On Saturday evening, D.C. United wrapped up their preseason training by falling flat against the Montreal Impact in an unexpected 3-0 loss. On Tuesday, both Wayne Rooney and Ben Olsen said that the result might have come at a good time, a way of waking up and ensuring United is mentally prepared for the start of the MLS season this Sunday. Because when the 2019 campaign does commence for the Black-and-Red, their opponent will be the defending MLS Champions, Atlanta United.
The Five Stripes feature a new coach in Frank de Boer, who replaced the Tata Martino in the offseason. Miguel Almiron made the move to England with Newcastle United, but he had already been replaced by Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez, fresh off winning the Copa Libertadores with River Plate, while being named the best player in South America.
On Tuesday, United practiced at Audi Field for the first time this season, gearing up for what should be a difficult test, regardless of how Atlanta fares on Thursday in the second leg of their Champions League tie against Herediano.
“Nice to be back here to prepare for the game on Sunday,” Rooney told reporters after practice on Tuesday. “It’s an important week, we know it’s going to be a tough game against Atlanta. We’ll be ready for them coming here.”
While Atlanta has a new manager and a new star playmaker to lead the team, they otherwise underwent little change in terms of the make-up of their team. Same goes for D.C., who saw likely starters in Nick DeLeon and Yamil Asad replaced by loan signings Leonardo Jara and Lucas ‘Titi’ Rodriguez.
However, minimal turnover in personnel from one season to another doesn’t equate to a team just picking up exactly where they left off the prior year. And while the preseason friendlies gives teams chances to integrate players and work on tactics, it’s difficult to see how that will all pan out until meaningful games are played.
“It’s not easy, even with a team that has returned for the most part,” Olsen said of preseason preparation. “It’s still a new season and a new journey, and things are different. One piece or two pieces to fit in still takes a lot of time and effort. We’re a work in progress like most teams.”
And both Jara and Rodriguez missed some time during February with injuries. Neither was kept out for an extended period of time, but both missed at least one preseason game, which could have otherwise helped work out kinks for the Argentines.
One big difference between last year’s preseason and this year’s preseason was Rooney being around the group. When he arrived in July, Olsen praised the leadership of England’s all-time leading scorer. Rooney was handed the captain’s armband almost immediately, and gave the team a leader that they might have been otherwise been missing.
It’s been more of the same in the preseason, with Olsen waxing about Rooney’s ability to lead on the field during Tuesday’s press conference.
“He continues to be about the right things, and I think we have similar thoughts about how the game should be played, and how a culture should be in the locker room,” said Olsen about the former Manchester United forward. “So I think we’re in sync with what I feel this club should represent. He’s helped me. Leaders are hard to come by nowadays in soccer. He’s a very good one.”
Rooney and United are hoping to take advantage of Audi Field in 2019, after they won 12 of the 15 games at Buzzard Point in 2018. In September of last year, United beat the Five Stripes 3-1, the first of a 10 game unbeaten streak that the Black-and-Red rode into the playoffs. With a balanced schedule this year, and the hopes that Rooney and Luciano Acosta retain that magic that made them so special in 2018, United has their sights aimed higher than just a playoff spot in 2019.
The top spot in each conference earns a team the right to host every playoff game before the MLS Cup final at home. The playoffs have shifted to a strictly knockout format, putting even more emphasis on the regular season, to get the added advantage in the postseason. For United, the journey to the top spot starts Sunday on ESPN, against the defending champs.
“You’re fighting for a top [seven] spot to make the playoffs. The big difference this year is if you win your league, you’ll have every game at home in the playoffs,” said Rooney. “That’s big for us to try to do that, to try to get the home advantage in all the playoff games.”