Think back to this weekend one year ago, as D.C. United began their 2017 season in earnest. The team had undergone few changes from the 2016 side, one which crashed out early in the playoffs, but one which set the league on fire with goals in the second half of the season. Adding a couple of complimentary players to round out their roster, United had high hopes, ones that were washed away early in the season, as the team stumbled out of the gates.
This year, the situation is completely different. United will trot out a lineup against Orlando City today that will likely only include two players that were part of the team at the start of the 2017 season. Suspension and injuries aid that number, but the fact is, it might be only Steve Birnbaum and Nick DeLeon who make up that group in Ben Olsen’s first starting lineup this year.
“It’s a fresh start for a lot of us, a fresh start together,” Paul Arriola told reporters early this week after a practice. “I was looking forward to this year, to get on the same page as everyone, and start fresh, with a new type of system, new ideas.”
The transformation began last summer at the deadline of the secondary transfer window, mainly with the additions of Arriola, Russell Canouse, and Zoltan Stieber. Steve Clark was added later in August, and then this winter, United went out and added Yamil Asad, David Ousted, Junior Moreno, Darren Mattocks, and Ulises Segura as players who can contribute immediately to this team.
And so United goes into 2018, a season in which they will open a new stadium after playing 12 of their first 14 games on the road, with a brand new outlook on the season, in hopes of quickly erasing the malaise that was the 2017 campaign.
“What we were doing last season wasn’t working, before I got here, and after I got here,” added Arriola. “So now, with fresh faces, a different type of structure, and type of system we are going to play, I think everything points us in the right way, with the right mentality, and the right players on the field.”
Though the starting 11 to commence the 2018 season will hardly resemble its counterpart from 2017, there were still aspects of the group that Olsen wanted to change over the winter, in terms of how his team will operate on the field.
United has been known for a while as being a counter-attacking team, for better or worse. And while some of the players now on the squad could help them on those up the field endeavors, there is now more of an emphasis from Olsen and his staff on possession, and keeping the ball to help out everyone on the field.
“There are a couple aspects we want to improve on, and one is ball retention,” said Olsen after practice on Tuesday. “We want to improve in time spent with the ball. We want to improve on our defensive shape, which in retrospect, was really poor last year.”
Olsen, about to begin his 8th full season as manager of the Black-and-Red, elaborated more.
“You have to recover the ball, and retain possession in transition, to have some success at the other end. How it all plays out - it’s still a new group,” Olsen said. “Signs early are that we are going to be a team that can be dangerous in transition. But also at times, break [opponents] down. Add extra numbers, being better in build out, and when we win it, getting a hold of it, and making sure we secure the ball, and add more possessions to create attacks.”
Still, a concrete idea of how this team will manage the ‘18 campaign, especially navigating the tricky opening half of the season, before Audi Field is opened up, is under construction. United will need to get some wins, some points from draws from the opening half of the season, to give themselves a chance in the latter half.
And though Olsen has an idea of how he thinks this team can do that, as always, any adjustments that need to be made will be done so on the fly.
“Our identity, is it formed yet? No. This will evolve. The willingness of these guys to learn and take on the information we have given them in the preseason has been unbelievable,” said Olsen. “And in a short amount of time, I think we have created a team that is tough to break down, and a team that is dynamic in attack.”
The first test for United is against Orlando, a team with a similar story to their own. Orlando finished just one spot ahead of United in the Eastern Conference last year, being one of the worst teams in the league from June and on. They made several critical acquisitions over the winter, though several of which, won’t be available for various reasons on Saturday.
Still, Arriola and his teammates are expecting a tough game to get their historic road trip underway.
“They are going to be a good team,” Arriola said of the Lions. “They have had a lot of movement in and out of their team this year. They got some big players for them. Here, with our new system, being all on the same page, [against Las Vegas Lights FC] we saw how we can be successful.”