D.C. United’s improved roster is both a blessing and curse for Coach Ben Olsen. Through seven matches, quality depth has allowed him to fill voids with comparable replacements and embark on a five-game unbeaten streak.
But as the season unfolds and players accustomed to starting are rooted to the bench for long periods, Olsen will have to manage a thorny situation. Every player wants to play, and not all of those who sit out are as agreeable as others.
So far, Olsen seems to have struck a delicate balance, but as favorites emerge, some of the regulars are bound to become restless.
Take Bill Hamid, for instance. He is a young and emotional goalkeeper who has served as United’s No. 1 choice for two years, earned the lead role for the U.S. under-23 national team and received repeat appointments to the senior squad. With Joe Willis in good form, however, Hamid is United’s back-up.
Consider Andy Najar. He was MLS’s rookie of the year two years ago, started regularly for two seasons, helped Honduras qualify for the Olympics and is on pace to contribute to the World Cup qualifying effort. This spring, however, he is the second-choice right wing for United.
Consider Hamdi Salihi and Branko Boskovic, well-compensated European imports who weren’t brought here to watch. Without a goal, Salihi is no longer guaranteed a starting job. Boskovic, still seeking form and fitness after last year’s major knee injury, has started just twice and faces stiff competition for playing time in the middle (Dwayne De Rosario) and on the left (Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius).
Of all the aforementioned players, Hamid is the most unpredictable. His passion has, at times, gotten the best of him, leading to episodes of immaturity behind the scenes. The club has remained patient, chalking up his antics to age (21) and, well, Bill being Bill.
But upon returning from U.S. duty and a sprained ankle, Hamid has found himself behind Willis, a second-year man who has made several sterling saves in six starts and displayed poise under pressure.
I asked Olsen how Hamid has handled the back-up role.
“It’s not easy for anybody. It hasn’t been easy for Andy, Bill, even Chris. You look at Chris’s response [after losing his starting job to DeLeon]. There’s the right way to respond to these situations and the wrong way. Chris did it the right way. He waited for his chance, he came in and did a good job [against New England last week]. So that’s what we want.
“Someone goes away with the national team or Olympic team and comes back, and someone filled in and did a great job and [the team is] starting to get results, those are the breaks. It’s going to continue to work that way.
“I have faith in Bill and everybody down the line. I showed that the other night by starting those guys [Najar, Pontius and Boskovic]. We’ve got a lot of games coming up and we’re going to need everybody.”
In a perfect world, here’s what would’ve unfolded on the goalkeeping front: Hamid and the U-23s qualify for the Olympics, Hamid retains his form in MLS and receives another senior call-up for the friendlies and World Cup qualifiers before shipping off to London for the Summer Games, where he performs in front of scouts from around the globe.
With his value rising, United sells him for a nice profit. In the case of homegrown players, the club collects a larger share of the transfer fee (75 percent) than it does with a regular player (67 percent). United bolsters its bank account, Hamid fulfills his dream of playing in Europe, and Willis seamlessly inherits the No. 1 slot – everybody’s happy.
But as we know, Hamid and the U-23s stumbled. And without regular playing time back in Washington, he is probably not going to receive a call from Juergen Klinsmann or a foreign club this summer.
Olsen is in a tight spot: His priority is doing what’s best for the club to win – and, at the moment, that is to start Willis – but until Hamid returns to the lineup, his stock is going to fall. Willis’s performances will dictate the club’s course of action.
In a perverse way, United would need to play Hamid in order to get rid of Hamid.
Najar’s immediate outlook is clearer. Although Danny Cruz seems to have become Olsen’s first choice on the right wing, Najar is still going to play; he served 72 minutes Wednesday. And in addition to a likely assignment with the Olympic squad, Najar is under consideration for the World Cup qualifiers in June. Like with Hamid, United would profit handsomely by selling the homegrown Najar.
Irregular playing time, however, would hinder development and, consequently, impact his status with Honduras and the prospects of attracting international suitors. Again, Olsen is in a position where he must do what’s best for the club to win – and, in his mind, starting Cruz appears to be the way to do that.
Najar will need to do more to help himself, as well. He was inconsistent last year. On Wednesday, he didn’t play well in the first half but, in Olsen’s words, “came out with a little more buzz about him” after the break.
With DeLeon’s rapid emergence, Pontius is also in a fight for playing time. On Wednesday, though, they both started: DeLeon on the left, Pontius up top. Before he broke his leg last September, Pontius was, among the regulars since the start of the season, United’s most influential player.
“I won’t lie to you, it was hard not starting” for a month this spring, Pontius said. “I was mad at Benny, I didn’t agree with it, but it made me work harder.”
As for Boskovic, a much-liked and soft-spoken individual, United appreciates his ability to set the pace and distribute, but his impact on the match has fallen short. With his contract set to expire in July, Boskovic is essentially on a two-month tryout. If De Rosario misses time while on Canadian duty, he would likely inherit larger responsibility.
Come July, the club will have to decide whether to extend Boskovic’s current deal, renegotiate new terms, or cut him loose (which would open salary cap space).
Salihi hasn’t lived up to his reputation as a pure goal scorer, leaving him overshadowed by the well-traveled Maicon Santos (four goals). If Salihi isn’t scoring, he isn’t much use to the club. So far, he’s been unproductive. Contract specifics aren’t available, but it’s believed it’s guaranteed for two years. That said, the deal probably includes a buyout clause.
United hasn’t given up on Salihi – I’m betting he starts Sunday against the susceptible Red Bulls defense – but with other options available, he needs to begin scoring soon before falling out of favor.
A coach can’t keep everyone happy. After all, this isn’t basketball or hockey where players shuttle in and out of the game and a starting assignment doesn’t carry as much weight as in soccer.
As Olsen is learning in his second full season as a head coach, sorting it all out is not an easy task.
“We’ll find the right balance,” he said.