D.C. United ‘getting there,’ but still has much to prove


“I saw some signs that we’re getting there,” Coach Ben Olsen saidof United’s tie in Vancouver. “It’s the first time I saw a real team out there. But the message is that we can’t pat ourselves on the back; that’s got to be standard. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)

After two dour performances to begin the MLS season, D.C. United appeared to turn a corner last weekend. Not with a victory. Not even with a goal or by manufacturing many quality chances.

United was structurally sound throughout the 0-0 draw at Vancouver, and in the second half showed hints of unleashing an attack that carried so much promise when it was assembled over the winter. No one in the organization is expecting a five-game winning streak with a glut of goals, but the long-term prognosis is better.

The upbeat vibrations carried into the build-up to Friday’s match against FC Dallas at RFK Stadium. It was a stark contrast to the grim tone in the locker room after losses to Sporting Kansas City and the Los Angeles Galaxy.

In Vancouver, “I saw some signs that we’re getting there,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “It’s the first time I saw a real team out there. But the message is that we can’t pat ourselves on the back; that’s got to be standard. As the soccer gets better, we’ll start to get more results.”

United’s slow start shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise. Because of injuries and international assignments, the first unit was together for only a portion of preseason. Two acquisitions, Hamdi Salihi and Emiliano Dudar, were adapting to a new league and new country.

Two key returning players, Chris Pontius and Branko Boskovic, were seeking to regain form after long injury layoffs last year.

The rustiness and lack of understanding were conspicuous.

As for Boskovic, the designated playmaker, “I think I threw him in a little early,” Olsen said. “Right now probably the best role for him is to continue to limit some of his minutes. He’s going to be fine: He’s going to get better and fitter.”

Olsen’s disappointment in his squad through the first two matches stemmed not from the dearth of stylish play but the absence of focus and grit. Without those elements, “it’s always going to be an uphill battle for us,” he said.

With those areas addressed last week, United is poised to take another incremental step against Dallas (1-1-1).

“Now we want results,” defender Robbie Russell said. “We’re starting to get into that phase where we need to expect a higher level. We’ve done well to get to this point. It’s a raising of expectations.”

Russell noticed a subtle difference in United’s body language and mentality in Vancouver.

“It was more of a belief that, if we’re not going to win this game, we’re going to at least tie — we’re not playing to avoid a loss. It’s a big difference,” he said. “We weren’t necessarily defending for 90 minutes, and that was important for us.”

Expectations are heightened by playing five of the next six in Washington, the only interruption being a short trip to New England on April 14. The comforts of home haven’t translated into points, however. In addition to the last-minute, 1-0 loss to Kansas City in the March 10 opener, United earned just five of a possible 15 points in the last five RFK appearances in 2011.

Chemistry remains the key.

“We still have a lot of new faces so it’s going to take some time. You are starting to see that coming together,” said Dwayne De Rosario, the 2011 MLS most valuable player who has been slowly regaining fitness and form after a preseason marred by minor injuries. “One step at a time. If we approach it the same way as Vancouver, we should be in good shape. But we have to come with that same mentality, same intensity, and step it up a little more at home.”

United notes: Defensive midfielder Marcelo Saragosa, who started the previous two matches in Perry Kitchen’s absence, returned home to Brazil for a family medical issue. Kitchen is back from Olympic qualifying. . . .

Goalkeeper Bill Hamid will miss one to three weeks after spraining his left ankle in an Olympic qualifier. Joe Willis will start for the third consecutive game. . . . Defender Dejan Jakovic (groin strain) didn’t practice Thursday.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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