As is fitting on the dawn of a new season, a sense of optimism permeated D.C. United’s second training session of 2020. With new acquisitions finding their place within the squad, and with training moved to an indoor facility due to below-freezing temperatures, players and coaches seemed to be in high spirits throughout a session that seemed geared towards building relationships in possession and ensuring that the group is fit for the long haul.
“Ready to get back to work,” said defender Steven Birnbaum, summing up both his own offseason spent focused on becoming a father for the first time, and the focus for the entire squad. “It’s a good vibe, everyone is attacking the season,” added striker Ola Kamara.
That good vibe may have been related to United’s surprise trade for Julian Gressel, news of which broke just as the team’s Head of Sports Science and Fitness Jonny Northeast finished explaining a group warm-up drill.
Following the session, United boss Ben Olsen gave the assembled media his best poker face when asked about the deal, which at that moment hadn’t yet been confirmed. “Julian...Gressel? The kid from Atlanta?,” said Olsen, before declining to discuss the move further.
Olsen had plenty to say about a season that looks like one in which United could progress beyond merely qualifying for the playoffs. The Black-and-Red’s head coach said he was aiming to create “a really competitive environment with guys that are selfless, and are two-way players, that are motivated to take this team to the next step,” alluding to the fact that United’s last postseason win came back in 2015.
Asked whether United’s ownership’s expenditures — the combined out-of-pocket and allocation money used to acquire Gressel and Peruvian international Edison Flores are estimated to be around $6 million, which would mark uncharted territory for the club — point to a more concerted effort to compete with MLS’s biggest clubs, Olsen gave a very affirmative answer. “I think so. Again, I think that’s a really healthy thing. The owners have been very, very supportive of what we wanna do this year, the players that we wanna bring in.”
There also appears to have been a shift in thinking about how D.C. wants to go about their business this year. In recent years, the club has focused on a variety of summer transfers: a series of trades within the league in 2016, a wild international deadline day in 2017, the enormous splash that was the acquisition of Wayne Rooney to go with Audi Field’s opening in 2018, and last year’s combination of moves from abroad and within the league.
In 2020, the plan appears to be assembling the major pieces right from the jump. “We don’t necessarily want to look to the summer, or two months from now, to make this team whole. We’re gonna go for it, and try and get as many players as we can that fit our group’s mentality, fit into this culture, and again push us to really compete for championships,” said Olsen, who added that “by the end of the first camp in preseason you’ll know very clearly who our team is and what we’re gonna be about.“
Even after adding Gressel to a midfield that appeared to have three quality starters in the attacking line to go with respectable depth, Olsen indicated that United is not done filling out the roster. Addressing the fact that the club only has six players under contract that are defenders first and foremost, Olsen noted that DCU is “still looking to push the back line and get somebody in here to compete. Now we have [that] in the midfield, and I think we certainly have it in the front four or five, and we’d like to add that to the back.”
Birnbaum declined to comment on the Gressel trade, but even putting that to the side, the veteran center back expressed confidence in the roster. “We’re a strong group. We’ve got a lot of guys that are returning, same core group... We feel like we’ve got a hard-working team that can compete in every game. We’ve got some quality.”
Despite all the talk about Gressel, United still had a major offseason acquisition in the building Tuesday. Flores was unable to participate in full training while he awaits U.S. visa paperwork to come through, but the club’s new record transfer was exercising away from the group, and with the help of a translator, spoke to media after the session ended.
“Obviously I can’t train quite yet, but it’s good to be out here. I’m happy,” said Flores, who indicated that his previous time playing in Denmark had prepared him for a particularly cold day in the DMV.
Olsen indicated that they’re using the delay to make sure Flores is fully fit for the long haul. “He comes off of a full season [with Morelia], so the fitness part, we’re not concerned about too much, at least the high-intensity running that you get in a game. We’d still like to work on some of his cardio, and it’s a good time to do that when he does get cleared. So that’s the first part, making sure he’s physically up to where we want him to be.”
Staying on the topic of player fitness levels, Olsen praised Yamil Asad, who saw virtually no playing time last year with Velez Sarsfield after United’s bid to extend his loan fell through. “I’ve been impressed with how quickly Yamil has been up to speed on the field, and fitness. You know, it wasn’t like he was sitting around eating Cheetos for a year. He was training, and he’s a pretty motivated guy... He looks sharp.”
Olsen made sure to emphasize that Oniel Fisher and Chris Odoi-Atsem, two other players who saw little action in 2019, would benefit from a full preseason. Fisher, who told Black and Red United after training that “It’s definitely a great feeling to know I’m fully in, and not doing rehab” after a long battle to recover from a major knee injury in 2018, only managed to suit up in D.C.’s November friendly win over Bermuda’s national team.
