he ushered United out of the playoffs in November. It is not beyond this resolute side to overcome the hurdle created by the focus on collective strength, but one of those consistent performers must rise to the occasion to avoid a similar fate this year.

* Will Espindola’s six-match ban place United in an early hole? Espindola lashed out in the wake of the Red Bulls defeat and received a lengthy suspension for misconduct against an assistant referees. United acquired Jairo Arrieta from Columbus (via Orlando City) to provide an alternative with Johnson ruled out for the foreseeable future. That move made sense, but it did not erase the potential complications created by Espindola’s absence. Expect United to rely on its midfield to contribute more frequently to help paper over the cracks.

* How far will the squad stretch? Espindola’s absence highlights the demands ahead with Champions League and MLS commitments during the early stages of the season. The arrivals of Arrieta, Farfan and Halsti address many of those issues, but the question here is more about wear and tear

Best-case scenario: United builds on the massive turnaround last year and submits another exemplary campaign. A lengthy run in the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stage does not detract from the league issues. Espindola continues his fine form from a year ago. Everyone pulls the necessary weight. The season ends in late November or early December.

Worst-case scenario: The additional stress created by Espindola’s suspension leads to cracks during the regular season. The methodical march of a year ago loses steam. Instead of pushing toward the top of the East, United grapples with aging legs and spends much of the campaign scraping its way toward a second consecutive postseason appearance.