March 23, 2019

D.C. United Game 1 Preview: For United, it has to get better, right?

For D.C. United players, coaches, management, and fans, it’s finally time to realistically hope that the 2013 Major League Soccer season is just a memory. Sure, it’s worth remembering United’s run in the U.S. Open Cup, which culminated in a 1-0 win at Real Salt Lake that saw United win its 13th major trophy since beginning play in MLS’ inaugural season of 1996.

But 2013 also ended with United having won just three of 34 regular-season matches, so far out of a playoff spot supporters would have needed a telescope to find them. Quick bounce-backs to respectability aren’t necessarily rare in MLS, and to some extent, one can’t even imagine United having a season worse than it did last year, even if there were no changes in personnel since a 2-1 loss to Houston on October 27 put the final touches on a 3-24-7 campaign.

However, as you might expect after such a season, there were changes. Oh, were there changes. Everyone’s favorite offside forward, Lionard Pajoy, is gone, as he and fellow under-producing “striker” Carlos Ruiz are among 12 players no longer in the organization following last season. Also in that group you’ll find former star midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, who wasn’t given a new contract and eventually returned to one of his (many) former teams, Toronto FC. Other notables no longer at United include defenders Daniel Woolard, Dejan Jakovic, and Ethan White. Jakovic was transferred to Japanese club Shimizu S-Pulse, while White was traded to Philadelphia on January 14.

It’s hard to say what the bigger problem was for United last year, offense or defense, given the club scored only 22 goals and conceded 59. An almost complete revamp was necessary and in the back and up front, that’s what United got. Returning head coach Ben Olsen has plenty of new talent to work with. Defenders Sean Franklin and Bobby Boswell, now in his second stint at United, were acquired in the Re-Entry Draft, while veteran defender Jeff Parke came to Washington in the White trade. United also went for a defender with the number-one pick in the MLS SuperDraft, selecting Steve Birnbaum from the University of California. Christian Martinez, a 28-year-old Spanish defender who played in La Liga with Racing Santander, was acquired on February 7.

Up top, however, is where fans will find United’s most noticeable and aggressive change. D.C. acquired U.S. National Team forward Eddie Johnson in a trade with the Seattle Sounders on December 17. Johnson became the odd man out on a Seattle roster that also featured Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, and United recently signed Johnson to a Designated Player contract. In the Re-Entry Draft, United also added Fabian Espindola, and the midfield was bolstered by the acquisition of Davy Arnaud from Montreal and for depth, United made another deal with Seattle on Tuesday to pick up midfielder Alex Caskey.

All of this, combined with the return of several notable holdovers from prior years such as Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon, Chris Korb, Perry Kitchen, and starting goalkeeper Bill Hamid, might be enough to give United hopes of seeing more than just a modest improvement from the club in 2014. Everyone’s first look at United in competitive action comes Saturday night at RFK Stadium, where D.C. will open its 19th MLS season vs. the Columbus Crew at 7 p.m. The Crew went 12-17-5 (41 points) last season. The Crew finished 8th of 10 in the Eastern Conference, but were 25 points clear of United.

Columbus has a new-look squad in its own right. Crew stalwarts like Eddie Gaven (retired), Chad Marshall (traded) and goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum (traded) are all gone. Experienced U.S. defender Michael Parkhurst is perhaps the most recognizable name among the new Crew, but it’s worth noting the arrival of defender Giancarlo Gonzalez, who is expected to start at center back. Gonzalez has 31 appearances for Costa Rica to his credit, including both matches against the United States during the recent World Cup final qualifying stage.

Columbus will be without forward Dominic Oduro on Saturday night, however. He is suspended. Oduro was the Crew’s leading scorer last season with 13 goals. He also added four assists. However, the always dangerous Federico Higuain returns in the midfield for Columbus. He posted 11 goals and nine assists in 2013.

Both teams would like to erase a bad end to the 2013 season with a win Saturday. Columbus lost its final three matches of the season, while after beating Montreal on August 3, United failed to win its final 12 matches (nine losses, three draws). This will be the 57th regular season meeting between the clubs. United leads the series, 25-23-8, but the Crew won both meetings last season by a combined score of 5-1. Saturday’s match marks the head coaching debut in MLS for Gregg Berhalter.

NOTE: Due to the lack of a labor agreement between the Professional Referee Organization and those who officiate MLS matches, all games this week will be worked by replacement officials. While this shouldn’t result in Seattle being awarded a phantom game-winning touchdown, there will be some unfamiliar names in the middle for games across the league. At RFK, the United-Crew match was to feature Drew Fischer as head referee, working with Adam Wienckowski, Greg Barkey, and fourth Robert Sibiga. Instead, Andres Pfefferkown, and NASL referee, draws the center assignment, flanked by Dimitar Chadarav and Kyle Longville. In an article about the changes on the MLS website, fourth officials for this weekend’s schedule were not listed.

Ed Morgans is the D.C. United Page Editor for District Sports Page. Follow him on Twitter @writered21.

About Ed Morgans

Ed Morgans is DC United Page Editor for District Sports Page. Ed worked for The Journal Newspapers (now The Examiner) and covered DC United from 1997-2002. He spent the 2003 season writing for the club’s website. Ed has covered All-Star Games, MLS Cups, CONCACAF Champions Cup, World Cup qualifiers, and international friendlies. He also worked as a blogger at www.bigsoccer.com, the country’s leading soccer message board website. You can follow Ed on Twitter @writerEd21.

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