His fellow fullback Odoi-Atsem made a few more appearances after overcoming Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but eventually he suffered a hip flexor strain that kept him from full training until the build-up for that same friendly.
“[Fisher]...is a little rusty. Just like Chris [Odoi-Atsem], these guys need a full preseason,” said Olsen. “It’s important, and we emphasize it all the time here, getting through preseason is crucial for them to have success in the regular season. So we’ve gotta be smart in pushing them, but also making sure we understand that they’re in a little bit of a different basket. A little bit of white gloves with them to make sure they can get through the preseason.”
Trialists and newcomers
While Flores, homegrown signing Kevin Paredes, and draft picks Simon Lefebvre and Josh Fawole were new faces expected to be in place, United filled out their group with trialists and at least one academy player. Aaron Maund, a 29-year-old center back who most recently played for Charlotte Independence in the USL Championship, was acknowledged by Olsen as someone United is taking a serious look at. “Aaron’s got good experience in our league and the USL. We know what he offers, and we look forward to seeing him in camp,” said Olsen of the former Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC, and Vancouver Whitecaps defender.
Hours after the training session ended, Washington Post reporter Steve Goff reported that left back Duke Lacroix, another defender who spent 2019 with a USL Championship club, is also on trial
Aside from Aaron Maund, I think I've found another DCU backline trialist in camp: Duke Lacroix, 26, an attacker who was converted into a left back and played at second-tier Indy, Orange County and Reno. Awaiting additional details ...— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) January 21, 2020
While no one within the club seemed particularly hurried to have the roster completely locked down before United heads to Florida for the first extended leg of camp, Kamara hit the nail on the head while speaking with Black and Red United after the session ended. “It’s always exciting to get some new players in, see how they do, probably gonna make some more signings also. We just have to integrate them fast, and get going, because it’s just...five and a half weeks [until the season begins], yeah?”
Formation and tactics still taking shape
Given that the session was just the second of the preseason, Olsen declined to fully sketch out his broader vision for the team’s identity or formation, but did address some specifics. With regards to Flores, Olsen said that his new number 10 would be “given a little bit of freedom in the center of the park,” but quickly added that he isn’t ruling out using him on the left wing, where Flores has played the bulk of his international career.
For his part, Flores indicated no strong preference for his position going forward, noting that he plays wide left for Peru’s national team, but spent last season as a second striker or attacking midfielder for Morelia in Liga MX. “I feel comfortable in both positions, and I’ll be comfortable wherever the coach decides to put me.”
In all likelihood, Flores will see time in both spots, even if it may be something that comes up organically in a given game rather than an extensively rehearsed situation. Olsen has in recent years given his attacking midfielders plenty of freedom to exchange positions on the fly, and that appears to be part of the plan this year. “I think with a lot of our attackers, they’re interchangeable. Paul, Yamil, [Ulises Segura], all these guys can play a few different spots. It’s gonna be part of the preseason, figuring out who goes where and collectively, where are [they] most effective?”
While mostly looking to keep his options open, Olsen was willing to make a pretty clear statement on Kamara, who was acquired last summer for a reported $2.5 million transfer fee. “There’s very few spots where I can say ‘he’s our starter,’ and Ola’s our starter,” said Olsen of the Norwegian international striker. “He knows what he’s doing out there, and I look forward to working with him, and we’ll try to go get some guys to compete with him at that number 9 spot in the coming days.”
If anything, Olsen’s focus with regards to the attack was focused on building a team that can feed Kamara, whose style of play differs dramatically from former captain Wayne Rooney. Where the England legend was frequently dropping back into the midfield and was United’s creative fulcrum, Kamara runs the channels and spends more of his time getting into the penalty area to be the recipient of service. “It’s not just on him. It’s gonna be about the players around him to make sure he’s provided with the right service to put the numbers up that we need. We think we have that [already], we think we’ll increase that.”
Rooney’s departure didn’t just change how United will attack; it’s shaken up the leadership dynamic within the squad. Last year, Rooney was the club’s captain, drawing on his years of experience at the highest levels of the game, but he’s now doing that for Derby County in the English Championship.
As a result, United will be looking for a leadership-by-committee approach to make up what the club lost when Rooney returned to the United Kingdom. “[Leadership] doesn’t concern me,” said Olsen, who noted that he’s not in a rush to name a new team captain. “We have enough guys that have been through all different aspects of this game, and I’ll be relying on them, because ultimately — yeah it’s me creating culture, but it’s really the leadership council, that older crew, that sometimes matters in the dressing room.”
Birnbaum, who was on a long list of established veterans in that “older crew” name-checked by Olsen, was on board. “Obviously having Wayne around, he was a great leader for our team. You know, we’ve got some veteran players in our group now. We’re gonna have to lead collectively. That’s what we’re preaching right now.”