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Familiarity breeds results for D.C. United in best start in team history

With 20 returning players from 2014 campaign, United’s quick start has them tied at the summit for the Supporters’ Shield

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

When D.C. United looked to move past their mostly forgetful 2013 season, they had to do so by bringing in new faces all over the field. A new cast, made up of mostly veteran names, came into the side, and helped United complete the turnaround from worst to first in the Eastern Conference in 2014. But while the Black-and-Red ended the season at the top, their start to season was slow, with their first win not coming until the fourth game.

Since most of that group is still around this season, it has only made sense that United has picked up right where they left off last year. They've already won five times in eight games this season, compared to last year, when it took 11 games to win their first five contests.

"It's a better start than last season. We have the same guys coming back," United right back Sean Franklin told B&RU after practice on Tuesday. "When you have a consistent group week in and week out, you get familiar with each other. We've clicked well at the start of the season."

Franklin was part of that veteran group that joined United leading up to the 2014 season. And now the biggest factor in the team's hot start has been the fact that there was little turnover from the 2014 season to the 2015 season. 20 players returned from the side that won that topped the Eastern Conference in the regular season in '14.

And with just six new faces in, none of them have been asked to be game changers yet; just asked to fill in when and where needed on a week to week basis.

"Being able to not go through a pre-season, [where you're] having to get your identity down, and waste a lot of time on that stuff, and having guys already know what we're about at the start of the season, is definitely a benefit," United manager Ben Olsen said on Tuesday.

The start is as good as any in the team's 20 year history. Although part of a logjam up top in the Supporters' Shield race, United's quick start to the season has put them in a prime position to try to retain their Eastern Conference crown.

That start though, will be put to the test 13 more times before the Fourth of July, which for Olsen, still constitutes the start of his side's season.

"A good start, when we looked at the calendar, [ends in] a month and a half from now," said Olsen. "[That's] still the start for us. We looked at the first part of the season as a very important stretch. The start has been great, but now we have the real meat of our schedule."

Now, the challenge for United will be to react to teams that are finding their own rhythm with a quarter of the season gone. Teams around the league are starting to settle in, and finding the same sort of chemistry that United started the season with.

"Teams will now start to catch up. Teams will start to now, a few months in, start to click, find their relationships and find their identity," said Olsen. "That means we have to keep improving. Finding out our best eleven. Finding out which guys can come in and help us get points."

As United heads to their ninth game of the season, at home on Saturday against Sporting Kansas City, they are as healthy as they've been all season. Everyone - including Markus Halsti and Steve Birnbaum - was available to practice on Tuesday save Eddie Johnson and Collin Martin.

While both might not be picked for this weekend's game, with the plethora of games on the docket in May and June, their return coupled with the emergence of key options at certain positions will give Olsen a few selection headaches. While that's a good problem to have, Olsen noted that the onus is still on the players not regularly in the starting lineup to force their way into the side.

"Lot of good players out there [at practice]. But the group that's been out there has done well" Olsen told reporters on Tuesday. "Guys on the outside have to find their way, and get in there, and make the most of it when they do. The other side is that we have a month and a half of Saturday-Wednesday, Saturday-Wednesday, Saturday-Wednesday, Saturday-Wednesday. So everyone is going to have to play their part in order for us to continue to get results."

One of the more enduring aspects of the side that has cropped up in the past two weeks has been the duo of Chris Rolfe and Fabian Espindola, as evident by the counter attacking goal that Espindola scored against the Columbus Crew, courtesy of a Rolfe assist.

In 2014, Espindola ran in tandem with Luis Silva to combine for 22 leagues, and 13 assists, while Rolfe contributed mostly from the left side of midfield.

But in the past two games, both wins for the Black-and-Red, Rolfe and Espindola have both chipped in with a goal and an assist. Their understanding while playing alongside just might make it difficult for Olsen to put Rolfe back on the left side of the midfield.

"Both good players. Both have good ideas. Rolfe is as good as anybody that we have playing off of others and understanding his role and adapting to guys around him," Olsen told B&RU. "He does that with Fabi, he does that when he's wide with wide backs. He's just a smart player. He's been as good as anybody up to this point. There's a real quality in the way he plays. It's contagious. His ability to combine and create partnerships with different players is invaluable."

Olsen was just as complimentary with the Argentine.

"Fabi is a playmaker, and if he enjoys playing with somebody, you see it with Fabi's demeanor out there. I think they have a good partnership. But Silva has a good partnership with Fabi, so we have some options up there."