D.C. United looking much improved, but crucial MLS stretch awaits


“We have a pretty good understanding of who we are, what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are,” D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen said. “It’s a good bunch of guys. I feel like they want to fight for each other and the organization.” (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

The schedule has been unforgiving and injuries have accrued. In years past, during D.C. United’s extended playoff drought, such issues ultimately diverted an ambitious organization down a troubling road.

A third of the way into this MLS season, however, United has weathered the ominous challenges and shown signs of rejoining the league’s upper tier.

This probably isn’t a championship team. D.C. will still struggle to secure away points against high-end clubs like Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. But from a fundamental perspective, United is on firm footing for the first time since winning the Supporters’ Shield with MLS’s best record in 2007 (also the last year it made the MLS Cup playoffs).

D.C. (5-4-3) has lost twice in its past 10 outings entering Wednesday night’s home match against the Colorado Rapids and is third in the Eastern Conference, four points behind the front-running New York Red Bulls (7-3-1), who have won four straight since a 4-1 loss at RFK Stadium on April 22.

There is cause for optimism. There is also reason for restraint.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Coach Ben Olsen, in his second full season. “We’ve got to get better in a lot of areas, but we’re hanging in there. . . . It’s certainly better than last year,” when the club collapsed down the stretch, “and most definitely better than two years ago,” when United was 6-20-4.

Although the season is only two months old, United is at a pivotal juncture. With three home matches over 11 days, D.C. could significantly bolster its point total before heading into a three-week regular season lull.

Conversely, having played more games than every team except Real Salt Lake, United could also miss a valuable opportunity to strengthen its position heading into the summer.

“It’s been a long month and we’ve had a lot of travel and a lot of games, but let’s get on with it,” said Olsen, whose bruised club has played seven games since mid-April. “Let’s go and finish the job, and the job at hand” is the three upcoming matches.

The stretch comes at a time of roster uncertainty caused by injuries. Center backs Emiliano Dudar and Dejan Jakovic have been sidelined for weeks. Midfielder Nick DeLeon, a leading candidate for MLS rookie of the year, has missed two matches.

Several others are nursing injuries, including defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen, who received unexpected good news this week after an awkward landing on his right knee Saturday at Houston: Scans revealed no significant damage and he might be able to play against Colorado.

But odd lineups are nothing new for Olsen. Out of necessity, he has used players out of position, and with a deep roster, fostered competition for playing time. Consequently, four high-profile players have spent much of the season on the bench: goalkeeper Bill Hamid, midfielders Andy Najar and Branko Boskovic, and forward Hamdi Salihi.

Boskovic, Salihi and Dwayne De Rosario, the 2011 MLS most valuable player, are United’s top wage-earners.

Newcomers DeLeon, Dudar, right wing Danny Cruz and striker Maicon Santos have figured prominently, while goalkeeper Joe Willis and left back Daniel Woolard have enjoyed excellent campaigns.

While Salihi failed to score in his first six appearances, Santos, an MLS journeyman, leads the team with six goals. Chris Pontius has rebounded from a broken leg last fall to score five times. De Rosario, the league’s scoring leader in 2011, is finding his stride after a slow start.

Last year, lacking depth, United never recovered from Pontius’s injury. De Rosario was burdened with carrying the team to the playoffs. He almost succeeded. This season, he has a lot of help.

“There is no longer a hope that, when you throw guys out onto the field, you’re going to get a result,” said Josh Wolff, a veteran forward who also serves as an assistant coach. “There’s a real sense of belief.”

Beyond the personnel upgrades, United now plays with greater energy, concentration and harmony. The sudden breakdowns that plagued the club for years have dissipated.

“We’ve grown stronger,” Kitchen said. “I can’t necessarily pinpoint what the exact difference is, but we are just fighting for each other. Every battle, it’s like, ‘I don’t want to let this guy down, I don’t want to let the team down.’

Chemistry off the field has also contributed to the improvement.

“We have a pretty good understanding of who we are, what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are,” Olsen said. “It’s a good bunch of guys. I feel like they want to fight for each other and the organization.”

United notes: Pontius, who left Saturday’s game early in the second half with a gluteal muscle injury, said he is available to play Wednesday. . . . Andrew Dykstra, the third-choice keeper, rejoined the club after several weeks on loan with the third-tier Charleston Battery.

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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