Over the next five days, B&RU will be delivering serious amounts of content to preview the 2012 MLS season for D.C. United. To start things off, here's an overview with a few points of emphasis to preview the team for SBNation.com/soccer.
2011 record: 9-13-12
Projected starting 11: Hamid; Woolard, McDonald, Dudar, Russell; Pontius, Boskovic, Kitchen, Najar; De Rosario, Salihi
Bold prediction: The most likely MLS MVP candidate on United's 2012 roster isn't the guy who won the award in 2011. It isn't Dwayne De Rosario. It's Hamdi Salihi. The Albanian Bomber comes to United from Rapid Vienna with a ridiculous strike rate, and the potential to equal or even surpass Luciano Emilio's 20-goal season in 2007 while playing a similar style.
Biggest fear: In previous years, injuries were United's biggest fear, particularly along the back line. And in previous years, that fear always seemed to come true. But with Argentine veteran Emiliano Dudar joining Dejan Jakovic, Brandon McDonald, and Ethan White, United finally has a solid crop of central defenders. For once, a single injury wouldn't ruin the season for D.C.
Instead, our biggest fear for United is a lack of chemistry. This offseason, the team parted ways with its four longest standing veterans. Clyde Simms, Devon McTavish, Marc Burch, and Santino Quaranta have all departed via either the Re-Entry draft or retirement. In their place, Ben Olsen has brought in several new players in an attempt to change the culture in the D.C. locker room. If it doesn't work - if Dudar, Jakovic, and McDonald fail to communicate properly, if Salihi and De Rosario both try to do things their own way up top - United could be in trouble.
For a season preview from a different perspective, keep reading.
Two guys who played significant minutes for United last year - Clyde Simms and Blake Brettschneider - will probably be starting the majority of matches for the New England Revolution in 2012. But they weren't even good enough to make this United team. On the other hand, Danny Cruz, who started all four playoff matches for the Houston Dynamo last year in route to the MLS Cup, is a reserve for D.C. United in 2012. This team will be a force in the Eastern Conference. It might be the most improved team in the league.
United enters this season with high aspirations, and higher expectations. After missing the playoffs four years in a row, the club has made a sudden and unexpected investment in its roster. Branko Boskovic, Salihi, and De Rosario are all earning salaries north of the designated player level. The 2011 season saw legitimate improvement over the terrors of 2010, but ultimately fell short late in the year when it mattered most. That kind of finish won't be acceptable in 2012. Not with this roster - the best United has had since 2007.
The 2011 version of D.C. United finished in the top third of the league in goals scored, but bottom third in goals allowed. And yet the team has improved on both sides of the ball. Salihi, along with healthier versions of Boskovic and Chris Pontius, will give United other means for scoring goals that don't have to involve De Rosario 100% of the time. But the additions of veteran defenders Dudar and Robbie Russell might be even more important to D.C.'s success. As the back line becomes more experienced and secure, and as Bill Hamid and Perry Kitchen continue to mature, United should be expected to give up far fewer goals in 2012.
The expectations are high. This D.C. United team can't afford to disappoint.