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Gauged Expectations: What Should We Expect From D.C. United

This was United's starting XI for a game in September of last year. Only Najar, Jakovic, and Zayner (and maybe Quaranta) are likely to start regularly for the Black-and-Red in the season opener March 19. And that's a good thing.
This was United's starting XI for a game in September of last year. Only Najar, Jakovic, and Zayner (and maybe Quaranta) are likely to start regularly for the Black-and-Red in the season opener March 19. And that's a good thing.

I said it at the top of my first post here at B&RU: I'm optimistic about D.C. United 's 2011 prospects. Maybe not Supporters' Shield optimistic, but optimistic nevertheless. Coming off the worst year in franchise history, I think nearly all United fans are optimistic that D.C. will find the net more than 21 times and the team will end the year with something more than 22 points. Benny Olsen has said that he's aiming for the playoffs this season, heading into the annual Carolina Challenge Cup and the season opener on March 19, how realistic do we think a playoff berth is? Just how optimistic should we be?

I'll admit, my optimism is necessarily based on some unknowns and assumptions - this was an epically bad team last year. United were disorganized on defense and impotent on offense - the usual M.O. involved some desperate (but somehow successful) early defending, followed by a long period of control without really threatening, capped off by a soft goal or two allowed and a lot of heavy drinking and swearing.

So what's different this year? In a word, everything.

This team is younger and faster than it was a year ago. Juan Manuel Pena had a great preseason organizing the defense last year, but spent the games that mattered out injured and looking a step slow. Add in Carey Talley, and we had one of the oldest defensive pairings in MLS. In their place, famously, is U.S. youth international Perry Kitchen , who has impressed enough to be projected by many as a starter from Day One, and a hopefully resurgent Dejan Jakovic. Jaime Moreno is a living legend, but like Pena, his fantastic form in preseason last year didn't translate to the regular season. Even with veterans Josh Wolff and Joseph Ngwenya joining the squad, United are younger and faster up front, especially with Charlie Davies joining the ranks.

United are healthier than they were at any point last year. [Knock wood. Knock wood. Knock wood. ]  Clyde Simms has had more hernia problems in the last few years than ... well, I don't really have a good reference to fall back on, but there have been a lot of hernias. And hamstrings. And shoulders. And ankles. And while there have been some knocks in preseason so far, and although we don't have Curt Onalfo's Scientific Injury-Free Programme (TM), we've got Simms back, and Chris Pontius , and soon enough, Bill Hamid . Regression to the mean says that one of these years, we're going to have fewer injuries - why can't it be now?

This team is deeper than the 2010 edition. Santino Quaranta was an automatic starter. Kurt Morsink and Stephen King both started large chunks of the season in central midfield. Thanks to Dax McCarty , Davies, and others, I don't see a single one of them in the First XI right now (though Tino is probably close).

Finally, and as lazy as it is to say, this team is hungry. Ben Olsen by all accounts employs a more intense coaching style than Onalfo. He's instituted competition for each position, bringing in youth and veterans, if not too many trialists , to fight for playing time. The most common observation made after the Sacking of Onalfo was the increased fight United showed on the field, and I'd expect that to continue into 2011.

But it's not all rose petals and deliciousness at RFK. There are certainly some questions. Is Kitchen really all that? Will Branko Boskovic perform better with a preseason under his belt? Can anybody wearing black-and-red finish a damn goal? Will Andy Najar keep up his rapid improvement? Will Dejan Jakovic recover from his year-long brain fart? Obviously, I'd answer these questions in the affirmative, at least tentatively.

So, what should we expect from United this year? What's reasonable? Ben Olsen has targeted the playoffs as within reach, and in a weak Eastern Conference assured of three guaranteed playoff berths , not to mention more than half of the league-at-large making the field, I think that's a good place to start. Not since the Supporters' Shield season in 2007 have United made the playoffs, and I think that's got to end this year if we want to consider 2011 a success. Personally, I expect this team to be better at the end of the year than at the beginning, and I expect them be a playoff team come October.

What are your expectations for United two weeks before First Kick 2011? What do you think the team has to do for it to be a successful year?